Deep Dive: Ken Holland

After Chiarelli was fired, I wrote an article about Chiarelli’s tenure with the Oilers. At the end of the article, I speculated on who the possible GM candidates might have been. Mark Hunter was the first name that I came up with; but I have to give credit to my friend Zach, who is a Red Wings fan, for calling the Ken Holland hire way back in January.

“A friend of mine, who is a Red Wings fan (for some reason), predicted that Ken Holland will come to Edmonton and that Yzerman would fill his then vacated role as the GM of Detroit.”
He nailed it. Holland is the newest GM of the Edmonton Oilers.

On the surface, the optics of this hire aren’t great. This is quite similar to the Chiarelli hiring. Holland is the biggest name and the most experienced man that was available, as was Chiarelli in 2015. Holland is coming from a team that has had success in the past, but has faltered in recent seasons… as did Chiarelli. Holland knows Nicholson from working with Hockey Canada during the 2010 and the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Chiarelli was involved in the 2014 Olympic team as well. I can see why some fans are upset at the hire based on this surface level analysis. The argument goes that it appears that Nicholson learned nothing from the Chiarelli era because he just did the same thing again. Some fans are questioning the validity of Nicholson’s hiring and interviewing process because he defaulted to the biggest and most experienced name available again.

I will admit that Holland was not my first choice throughout the process. I was more excited by the idea of a younger, fresher face with new ideas coming in to the fold. I am aware that Detroit had the highest payroll in the NHL last season, and they finished lower in the standings than the Oilers did. I also believe that all experienced people were inexperienced at one time before they got an opportunity to prove themselves. I thought someone like McCrimmon or Hunter or Gretzky would be a capable GM. We saw first hand with Chiarelli that experience and past successes do not guarantee future success.

However, once I dug deeper on Holland and his body of work, I became far more excited about the idea of Holland being the man for the job.

Holland comes to the Oilers with 22 years of NHL GM experience. He was hired as GM in Detroit after they won the Stanley Cup in 1997. Prior to that, he was the Assistant General Manager in Detroit for 3 years. He was promoted to that role after spending 7 years as the Director of Amateur Scouting and the prior two seasons as a Western Canadian scout for the Red Wings. That came right after he finished his playing career in Detroit in 1985. All in all, he spent 35 seasons in the Detroit Red Wings organization. He was a part of 4 Stanley Cup winning teams: one as AGM in 1997, and 3 more as GM (1998, 2002, and 2008).

Once again, past success does not guarantee future success. I wanted to dive in a bit deeper and learn more about his body of work to see if this really is the best hire for the Oilers right now.

He would have been responsible for drafting in Detroit from 1988 onwards. Here is a list of the notable players that Holland has selected, as found on HockeyDB.com (round of selection in parenthesis):

1989: Mike Sillinger (1), Bob Boughner (2), Niklas Lidstrom(3), Sergei Fedorov (4), Vladimir Konstantinov (11)
1990: Keith Primeau (1), Vyacheslav Kozlov (2)
1991: Martin Lapointe (1), Jamie Pushor (2), Chris Osgood (3), Mike Knuble (4)
1992: Darren McCarty (2)
1994: Mathieu Dandenault (2), Tomas Holmstrom (10)
1997: Petr Sykora (2)
1998: Jiri Fischer (1), Pavel Datsyuk (6)
1999: Henrik Zetterberg (7)
2000: Niklas Kronwall (1)
2002: Jiri Hudler (1), Tomas Fleischmann (2), Valtteri Filpulla (3), Jonathan Ericsson (9)
2003: Jimmy Howard (2), Kyle Quincey (4)
2004: Johan Franzen (3)
2005: Jakub Kindl (1), Justin Abdelkader (2), Darren Helm (5)
2007: Brendan Smith (1)
2008: Gutav Nyquist (4)
2009: Tomas Tatar (2), Nick Jensen (5)
2010: Riley Sheahan (1), Calle Jarnkrok (2), Petr Mrazek (5)
2012: Martin Frk (1), Andreas Athanasiou (4)
2013: Anthony Mantha (1), Tyler Bertuzzi (2), Mattias Janmark (3)
2014: Dylan Larkin (1)
2015: Evgeni Svechnikov (1)
2016: Dennis Cholowski (1), Filip Hronek (2)
2017: Michael Rasmussen (1)
2018: Filip Zadina (1), Joe Veleno (1)

Years with no impactful players drafted: 1988, 1993, 1995, 1996, 2001, 2006, 2011

The Red Wings teams of the late 1990’s were built through strong drafting, most of which was done by Holland. Yzerman is the only notable pick that pre-dates Holland’s arrival as a scout in Detroit. They had an incredible core of home-grown talent. Early in Holland’s career, he was able to unearth some gems after the 2nd round. 1989 was an incredible year where he was able to get 5 good players, the best of which were taken after the 2nd round (Lidstrom, Fedorov, and Konstantinov). He found Osgood and Knuble after the 2nd round in 1991, and he found Holmstrom in the 10th round in 1994. His drafting hit a bit of a rough patch in the mid-90s, but the Red Wings were a consistent playoff team by then. Holland continued to find late round gems in 1998 and 1999 when he selected Datsyuk an Zetterberg in consecutive years.

However, Holland has not been able to draft any truly elite players since Henrik Zetterberg in 1999. He has drafted some impactful players, but no one of as much quality as Datsyuk and Zetterberg, or Fedorov and Lidstrom before them. It looked promising with the likes of Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar learning under Datsyuk and Zetterberg, but both players have since been moved along. They did not become the stars that Holland and the Red Wings hoped that they would become. They have some nice pieces in the fold now including Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Bertuzzi, Danny Dekeyser, Dennis Cholowski, Michael Rasmussen, and Filip Zadina.

You can see the other names on the list. The quality of his drafting may have dipped a little bit in the latter portion of his time in Detroit, but Holland’s drafting resume since 1988 is sparkling.

Their famous playoff streak started in 1991. Holland’s predecessor, Jimmy Devellano, acquired Mike Vernon prior to the 1994-95 season, and the Red Wings lost to the Devils in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals. They added Kirk Maltby in 1995-96, and they lost to the Colorado Avalanche in the 1996 Western Conference Finals. Detroit brought in Brendan Shanahan and Larry Murphy during the 1996-97 season, and they beat the Philadelphia Flyers to win the Stanley Cup that year. Holland watched Devellano add veteran pieces that eventually helped them get over the top as the AGM in Detroit for that series of events from 1995-1997.

Holland took over as Detroit’s GM in July of 1997. They would win the Stanley Cup again in Holland’s first season as the GM. Holland inherited an incredible team… an incredible team that he had a hand in building because he was scouting for the organization since his playing career ended in 1985. He was in the trenches while the Red Wings were stockpiling all of their talent.

The majority of that 1990s core would stick around for Detroit’s next Stanley Cup in 2002. Holland took some of what he learned from his predecessor and he added Dominik Hasek, Luc Robitaille, and Brett Hull during that season. He had previously added Chris Chelios during the 1998-99 season. That Stanley Cup was certainly aided by the veteran stars that Holland brought in to put the Wings over the top, much like their 1997 Stanley Cup win.

2001-02 was also Pavel Datsyuk’s rookie season. That Stanley Cup represented the beginning of the transition from Yzerman’s Red Wings to Datsyuk’s Red Wings. Datsyuk was joined by fellow late-round gem Henrik Zetterberg the following season. They were the poster children for a group of young Red Wings stars that had the benefit of being able to play with and learn from the old guard in Detroit. Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Kronwall, Franzen, Hudler, Filppula, and Howard were the key members of Detroit’s 2008 Stanley Cup Championship team that got to benefit from the tutelage of Yzerman and company.

That is why the Red Wings were able to be as successful as they were for as long as they were. They drafted and developed an incredible group of players in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they won championships, and they had another run of great drafting in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Those late 1990s and early 2000s picks did not need to be rushed because they had more than enough quality on their roster in those years. They got to learn from an outstanding group of veteran leaders. Along with Datsyuk, Chris Chelios, Dominik Hasek, Niklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Kris Draper, and Kirk Maltby were the holdovers from the 2002 team that also won the Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2008.

Holland was always active with bringing in veteran leaders that helped either keep the team in a contender status or actually put them over the top. That held true after the salary cap was imposed as well. In 2008, it was Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart that were brought in prior to their Stanley Cup victory. In 2009, Marian Hossa was brought in, and they lost in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Those Detroit teams of the late 1990s and the 2000s were always experienced teams, and Holland was always willing to add veterans when he felt that they needed just a little bit more of a push to get to the next level. That does not mean that Holland neglected drafting and development. The number of Detroit picks that played for them during their Stanley Cup seasons increased from 2002 to 20008. In 2001-02, 12 of the 29 players (41.4%) that played games for Detroit were home grown picks. In 2007-08, 19 of the 33 players (57.6%) that played games for the Red Wings were Detroit draft picks.

The Red Wings made the playoffs for 25 straight seasons, an incredible streak that ended in 2017. It was clear that the streak was important to Holland and the organization because he kept adding veteran players in an effort to keep the streak alive. Stephen Weiss (2013-14), Mike Green (2015-16), Frans Nielsen (2016-17), and Thomas Vanek (2016-17) are veterans that were brought in on questionable contracts prior to the end of the streak. It was clear that Holland was trying to keep that playoff streak alive.

Fast forward to 2019, and the Red Wings are once again Yzerman’s team; but this time he is the GM. The Red Wings had the highest cap hit in the NHL this past season, and they missed the playoffs. They are still paying for Weiss’s 2015 buyout. They are paying for players like Zetterberg and Franzen that are both retired due to injury issues (which isn’t all that horrible because they are on LTIR and provide cap relief). Green may not be far behind them because of his recent injury issues. Nielsen was signed to a big contract as an UFA, and that has not been a good signing for Detroit… he’s already 35 years old, and he is under contract for 3 more seasons at $5.25 million per season.

That is what Holland has left for Yzerman in Detroit. It feels like Holland’s MO in recent years has been to fix holes with expensive veterans. The strategy of having veteran leaders to guide young players along has been the strategy in Detroit since the early 2000s, but the quality of player that Holland has brought in over the course of the last decade has been lower than in the previous era. Larkin, Mantha, Athanasiou, and Dekeyser have had the benefit of learning from Datsyuk and Zetterberg, but they just are not of the same ilk as their predecessors. That strategy only works if the team is able to draft future stars, and if the veterans can still produce… Detroit has had precious little on both counts since their last Stanley Cup in 2008.

That is why many Oilers fans are fearful of bringing Holland in now.

The Oilers are in trouble with the cap at the moment. They are there largely because of large contracts that were given to veteran players that aren’t delivering equivalent value. Detroit is in the same situation for the same reason, although I would argue that Detroit will be alright because of the amount of LTIR space that Zetterberg and Franzen provide. Green gave them even more cap relief last season.

The thing I noticed about the Red Wings is that Holland decided to go back to drafting and developing after missing the playoffs in 2017. Since then, Zetterberg retired and Holland traded out the likes of Tatar, Nyquist, Vanek (who Holland re-signed as a UFA in 2018), Jensen, Mrazek, Smith, and Jurco. Detroit has made a league-high 20 draft picks in the two subsequent drafts since they missed the playoffs in 2017, and they hold another 10 picks in this summer’s draft. That represents a clear organizational shift. Detroit was more accepting of a rebuild after the playoff streak ended.

Yes, there is recent evidence to suggest that Holland over-paid veterans to fill holes in the roster; but there is evidence that is more recent to suggest that he understands that drafting and developing is important and that over-paying veterans isn’t the solution to a fixing a losing team. He has added veterans in order to sustain success or push the team over the top. That gives me reason to believe that Holland will not fix this situation in Edmonton by trading all of the prospects for aging veterans or by signing a bunch of aging UFAs (although he clearly values experience and will likely always have a couple of expensive veterans on the roster).

The Oilers want to start emphasizing speed and skill more, and Holland has been doing that since 2005 (despite his lack of draft table home runs in that time). Holland hasn’t drafted many elite stars since then, but a lot of the draft picks that are on Detroit’s roster right now have speed and skill. Larkin holds the record for the fastest time at in the Fastest Skater competition at the All-Star game (although that has a large, ugly ASTERISK beside it in my book). Athanasiou can absolutely fly, and he scored 30 goals this year. Bertuzzi, Cholowski, and Rasmussen all fit under the speed and skill category too. We can’t forget about Zadina either. You can go back to 2005 where Holland selected Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader, both of whom have been known for their speed in their careers. You can look to Nyquist, Tatar, Sheahan, and Smith in subsequent years for more speed and skill as well.

While the Holland hiring looks similar to the Chiarelli hiring, we have to remember that Holland is not Chiarelli. Chiarelli focussed on heavy hockey, while Holland’s preference has clearly been for players with more speed and skill in recent years. That gives me a little bit of hope that Holland will be able to draft and acquire the types of players that the Oilers need.

When I look at the big picture for the Oilers right now, I see a team that has a tremendous young core with players that are either just starting or about to enter their primes. McDavid and Draisaitl are young, and we all know what they are capable of offensively. Nugent-Hopkins is just entering his prime as a player. Klefbom, Nurse, and Larsson are all in their mid-20s, and they form the core of the defence. At this point, the Oilers need a few of their prospects to develop and they need to improve the supporting cast for McDavid and company.

When I look at Holland’s body of work, I see a spectacular drafting record and a reliance on experienced veterans. Those are seemingly contradictory philosophies, but they can and definitely need to go hand-in-hand if an NHL franchise is to be successful for a long period of time. He has proven that he can improve a roster without sacrificing the future, which is exactly what the Oilers need to do now.

For those people that are thinking that the game has passed Holland by because of his age, I would like to point out that there are 5 current NHL GMs that are older than Holland: Lou Lamoreillo (NYI), Jim Rutherford (PIT), David Poile (NSH), Dale Tallon (FLA), and Bob Murray (ANA). There are also 6 more that are 3 or fewer years younger than Holland: Paul Fenton (MIN), Jim Nill (DAL), Doug Wilson (SJ), George McPhee (VGK), Brian MacLellan (WSH), and Don Waddell (CAR). 8 of the 11 GMs that I just named that close to Holland’s age or older made the playoffs this season.

Two of the oldest GMs in the league have recently moved to new teams and had quick success. Lamoreillo was hired in Toronto in 2015. The Leafs had made the playoffs once since 2003-04 before Lamoreillo was hired. In his 2nd season, the Leafs made the playoffs, and they’ve been losing in game 7 of the first round every year since. We can’t forget Lamoreillo’s work this season in NYI… the Islanders swept the Penguins in the first round after losing John Tavares in free agency! Rutherford went to Pittsburgh after many people thought he was washed up in Carolina, and all he’s done there is win 2 Stanley Cups. There is absolutely no reason to worry about Holland based on his age.

The other nice thing about this situation is that Holland has experience with grooming NHL GMs. Yzerman has done great work in TB after learning form Holland, and Nill has a strong team in Dallas that is one game away from a Conference Finals berth. I see no reason that he can’t develop Gretzky or someone else as his potential replacement should the need arise. I could see a situation similar to what happened to him in Detroit happening here eventually, with Holland and a current executive both getting bumped up a level.

The reality of this situation is that Nicholson and the Oilers were going to be criticized for this hire regardless of who they chose for the position. Oilers fans have been disappointed too many times before. I have faith that the Holland can get this thing moving forward, and I don’t think it will take as long as many have suggested that it will. If Colorado can make the playoffs in 2 straight years after a legendarily horrible season in 2016-17, then the Oilers making the playoffs next season is a possibility! I am comfortable with Nicholson’s choice here.

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