Ken Holland doesn’t inspire much confidence as Edmonton Oilers GM … yet


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When a team hires a new general manager, the introductory press conference is not actually a conference for the press. It’s a marketing event. It’s a point of demarcation for a woeful team, a ceremonial moment where the extinguished flame of a franchise is reignited in the hand of a new torchbearer. The press asks its questions, receives its generalities, and the sales office hopes the message resonated enough to encourage season ticket renewals.

From a public relations perspective, Ken Holland cleared the bar in his introduction as the Edmonton Oilers‘ new general manager, as long as his messaging isn’t scrutinized too much. He was enthusiastic. He was reassuring. And he was honest.

“I’ve been a manager for 22 years. I’m going to make some bad decisions. You have to make more good decisions than bad decisions, and in Detroit I made more good decisions than bad decisions,” said Holland.

Peter Chiarelli walked into the Edmonton general manager’s office after a run of less than a decade with the Boston Bruins. Ken Holland walks in after running the Detroit Red Wings since 1997. He walks in with the cache to ask for, and receive, autonomy in a job that’s been characterized as a kitchen with more cooks than ingredients. He walks in as the symbol of the kind of winning culture a team like Edmonton craves, no different than when Brendan Shanahan hired Lou Lamoriello for the Toronto Maple Leafs following his run with the New Jersey Devils.

Like Lamoriello, Holland’s hiring has been sullied by ageist snark (for which I’m guilty) and the muddled judgement of his latter years with a successful franchise. Lamoriello signed some bad contracts in New Jersey. Holland handed out even worse ones in Detroit. In both cases, the catalyst was the organization’s desire to remain in playoff contention rather than take a logical step back when foundational players hit their sunset years, like Martin Brodeur and Nicklas Lidstrom. Which is to say that Ken Holland served at the pleasure of the Ilitch family with the Detroit Red Wings … but that doesn’t excuse giving Darren Helm trade protection or Justin Abdelkader a contract through 2023.

But most of the negativity surrounding Holland’s hiring is because it’s the Oilers doing the hiring, and bashing their decisions is like whacking a piñata filled with $100 bills: Easy and rewarding.

Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson appears to have arrived at his choice through his Team Canada experience with Holland, a few phone conversations after Holland’s apparent epiphany during the under-18 world championships in Sweden, and the fact they’re both from British Columbia, which was an actual point of emphasis in this press conference.

He spoke with other candidates. Some interesting, some not so inspiring. Holland falls somewhere in the middle of that scale, a retread that nonetheless could turn out to be the right retread. Which is to say that on the scale of “general mangers with a Stanley Cup ring in their next acts,” he’s more Jim Rutherford than, uh, Peter Chiarelli.

But there were a few red flags during his introductory press conference, in between rah-rah “we will bring respect to the logo!” type moments.


Autonomy

Holland reiterated on Monday that he wouldn’t have come to Edmonton without full autonomy, and his new boss indicated that he has it.

“Ken will report to Bob, and have full autonomy on hockey matters and personnel. But the two of them will work collaboratively, and Bob will keep me in the loop, as he has in the past,” said owner Daryl Katz.

This is the whole ballgame in Edmonton: Can Ken Holland tune out, or turn out, the old boys network? Does culture change mean a clean sweep of the front office and the addition of new imports?

“Winning is going to make everything good. So what’s culture? To me, culture is people. It’s about the people you bring in, on and off the ice,” said Holland. “I’ve got to find the right people. Some of them are in this organization.”

NO. No, Ken, they’re not in this organization. That’s the point. The Oilers have made the playoffs once since 2006. That’s as many times as Dylan Larkin has, and he’s been in the league since 2015. Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish, Paul Coffey, Wayne Gretzky … these aren’t people that are going to kicked out of the organization, obviously. But they shouldn’t be part of whatever brain trust Holland builds in Edmonton. They should be fire-walled off from the process.

This is obvious to many, but may not be the case internally.

“Kenny wants to make some changes, but he’s not going to blow the whole thing up. We have some good people,” said Nicholson.

That statement should make Oilers fans shudder.

The kids

There were a couple of moments during the press conference when the “out of touch veteran general manager” light started blinking. One was when analytics came up, as he called them “a tool” but “I don’t believe it makes your decisions,” which is GM-speak for “I’ll always trust my gut and my scouts more than Corsica.”

Another was when he was discussing development of younger players.

The Detroit Model was that young players pay their due before reaching the NHL. “I believe in player development. I believe in time in the minors,” said Holland. “Mike Babcock used to say, ‘Ken Holland would say overripe.’ I believe the National Hockey League is the toughest league in the world, and if you put young players in too quick, more likely they’re going to fail than succeed.”

Tyler Bertuzzi, for example, was in the AHL for parts of four seasons until his 21-goal breakout season at 23 years old for Detroit this season. Holland prefers that percolation over, say, Dennis Cholowski making the NHL at 20 years old with just 10 games in the AHL to his credit.

Why this feels out of touch: In 2019, in a speed league, younger players populate the lower lines on successful teams all over the NHL. The player development learning curve has been bent beyond recognition from 20 years ago. Cheap labor has become essential in a salary-capped league. Letting young players ripen on the vine is a nice luxury, but it’s hardly what’s en vogue in 2019 due to personnel, financial and stylistic mandates. When you look at the Oilers, and the kind of roster reformation that needs to take place, playing the kids now would seem like a necessity.

The coach

Related to those younger players is how Holland sees his next coach.

Ken Hitchcock will not be back next season, with Holland both saying that he wanted a clean break and that Hitch might have only come back for one more year. “I need to find a coach where I can bunker in,” said Holland.

That coach, apparently, will be a retread, as Holland said his preference is for a “a veteran manager.” That’s disappointing. While someone like Dave Tippett, for example, is accomplished and deserves another kick at the can, the Oilers might be better served growing with a coach getting his first NHL shot. Like Jared Bednar in Colorado. Like Jon Cooper, once upon a time, in Tampa. Like Rod Brind’Amour in Carolina or Jim Montgomery in Dallas.

I’d much rather see what Todd Nelson, 49, does as an official Oilers coach after his interim stint in 2015, than watch a guy on his third or fourth tour of duty. The Oilers have been there and done that. Think forward, rather than looking back.

The salary cap

Holland takes pride in the way the Red Wings managed their salary cap, which is hilarious to anyone seeing a team with 74 points and zero cap space this season like the one in Detroit.

“Most teams have salary cap issues. That’s the reality of being a team in 2019. If you don’t have salary cap issues, you’re probably on a rebuild,” said Holland, without addressing how many of the 30 teams with more cap space than Detroit were rebuilding.

Cap Friendly estimates that the Oilers will have $8.463 million in salary cap space when the summer hits, which underscores the incredible task ahead for Holland that he didn’t really dive too deeply into on Tuesday. They have over $9.6 million annually tied up into Andrej Sekera and Kris Russell, both with full no-move clauses. They have $6 million annually tied up with Milan Lucic through 2023, with a full no-move clause. They have Chiarelli’s last gift to the franchise, goalie Mikko Kostinen, signed through 2022 at $4.5 million annually with a no-trade clause.

They have cap issues. Which means Ken Holland has cap issues that he needs to make disappear.

One of the things I like about this hire is that Holland has established relationships with so many other general managers — and earned their respect — that perhaps he can find ways to get some of these contracts off the roster. Because as much as Holland spoke about the future and player development and the like, it’s the present that matters, thanks to Connor McDavid.

How much longer does this go before McDavid and his proxies start really turning up the heat on the organization for its floundering? How many more seasons can the best player in the world miss out on the NHL’s biggest stage without getting angsty and antsy about it? As I’ve said before, the Oilers don’t have any responsibility to appease McDavid if he ever wanted out, because Connor knew what he was doing in committing through 2026 (and being handsomely compensated for it). But that doesn’t mean it can’t get ugly quickly if Holland can’t turn this around.

I think there were better candidates for this job — will someone please give Columbus Blue Jackets assistant general manager Bill Zito his shot, finally? — but I also think that for the giant, toxic mess that Chiarelli left behind, Holland could be the right guy for the hazmat suit.

There are parts of this sales pitch on which I’m not sold. There are parts of this sales pitch I flat out don’t buy at all. But there are few executives working in the NHL that could come to Edmonton, ask for autonomy from the behind the scenes blundering and actually receive it. Ken Holland was on that short list. At five years and a reported $25 million salary, you’d assume they’d give it to him, too.

But it’s the Edmonton Oilers. We’ve learned to assume nothing.

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