Ken Holland has been the general manager of the Edmonton Oilers for two weeks and we’ve already seen two major changes in management. Craig MacTavish left to coach in the KHL, while Duane Sutter, VP of Player Personnel, was fired yesterday. He might not be able to replace them immediately, as most teams won’t let people in management pursue new opportunities until July, but expect a few more changes on the pro and amateur side when the next NHL season officially begins July 1st.
The Oilers needed change, both on and off the ice, but Holland admitted to me in an interview recently that he won’t be able to fix everything in one summer. It will take time to construct the roster he wants and the people he wants in management and scouting.
I spoke to him after he was hired about a variety of topics. I asked him six questions and his responses totalled over 2000 words. Holland is not afraid to share his views on topics like scouting, defencemen, the type of goalie he wants to bring to Edmonton, Jesse Puljujarvi and more. My thought are in italics.
Jason Gregor: You started way back in 1985 as a scout in western Canada. So that’s 34 years, and you never lose that scouting bug, so for you what makes a good pro scout? What do you need to do to be a good pro scout?
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Ken Holland: I think like anything in life it starts with work ethic. If you outwork your opponents, I think that is a big advantage and you need passion. I think they go hand-in-hand, passion to gather information, passion to develop a network of people who help build relationships and who are going to give you some information. I think that, not a 100 percent, but you probably had to have played the game to have some instincts.
I think on the other side, part of the pro scouting would be the analytical side. Now that’s not the pro scouts. There are the analytical people who are going to give you information, and they need the same traits. I think work ethic, passion, the ability to dig and find information out about that player, about his character, his drive, just whatever information you can dig out. Some pro scouts are better at it than others.
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Gregor: At your press conference you mentioned the two things that you want to bring to the team: players with skill and a competitive drive. Where does hockey sense come in Ken, and what’s your definition of hockey sense?
Holland: Well in Detroit we loved hockey sense. Obviously, our best players through the years had incredible hockey sense when you think about [Nick] Lindstrom and [Steve] Yzerman and [Henrik] Zetterberg and [Pavel] Datsyuk, and here [Leon] Draisaitl and [Connor] McDavid have elite hockey sense. I think that the hockey sense separates a lot of players. The more hockey sense you got, the higher the potential.
Now everybody doesn’t have it. There are players that play in the NHL and they are effective players, but they have what I would call maybe average hockey sense.  But they have other assets. So, it’s hard to find 20 players with hockey sense through the roof, and if you do it might take a lot of years at the draft and some luck, but certainly you need to have high hockey IQ and lots of it on your team to have an elite team.
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Gregor: I love your philosophy on young players and not rushing them. A player can come into camp and he can skate at the NHL level, and maybe he has the hockey sense but he doesn’t have the consistency yet. Is it maintaining the confidence of young players that’s your main goal of having guys “over-ripen” in the minors?
Holland: Yeah, certainly there are a lot of components to getting a player from the draft table to the National Hockey League. Obviously it’s selecting the right players and what you’ve talked about, looking for certain assets the player has that you think will translate to being a good NHL player. Then it’s the development and you know, those players who can go from the draft table to the NHL, there is no development. They just go on your team and you’re good. It’s easy to do.
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But most players, most players need to spend time in the American Hockey League or stay in Europe an extra year or stay an extra year in college. So I think that there is not one blueprint for all players.
Dylan Larkin played one year in College in Michigan. He had a great college year. We put him right in the National Hockey League. You talked about Filip Zadina, and we had a decision on whether we would put him in the American League or leave him in Junior. We made a decision to put him in the American League, but we left him there all year, and at the end of the year brought him up to play nine NHL games so he’d have a little bit of a taste.
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I’m a big believer in player development. When your team is good and you’re getting lots of wins and there is no focus on the future, there is a lot less internal pressure and external pressure from the fans and the media to bring the kids up. But the reality is if you bring them up too soon, in most cases you’re going to do them great harm and you’re not going to do the organization and the player any favour. It’s not going to be in their best interest.
When the team is struggling and there is the pressure to bring up these kids, because some think they’re the answer, the reality is they’re not the answer. The league is too good. You need to give those young players the adequate time to develop physically and mentally in the AHL. It gets them pro experience under their belt, gets them confidence, gets them feeling good about themselves. The NHL is not a development league, it’s a league where you win and lose. I’m a big believer in player development, but there isn’t one blueprint for every player coming down the pike that’s going to be drafted. You have to asses every individual player as you go.
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**Don’t expect a repeat of what happened to Puljujarvi. I loved what Holland said about those players aren’t the answer. Music to my ears. I’ve been debating this for years in Edmonton. Expecting young players to be the answer, and just giving them ice time in the NHL is a foolish plan. I expect Kailer Yamamoto and Evan Bouchard to start next season in the AHL. And there is nothing wrong with that. Yamamoto said at his end-of-season presser in Bakersfield the thing he needs most is to gain confidence. When a young players loses that he has no chance of helping your team or his development. With Holland in Edmonton I expect the Oilers history of rushing young players to end. Thankfully.**
Gregor: Earlier you mentioned you need another goalie. Right now you have Mikko Koskinen signed for three years and really that’s about it. What are you looking for in a second goalie?
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Holland: Well I think ideally, I mean other than if you have a guy who can play 70 games, you look at the NHL, many teams have two goalies. So over 82 games you need two, and then you get into playoffs and they decide on one. But I think it’s got to be a goalie who has the ability to play 30 to 45 and you let the two goalies, the head coach and the goalie coach decide who is playing more games.
I think you need that competition. There is also the possibility that you have an injury. And if one of those two guys get hurt, can the other take a run for ten games while another guy comes back from an injury? Ideally I’m looking for a guy who has some professional experience, has a bit of a resume, certainly at the American League level for sure and maybe at the NHL level as well.
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Every year on July 1st there are goalies out there that have some pro experience and we’re going to comb the market. I’ll talk to some teams as we work our way to the draft. But I think for the most part you’re probably going to look through the free agent market on July 1st.
***Brian Elliott, Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, Mike Smith and Chad Johnson are some names who fit Holland’s description. Or goalies with mainly AHL experience then he could look at Eddie Pasquale, Pavel Francouz or others. My guess is they sign Mike Smith.***
Gregor: You’ve been around the league for a long time so it is fair to say you’re well versed in most players in the league. Jesse Puljujarvi is a young player, and just out of his entry-level contract. He’s coming off of surgery. The early prognosis is that he should be fine. He’s had a real tough start to his career, because he was pushed into the NHL too quickly in my eyes. When you have a player who is not eligible to go down to the minors, because I doubt he would clear waivers, how do you nurture him when there really is no other place to play him than here or perhaps loan him to Europe?
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Holland: First off I have to talk to the player. I’ll talk to his agent. I have had conversations internally to try to gather information about all of the Edmonton Oilers players, him being one of them. So I’m trying to formulate some thoughts. As you said, he can’t go through waivers and I think the most important thing is to try to get some young players, and if they’re not quite ready to run and jump into the top nine, can you get them in the lineup.
What I’m trying to do here is be competitive on the short term, to compete for a playoff spot. When you have Connor McDavid and you have Leon Draisaitl, two great, great young players, certainly the reality is that we should be competing for a playoff spot.
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So I have to go out and find a coach, determine a coach who will provide a stable environment and let’s try to be competitive. I’d love to be in the playoffs next year. If you get into the playoffs, anything can happen.
Then there is the longer view. I want the Edmonton Oilers to better than that. I want to grow and build the Edmonton Oilers into a team that’s better than a team that’s just going to eke into the playoffs. You try to grow the team into a team that when the season starts, you think, ‘If everything goes relatively well we should be in the playoffs. We’d like to compete for the Division title.’ That’s the longer view, and for that to happen we need to help the young players in the organization grow into players who can have an impact on our team.
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So certainly Puljujarvi is one of those guys that I’ve got to determine, figure out how we as an organization get the most out of that player. They’ve got to be in the lineup every night and they grow. They get confidence and they slowly work their way.
Pavel Datsyuk, when he came to Detroit as a 22-year-old, was our third line centre. Three, four years later he was a really important player in Detroit. I’m not saying these players are going to develop into Datsyuk, but I’m just giving you my experiences in Detroit. They start out lower down the lineup, and the reality is that if those players who are going to be high impact players at 19, 20 or 21 do it immediately.
And if they don’t do it immediately there is a process that needs to take place and the organization has to have a plan, have some patience, but you’ve got to keep them moving. They can’t be in the lineup, out of the lineup, in the lineup, out of the lineup, they lose their confidence and ultimately those players probably go to other organizations, and in many cases, become the players you had hoped they would be.
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It’s a fine line that you’re trying to dance, because on a nightly basis we’re trying to win games. That’s what it’s about — winning games at the NHL level — but there is also the component of trying to develop your team, your organization and how do you best serve your players.
***I see Puljujarvi starting on the third line. Get a good solid third line centre and let Puljujarvi get comfortable. If he plays all season on the third line and plays well that is fine. People calling for him to play with McDavid need to realize he isn’t ready yet..***
Gregor: When you look at how the game has changed in the past twenty years, even ten years or five years ago, the necessity to be able to move the puck from the back end and specifically move the puck through the middle of the ice — that was a big challenge for the Oilers last season. Is priority number one to get better puck movement from the blueline or is it to get some depth wingers to help out your elite centres?
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Holland: I’ve been lucky in Detroit, We had so many great defensemen through the years. You’ve nailed it dead, you’ve got to have puck movers in today’s game. The defense have to be able to go back, and skate back quickly, and they’ve got to be able to turn (behind) the net and be able to get the pucks in the hands of the forwards. Certainly you’re going to also have some time defending. Now those players who can defend and do all the other things, those are the rare elite defenders.
So then you’ve got to figure out there are some defensemen who can really defend and have really limited offensive skills but they can defend and make a first pass. They’re probably going to fit in nicely into your third pair, and they can kill penalties, they can block shots because you’ve got to have some of those guys. You can’t have six dancers because there is the defensive aspect of the game.
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You’ve got to try to have three or four defensemen who can skate, can pass the puck, make a first pass, but then you need to have some defensemen that can get in the lane, block shots, box out, match up, they’ve got some size, they can defend.
I’m going to try to get a read on the defensemen the team has got over here between now and leading up to the draft. Also talk to teams and by July 1st assess what we’d like to do with the defense.
I think up front, obviously we’ve got to have a bit of depth of scoring, but they don’t have to be guys that score 20 or 25 goals, but you’d like to have people in the bottom six who can chip in 10 goals, and they work, they compete, they get in there on the forecheck and they’re physical and they play with some passion. They play with some emotion.
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Now I can’t make all of that happen. No NHL team can make all of that happen over the course of one summer. So we’ve got to chip away at this. Some of this can be done internally with the players who are already in the system and then we’ve got to look, is there any trade options?
If you’re going to do any trades, for the most part, they’re the week of or leading up to the draft when teams are starting to prepare for the draft. And obviously the last time is July 1st on free agency and then on free agency there are really two components.
There is the first wave of guys who get lots of money and lots of term and they’re supposed to really come in and impact your teams. Then you wait two or three days and you can comb through the marketplace and there are those player who will be on shorter term and they’re just looking for opportunity. Some of those players turn out to be really good additions and pickups for teams, and they have a greater impact than you might think based on the contract they signed.
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Gregor: Like Alex Chiasson and his PTO.
Holland: Yeah, great signing, great signing.

WRAP UP…

Holland outlines his plan, but openly admits he won’t be able to achieve all of it in one summer. Make no mistake the Oilers feel the pressure to make the playoffs next year, but Holland will try to avoid overplaying that hand at the risk of weakening the future of this organization.

ULTIMATE SPORTS FAN

My 9th annual Ultimate Sports Fan package in support of charity is here again. On June 22nd and 23rd, I am riding in the 190KM MS Bike from Leduc to Camrose, and I’ve come up with a pretty good package for the diehard sports fan.
Here’s how it works: You make a $125 donation and you get one entry. If you make a $250 donation you get two entries, and so on.
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We only take 100 entries and we will raise $12,500 for MS. The draw will be the week of June 14th.
This year’s winner will win the following prizes and more.: The final package is valued at over $6,000.00
  1. The “Oilers experience” at the Oilers home opener in October, which includes tickets, parking, dinner and a behind the scenes tour.
  2. A pair of Edmonton Eskimos season tickets in the lower bowl.
  3. Twenty tickets, and a hot dog and beverage (non-alcoholic), to an Oil Kings home game. Also, you will get an Oil King player of your choice to come to your backyard rink or minor hockey practice for an hour. (Between November 1st and December 15th.)
  4. Four seats in the Edmonton Stingers VIP Hospitality Zone, which includes buffet meal, for one of the Stingers home games of your choice. Also a signed Edmonton Stingers jersey. And your group will receive
    a pre-game Fan Experience.
  5. A signed Barclay Donaldson jersey. He was the captain for the Broom County Blades in the greatest hockey movie, Slap Shot. Sweet jersey.
  6. $500 GC at Atlas Steak and Fish (either location).
  7. We will add a few more items as well.
This sells out fast so get your entry today. You can make your donation here. (click Donate Now to the right of my picture).
Thank you for supporting MS and good luck.

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