Pucks in Deep: Don’t Bet Against Holland and the Oilers

by Sam Stockton | 5/10/19 2:00am

Pucks in Deep: Don’t Bet Against Holland and the Oilers

On Tuesday morning, the Edmonton Oilers introduced Ken Holland as their new general manager and president of hockey operations. Holland comes to Edmonton having served as Red Wings’ GM since 1997. In Detroit, he captured 10 Central Division crowns, four Presidents’ Trophies and three Stanley Cups. He oversaw the bulk of an incredible 25-year stretch in which the Wings made the postseason every year. 

Yet upon arriving in Alberta, he has found skepticism waiting for him. Since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2006, the Oilers have won the draft lottery four times and qualified for the postseason just once. The injection of championship pedigree ought to be welcome in a franchise with just one serious flirtation with contention since the 1989-90 Oilers provided closure to their fans by winning a fifth Stanley Cup — this time without Wayne Gretzky. And yet, a closer look at Holland’s resume leaves Oiler fans anything but certain about the future of their team.

The Oilers represent a fascinating case study in asset management. The team finished 35-38-9, good for 25th in the league. After years of mediocrity and culture problems (more on this in a moment), the Oilers would seem to be a prime candidate for a true rebuild — sell off assets, tank for a season or two, and build toward contention over the course of some sort of five-year plan. However, the Oilers are uniquely ill-equipped to due so — a fact that likely inspires hope and terror in their fan base. Simply put, the Oilers cannot execute a rebuild because of their 22-year-old captain. 

Connor McDavid, whose tenure in Edmonton seems to have left him grizzled at a young age, is widely considered the most talented player in the world. It’s not just that McDavid is the league’s fastest skater. The man known around Rogers Place as McJesus’ particular gift is not just his speed but his ability to make plays with the puck while operating at top speed. His rookie season was the only time the 2015 number one overall draft choice failed to eclipse 100 points, and that was only because he missed almost half the season to a broken clavicle. (His 48 points in 45 games was good for a 106-point pace.) He is so good that a team with him down the middle could never truly tank.

In today’s National Hockey League, rosters are built primarily down the middle. The league’s best teams boast elite talent at the center position. Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin. Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos. Sebastian Aho, Eric Staal. The Oilers are unique in that they have tremendous talent at center, yet still struggle to score goals. Behind McDavid, the Oilers can offer Leon Draisaitl, whose 50-goal breakout campaign showed that he is a star-caliber player whether playing alongside his captain or not. Then there is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, himself a former number one pick overall, whose 69-point season would make him one of the league’s most dangerous third-line centermen.

On defense, the Oilers are certainly not exceptional, but the combination of Oskar Klefbom, Adam Larsson and Andrej Sekera ought to make it at least passable. Plus, the Oilers have Evan Bouchard waiting in the wings. Bouchard spent the regular season playing for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League before joining Edmonton’s American Hockey League affiliate — the Bakersfield Condors — once his season in London wrapped up. The 10th-overall pick in the 2018 draft is generally considered one of the top defense prospects in the sport.

What is perhaps most amazing about the Oilers is that they seem to lack the league’s most abundant resource: wingers. In today’s NHL, centermen are the most prized commodity, while top teams must be able to replace the wingers alongside them. When a team runs up against the salary cap, wingers are the first to go. The thinking here is that strong centers will effectively drive play to the point that the wingers alongside them can change and production will remain. Every off-season, veteran free-agent wingers are available for low prices, and yet, the Oilers cannot seem to find adequate support for their stars. As a result, they tend to move Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins or both to McDavid’s wings, inexplicably unable to find adequate role players to complement each of what should be a dynamic triumvirate of centers.

To make matters worse, the Oilers are hamstrung by a number of terrible contracts. They owe Milan Lucic, a player whose skills were perfectly suited to the NHL game eight years ago, $6 million per year until 2023. They owe Kris Russell $4 million per year until 2021. Despite being nowhere near serious Stanley Cup contention, they do not even have half a million dollars in cap space.

The most urgent problem is that McDavid seems to be running out of patience with Edmonton’s process. In an early April media scrum, he described his frustration level as “really high,” adding that “We want to play in the playoffs as a team. I personally want to play in the playoffs. I’m not happy about it. It’s going to be a long summer.” If the Oilers cannot put together some semblance of a cogent plan in the next season or two, the team will likely be faced with a trade request from the NHL’s fastest rising star, which would likely be a PR disaster from which there could be no recovery.

With all this in mind, why are Oilers fans and the NHL public at large skeptical of Holland’s arrival? Arguably, the only team with a worse salary-cap situation than the Edmonton team Holland inherits is the Detroit team he leaves behind.

Holland appeared brilliant in the early part of his tenure in Detroit, before the NHL adopted a salary cap. His 2002 Stanley Cup winner featured nine hall-of-famers with another likely to join them in Pavel Datsyuk. As that tenure wore on, Holland made a habit of signing long-term deals to homegrown depth players — a surefire way to drive a mediocre team into salary-cap hell. Critics point out that Holland’s last championship appearance came in 2008, a seeming eternity in professional sports years. By all accounts, today’s NHL game hardly resembles the one played in 2008, and things only went south from there for Holland’s Wings.

So, given the circumstances, should Oilers fans do anything other than panic and pull their hair out?

I would say no. While Holland could certainly benefit from bringing about a cap expert, his track record should be enough to command respect throughout Edmonton’s facility. With that respect, Holland can and should demand an overhaul to the organization’s way of thinking. For years, the Oilers have epitomized the NHL’s “old boys’ club” mentality. Their organization has been run by Oiler alums with minimal acumen for managing a hockey team; the sole prerequisite for running the team was having played for it in its glory days of the ’80s.

Holland is the best person the Oilers could have found to institute a culture that demands a winning culture, the kind that fueled Detroit’s 25-year run of making the playoffs. Beyond this cultural change, the Red Wings built their team by exploiting the league’s collective failure to recognize the talent available to it by way of Europe. 

In the cap era, exploiting inefficiencies is the name of the game. If this Ken Holland — the one who established a culture in which anything short of excellence was unacceptable and who identified the sport’s greatest inefficiency — comes to Edmonton, then the Oilers might just be able to salvage their present mess. As long as McDavid sticks around, this team will never be too far from contention. Upon entering the building, much of the heavy lifting has already been done; several key pieces of a potential championship core are in place. 

For Holland, the challenge will be developing a supporting cast around the world’s best player to rapidly propel them to playoff contention. This postseason shows that any team can undergo a rapid transformation into contention in a short period of time, especially if they have a superstar to work with. After all, is it so hard to imagine that the best player in the world could carry a slightly improved version of this roster into the playoffs as soon as next season? I wouldn’t bet against it.