The Oilers made what we already knew official today by announcing that Ken Holland is the new GM of the Edmonton Oilers. The thing that we didn’t know is that he is also going to be the President of Hockey Operations. Holland has been given full autonomy of the hockey operations department.
Owner Daryl Katz made a rare appearance in front of the media for this announcement. The most important thing that he said was this:
“We have not delivered on our promise to our fans.”
This was an acknowledgement of the organization’s past failures, but it was not an apology. It may not have been what many frustrated fans wanted to hear, but it is still notable. Katz went on to speak about the long-term commitment that he has made to this franchise and this city through the arena that he built and the new entertainment district that is under construction. He spoke of a vision of having a team that can compete year in and year out over a long period of time. Pretty standard stuff from my vantage point, but it was good to see Katz in front of the camera.
The thing that struck me most about what Holland had to say today was the passion that he spoke with. He talked about being excited to be here because of his prairie roots and because he has family in Calgary and in Medicine Hat. He said that after stepping aside in Detroit and going to the World U-18 Hockey Championships in Sweden with the Detroit staff, it became clear that he still had the energy and the desire to be an NHL GM. Nicholson came calling, and Holland gladly accepted the opportunity here in Edmonton. Passion alone doesn’t guarantee success, but it certainly helps.
Open communication is one thing that Nicholson was looking for in this hire. That appears to be a skill of Holland’s. While speaking to Jack Michaels after the press conference, Holland said that he is a people person and that he likes talking to people. He said that he would be willing to make himself available for conversations. When asked if he has a short list of things to do right away, Holland said that “I’ve got my thoughts, but I want to get the people’s thoughts that have been around this team”. He enjoys talking to people, and he enjoys hearing their thoughts on the team. That is a sign that he is actually willing to work with and listen to other people on their thoughts, which is of vital importance.
We know that the Oilers have missed the playoffs in 12 of the last 13 years. We couldn’t expect this press conference to go by without someone asking about the culture. Jason Gregor was the man to do it. Holland is the first member of the Oilers organization to actually give some concrete information about how he defines culture. Here are the important pieces from Holland on culture:
“What’s culture?… To me, culture is people. Culture is the people that you bring in on the ice and off the ice, and they care about the logo… One of the things that I tried to sell as the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings was that you earn the jersey… you just don’t get to put the jersey on because you’re a high draft pick, you’ve got to earn the jersey, and you’ve got to go to work every day, and you’ve got to respect that jersey, and you’ve got to play hard…At the end of the day, what’s a culture? You’ve got to work, it’s a work ethic, it’s a compete every day. The league is so hard to win, you’ve got to compete. Your scouts got to compete, your manager has got to compete, your coaches have got to compete. You’re competing with  other organizations that are the best in the world, and you’ve got to grind, you grind, you grind”
I love what Holland said here. He comes from a storied Original Six franchise in Detroit that has a long history of HOF players such as Red Kelly, Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Terry Sawchuk, Steve Yzerman, Niklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, and Sergei Fedorov; along with likely future Hall of Famers Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. The Oilers also have a storied history. The organization clings to it. That is evidenced by the people that they employ, by the Hall of Fame room at Rogers Place, by the Gretzky shrine that is Studio 99, and by all of the pictures of the former Oilers greats that are displayed inside and outside of Rogers Place.
The Winged Wheel means something in Detroit. The Oil Drop should mean something to players here.
The current Oilers should be proud to wear the jersey. They should play like they want to join the likes of Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, Coffey, Fuhr, and company on the list of all-time Oilers greats that have contributed to championships here. It is a privilege to play in the NHL, especially in a city with as much history and passion as Edmonton has. It goes hand-in-hand with the development model of having players spend more time in the minors instead of being given roster spots because of their draft position.
A lot of the feedback that the organization received from season seat holders suggested that most Oilers fans can handle losing a game as long as the players show some effort. Fans are happy as long as the players are working hard and competing. The Oilers name and the Oil Drop logo represent the blue-collar mentality of Edmontonians. Holland’s words about culture and about competing and grinding describe what the Oilers need to show more of on a nightly basis, because there have too many nights in the last 13 years where the Oilers simply have not brought those ideals to the ice.
Another big theme surrounding culture that Holland spoke to today was stability. His goal is to bring people in that he feels can bring stability to the organization. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is about to get his 8th coach in his 8th season in Edmonton after the news that Ken Hitchcock will not return as the head coach next season. A lot of that has been because the Oilers continually lose, but it’s no wonder that Nugent-Hopkins is at the end of his rope with the organization. Holland spoke to hiring a coach that he can build a relationship with, which I think is incredibly important. Winning is the only way to have stability over time in professional sports because it is a results-oriented business. Time will tell whether or not Holland will be successful in bringing stability to the Oilers. Holland said that his first priority will be to bring in a new coach, so we can let that speculation begin! Nelson, Tippett, someone else? It sounds like his preference is for a veteran coach. More on that at a later date.
Holland says that he expects there to be some more changes in the organization. He has not met with or talked to anyone besides Hitchcock as of yet, so we don’t know what changes will be made to the hockey operations department. He said that there are some good people in this organization, and that he could have to bring some people in from outside of the organization. The one thing Holland did say is that he wants to keep Keith Gretzky in the organization. Nicholson went out of his way to recognize Gretzky’s work as interim GM during the press conference as well. We don’t know which capacity they would like Gretzky to stay in, and we don’t know how Gretzky will feel about that after losing out on this job; but the Oilers do want him to stay. We also don’t know if he is the only current Oilers employee that Holland will want to have on board. I’ll be watching anxiously to see what changes Holland makes to the management group.
For those wondering about the cap situation, he said that “most teams have salary cap issues… If you don’t have cap issues, you’re probably a team that’s on the rebuild”. He also pointed out that Detroit has $20 million in cap space to use this summer. No, he did not specifically acknowledge any mistakes that he may have made by signing expensive, aging veterans in Detroit (Weiss, Nielsen, Green, etc). Although, when talking to Ryan Rishaug afterwards, Holland did say “Did I sign a contract or two that you might not sign? Possibly”. He also said that every GM makes bad decisions, but the key is to make more good decisions than bad decisions. He defended himself by pointing out that he had to cut the payroll in half essentially once the salary cap was imposed in 2005. It was a different time and a different situation… as Craig Button pointed out on TSN after the press conference, Holland had compliance buyouts and warnings to not have many contracts extending past the 2004-05 in preparation for the salary cap. However, Holland’s Red Wings were the last team to miss the playoffs in the salary cap era… it’s not as if he is clueless on how to manage the cap.
For those wondering about Holland’s thoughts on analytics, he said that “I believe in analytics. I believe it’s a tool. I don’t believe it makes your decisions.” That’s exactly how I feel about analytics. It’s a tool that can provide some valuable insights, but it can’t be the thing that makes decisions for a manager. I believe that it is necessary to have a team dedicated to analytics. It doesn’t sound like Holland is going to spend as much on it as Toronto has, but it does seem like he is willing to listen when it comes to analytics.
As for the on-ice product, Holland said that he wants to be in the playoffs next season. He said that the key building blocks are here. He spoke glowingly of McDavid and Draisaitl, but he did not point out anyone else. He said that he needs to add to the core that is already here. That makes me think that he will not look to move any of the other core pieces out either.
Now, if I recall correctly, Craig MacTavish was talking to Holland about the idea of trading Ales Hemsky the year before Hemsky eventually was moved to Ottawa. Holland’s advice to MacTavish was that it is hard to replace a 28-year old forward that can produce like Hemsky could. MacTavish kept Hemsky for that season, but obviously moved him later. Holland preached about the importance of veteran players today. I would be shocked if he looks to move on from any of the secondary core pieces like Nugent-Hopkins, Nurse, Klefbom, or Larsson. Based on his appreciation of veterans, I would be shocked if Andrej Sekera were to be dealt this summer now.
“The plan is we’ve got to compete, we like to play with speed, obviously you want to get as much skill as you can”. Speed, skill, compete. Check, check, check. Add in the work-ethic that he spoke of when talking about the culture, and that is the winning combination of attributes that a player needs to succeed, and those are the attributes that a team needs to succeed. He talked about the importance of drafting, but he also talked about going outside of the organization to find players. “The plan is to build for the most part… you’ve got to build through the draft, but we’ve got to go outside of the organization to find pieces that we think are going to help. Some are maybe going to be expensive pieces, some are going to be the cheaper players that are really good fits for a short time.” The reality is that a team can’t simply rely on ONLY drafting and developing because drafting is an inexact science, and development takes time. This is the NHL… you need to have a competitive roster for each and every night, and established veterans are a huge component of doing that. They can be expensive, and they don’t always provide as much value as what their contracts suggest that they should; but you can’t just have a team full of young kids and expect to win just because you drafted them.
Holland said multiple times that he does not have a magic wand. He is aware that he can’t fix the Edmonton Oilers with one trade. His goal is to turn the Oilers into an elite team that will win the Stanley Cup “ONE DAY” (he was very careful about his wording there). He does believe that the Oilers can make the playoffs next season, as do I. If Colorado can be as horrible as they were in 2016-17, trade Matt Duchene, make the playoffs the next two seasons, and be one game away from the Western Conference Finals at this moment, then the Oilers can make the playoffs next season.
I leave the Holland press conference with a lot of optimism that this time, the Oilers have it right.