Holland Exit Interview Thoughts

The Oilers haven’t made players available to the media ever since they lost on Friday, but Ken Holland had a 51-minute interview with Edmonton media on Tuesday to make up for it.

The basic take home message was that the Oilers improved their league ranking in all major statistical areas this season. Holland talked about how this incremental progress is a positive, but they need to continue to progress next season. He also spoke about how much more difficult it is to rise up the rankings when you get closer to the top of the pack. It’s easier to go from the bottom to the middle than it is to go from the middle to the top.

Those are fair points, but they don’t change the disappointment in the result against the Blackhawks.

He didn’t shy away from the disappointment of the loss. He and the team expected more, and they didn’t get it. He also didn’t seem super dramatic about the loss. That might anger a lot of fans, but I personally appreciate the objective view of an experienced general manager like Holland. This play-in series wasn’t the result that they wanted, but the objective is to learn from it and to grow.

Holland was asked if McDavid and Draisaitl need to be better defensively if this team is going to win, and he did say yes to that, but he did also say that he saw some of that. Nobody is going to mistake McDavid and Draisaitl for Selke Trophy finalists, but recent Stanley Cup champions like Toews and Bergeron have been exactly that. Holland said that the Chicago series was a championship calibre team teaching the young Oilers a lesson on what it takes to win championships. The idea is that if McDavid and Leon don’t value equal effort on both sides of the puck, then neither will the rest of the team. We may have seen evidence of that against Chicago last week.

I don’t view this as a lack of effort issue, I view it as a lack of knowledge and experience issue. I’m not dumb enough to call out a professional athlete on their lack of effort. Believe me, these guys are trying. Failure doesn’t automatically mean that they didn’t try. Defence is a skill, and it takes time to develop that skill. It’s definitely a skill that is learned later in the development curve of an athlete, which is where McDavid and Draisaitl are in their careers. It’s hard to sit here and say that the league’s two leading scorers are developing, but we have to remember that they are 23 and 24 years old respectively. They are still young men. They are expected to defend against the league’s most skilled players. It takes time to learn how to do that. They will get there, but they are not there yet.

Holland’s most interesting comments were in regards to the salary cap for the upcoming season. He said that GMs were informed that the salary cap for next season was going to jump up north of $84 million, somewhere in the range of $5-6M more that it was in 2019-20. Holland’s decisions at the trade deadline were influenced by that supposed salary cap increase. However, we now know that the cap will stay flat for the next two or three seasons. Holland is going to have to pivot as a result.

Holland said that the impact of Andreas Athanasiou was not what he had hoped it would be. In his 31 Thoughts article Tuesday, Elliotte Friedman speculated that the Oilers might not qualify Athanasiou as a result of his performance and the flat salary cap. Athanasiou’s qualifying offer will be $3 million. By my eye, he is not worth that. He is not the 30-goal scorer that he once was. He was not a reliable defensive player for the Oilers. He made poor decisions with the puck in his own end and in the neutral zone routinely. He did show some signs of life late in the Chicago series, but he didn’t seem to have chemistry with McDavid or Draisaitl, and I would certainly not want him to be in a permanent checking role because that is not his skill set nor is he a good enough defender to succeed in that role. The two 2nd round picks would be a tough pill to swallow, but I will not be upset if he is not qualified like Friedman speculated. That could still mean that he re-signs in Edmonton for a lower cap hit. That would be acceptable, but I’m not going to cry if he plays for someone else next year.

The flat cap will have the effect of creating more parity in the league. That is because the players from teams with no cap space that can’t be retained are going to find their way to the teams that have cap space. The teams with no cap space will suffer, while the teams with cap space will profit. If I’m Joe Sakic in Colorado, I’m ecstatic about this development! They have a great team and cap space to use as well. They are in an enviable position, especially to Oilers fans because the Oilers have basically no cap space.

It’s hard to improve a team with no cap space to use.

Holland said that most trades that happen this off-season will have to be dollar for dollar trades. Don’t expect Kris Russell to be traded for draft picks and magic beans because teams don’t have to do the Oilers a favour like that. If the Oilers want to make a cap dump move, it will likely cost them dearly. Dollar for dollar trades are typically lateral moves. A more likely trade involving Russell would be a problem for problem trade à la the Real Deal. It would be hard to make a deal that would work out anywhere close to that well for the Oilers a second time.

The flat cap also might mean that if the Oilers are going to get an upgrade on a scoring winger, it will cost them an asset off of the roster that carries a similar cap hit. Think a trade involving Larsson or Nurse for a winger in that $4-$5 million range. A lot of fans on Twitter have suggested that it is time to move on from both players. Larsson’s back issues are not going away, and he has not been himself since 2017. Nurse is not the player that a lot of people want him to be, and they are angry at the fact that he will be making $5.2 million to make defensive mistakes, take costly penalties, and constantly miss the net with slap shots.

On Larsson… it will be viewed as horrendous asset management considering the cost of Larsson, but it makes sense to explore the options for him. It’s feeling more and more inevitable that the future of the Oilers is Ethan Bear and Evan Bouchard as the top two RDs on the team, which is an exciting proposition. That leaves Larsson on the outside looking in, or as a 3D. Larsson is going into the last year of his contract. If Holland could use him to upgrade the wing spot or to get a young goalie now, then it’s worth thinking about.

On Nurse… first of all, everyone makes defensive mistakes, it happens; but let’s dive in and look at the goals against that he was on the ice for in the series. In game 1, the 3-1 goal was tipped by Saad in the faceoff circle as Nurse was cross checking him in the back. It wasn’t ideal positioning to defend a tip, but a tip in from the faceoff dot is really lucky. It wasn’t a missed assignment, just some bad puck luck. The 6-2 goal was a powerplay goal. The puck got moved from below the goal line to the half wall on Nurse’s side. Nurse actually does a good job of defending the passing lane between Toews and Kubalik in front of the net. Toews moved it to Keith at the point, and Keith got the shot to the net before Nurse could get down to Kubalik by the net. It wasn’t a blown assignment. Credit Chicago for getting a puck through.

In game 2, Nurse was on for the 2-1 goal. It was a play where Bear got beat by Koekkoek in a one-on-one and the puck went to the left corner. Nurse followed Dach to the net, and then switched to defend the passing lane from the right side of the net to the slot as DeBrincat carried the puck behind the net. Kane ended up being open and the puck got through Nurse defending the passing lane. Kane was McDavid’s man there. McDavid failed to tie Kane up as he went to the net. It looked like Nurse’s fault, but it wasn’t. Nurse was also on for the 3-2 goal. Tyler Ennis was caught drifting away from his defensive position when Yamamoto had the puck in the corner and looked like he could make a pass. Instead, the puck got turned over and the Hawks used the passing lane vacated by Ennis to find a wide open Koekkoek. Nurse was stuck in a 2-on-1, and he did the right thing by taking Dach in front of the net and letting Koskinen handle the shooter. Koekoek buried it.

In game 3, Nurse was on for the 2-1 goal. That was the 5-on-3 goal that barely snuck across the line. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to rip on a guy for a goal against on a 5-on-3 where he was sprawled out when the puck was low trying to block lanes and trying anything to get a piece of a puck. He was also on for the tying goal in that game. Nurse tied up the stick of Kampf as he skated through the slot as the puck was coming to the net from the point. Highmore was not Nurse’s man. Nurse was also on for the GWG in game 3. This is one that I will call Nurse out for. He followed Kubalik up above the faceoff dot after Chicago won the draw when that was Draisaitl’s man. He left Bear to defend Toews and Saad in front. Bear made the right call in taking Toews, but he was unlucky to have the puck hit his stick and go in off of Toews. Nurse was late getting to Saad, but it was inconsequential.

In game 4, the play on the 2-1 goal started with a weak one-handed poke at the puck by Nurse. That was slop, but it wasn’t a mistake that couldn’t be rescued. Highmore was Bear’s man, and Bear was caught near the faceoff dot while Highmore was open for the tip in front. On the game-winning goal, Nurse’s man was Saad on the far side. While he was not standing right beside Saad, he was defending that passing lane. Bear lost a puck battle to Toews, and Draisaitl floated by Kubalik who buried the dagger into the Oilers. It looked like Nurse was covering air, but he was where he needed to be.

My point is that we need to take a much closer look at goals against before jumping to the conclusion that one guy was at fault and calling for his head. I found a mistake to criticize Nurse for on two goals against in the entire series, and neither mistake led directly to the goal. People are saying he was garbage. To those people, I would say take closer look because you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Secondly, the interference call on Nurse during the major penalty in game 4 was absolute bullshit. Caggiula tripped on his own feet as he was stepping around Nurse, who was skating in a straight line and did not extend any limbs to get in Caggiula’s way. It was a ref that saw two players get near each other and one player go down. It was one of many atrocious calls in that series. Aside from that, he took 2 other penalties in the 4-game series. Boo-hoo, deal with it.

Sure, Nurse is not going to win a Norris Trophy or lead the league in scoring by defencemen. Evaluate him for what he is, not what you want him to be. His strengths are his skating and his physicality. He can transport the puck and jump up in the play, but he is not an elite passer. If your expectation is for him to be Morgan Reilly, then I don’t blame you for being frustrated. That’s not Darnell Nurse.

Nurse brings something valuable to the table, and I would not trade him right now just because Caleb Jones is cheaper and a better passer. I’m not angry at him because he will carry a higher cap hit than Klefbom next season, it’s not his fault that Klefbom’s contract is team friendly. You need defencemen like Nurse to win in the NHL, plain and simple. He’s a 24-year old defenceman that can consistently get you approximately 30 even strength points a season, and he’s got a mean streak. That’s an important player.

Rant over. Anyway, having said all of these things about the cap, a prudent general manager would find a way to take advantage of a cap strapped team or a team that has decisions to make involving key pieces. Take the New York Rangers for example. They have a hot goalie prospect in Ilya Shersterkin, and a solid young backup in Alex Georgiev. There are indications that the Rangers might choose Shesterkin over Georgiev and look to move Georgiev. The same could be said of the Penguins. Both Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry are RFAs this off-season, and their cap situation could force them to choose one or the other. Either would be a nice complement to Koskinen.

Holland could also look to a team like Tampa Bay. They have limited cap space and an incredible goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy that is about to get a $6 million raise. That could force them to move on from one of their forwards like Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, or Alex Killorn. I’m sure the Oilers could find spots for any of the three in their line-up.

The flat cap could also result in a whole lot of nothing happening this off-season. The Oilers could just choose to promote from within and create cap space by buying out players like James Neal and Kris Russell, and not qualifying players like Athanasiou and Matt Benning. Caleb Jones, Evan Bouchard, and Tyler Benson are on the cusp of being full-time NHLers, and they are cheap alternatives that would increase the skill level on the team.

Speaking of internal candidates, Friedman also wrote that the Oilers seem to think that they are close to signing Jesse Puljujarvi, while the player seems to think otherwise and that a trade is still possible. I don’t see a trade happening given the market for him being so weak. That feels like fake news from Friedman. I’m not sure how close they are to re-signing Puljujarvi, but every tidbit we get out of Finland seems to suggest that progress is being made in that regard. Stay tuned to that situation.

Oilers fans have been through many long and painful summers in recent years, but this one might just be the longest and most painful one yet given how everything has transpired since March. They were in 2nd in the division on March 12, and they got 4 more games before being eliminated by a team that was out of the race for all intents and purposee in August with no assurance of hockey any time soon. The good news is that the Oilers will draft 14th in the upcoming draft. They avoided the inevitable cap hell that Lafreniere would have put the team in three years from now, and they stand to draft a useful roster player in what is considered to be a really deep draft.

Now that Holland has had a year to evaluate his club, it will be interesting to see how he handles the challenge of trying to improve an up and coming team with a flat cap.

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