Blues’ mid-season turnaround gives hope to new Oilers brass

Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON — The refreshing element of having Ken Holland become the general manager in your town is, he lets us all inside the curtain — to a certain extent.

He’ll tell you flat out that the goalie he seeks is going to have to come off the free-agent market, which allows fans to discuss the possibilities of Mike Smith, Chad Johnson, Petr Mrazek, Curtis McElhinney or Brian Elliott sharing the net with Mikko Koskinen next season. Or will it be some other UFA netminder?

But, when he is asked if the rumours linking the Edmonton Oilers to Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Nikita Zaitsev are true, Holland issues a quick, “I have no comment.” The answer to that question edges into tampering territory, and as much as Holland is happy to describe the massive job he has taken on in Edmonton, he simply isn’t going there.

Speaking after a season ticket holder event Thursday evening — one that was pushed up an hour to accommodate the Toronto Raptors game — Holland riffed on an array of topics. We were asking questions:

• On pending UFA Alex Chiasson: “I’ve talked a little bit to his agent, but I have not talked to Alex.”

• On Jesse Puljujarvi, who he spent an hour with Wednesday. “My first opportunity to talk with him face to face,” Holland said. “I’d like to get him signed to a contract.”

• His impressions after watching the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins battle in the Final: “You need competitive people. Small players can be successful, but I don’t know that you can have an excess of small players. You’ve got to have depth, and your best players have to be really competitive.”

Like everyone, the fact that the Blues were the NHL’s 31st-place team on Jan. 2 gives Holland hope that his 25th-place team isn’t as far away from being a playoff team as last season’s 11–point gap would suggest. As new head coach Dave Tippett said, even though people in Edmonton tend to focus on the shortcomings of an organization that has missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, from the outside Edmonton, is a much more promising situation. “Klefbom, Larsson, Nurse, Nugent-Hopkins… There’s a good group here along with McDavid and Draisaitl,” Tippett noted.

“[St. Louis] is going to have a parade,” Holland said. It shows that “when you’re down, you’re not as down as you think you are. And when you’re up…? You look at the two No. 1 seeds this year, Tampa and Calgary, they won one game in the first round. There are a lot of teams that are close.”

• Can he trade for the goalie he needs? Or is it a free-agent acquisition? “I think it’s a free agent [signing),” Holland said, admitting that, “goalies are like quarterbacks. How do you know? There a few franchise quarterbacks, and [franchise] goalies… Part of it is how the team plays. How you limit scoring chances. And those teams that have really good goalies? They’re not trading them.

“I’ve talked to a bunch of teams. I think the reality is, it’s going to be on the unrestricted free-agent market.”

• On Connor McDavid, who Holland met twice in Toronto the past week, once for a lengthy dinner, and his rehab from a knee injury. “The expectations are that he’ll be skating in August and at camp in September.”

His impressions? “We had dinner for two, two-and-a-half hours. He’s a great young man. He was very aware of the makeups of the teams in the Final, and asked me a lot of questions. He appears to me to be a general manager in the making. Like Steve Yzerman. He follows the game, he sees all the other teams.”

Who asked more questions? “Probably me. But he had lots too.”

• On the perils of improving his roster through free agency: “If you’re not prepared to play, then you’re not going to be in the game. So you have to decide which players that you think can have a real impact on your team. But, if you think you are going to go on the open market and get team-friendly deals?”

Not going to happen, he warned.

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