EDMONTON — Some many years ago I recall a press meal in a long forgotten National Hockey League rink, killing time over a pregame coffee with a small group that included a well-respected general manager of the day.
The topic was prospects, drafting, and how you should always be realistic about your pipeline — because everyone tends to fall in love with the kids they’ve drafted and developed.
“If you have three real good prospects,” the GM warned, “you can count on one of them playing. If you’re really lucky, and you do everything right, two will play.” By “play” he meant the player will last at the NHL level, and help a franchise move ahead towards the ultimate goal.
We don’t recall the players in question, the town we were conversing in, or what was on the menu that night. But we do vividly remember the man who was doing the talking.
His name? Ken Holland, then the GM of the Detroit Red Wings.
Early Tuesday morning, Holland’s newest project touched down in Edmonton with a 5-1 record. Surely, the Edmonton Oilers are a win or two ahead of what he would have projected back in June, as he perused a messy cap situation and the seriously flawed roster he inherited from Peter “The Mad Trader” Chiarelli.
But what really defies Holland’s own stated expectations is the success he has had with the acquisitions he made this summer.
Holland brought in three players from Europe who had a grand total of zero NHL games between them: defenceman Joel Persson, winger Joakim Nygard and centreman Gaetan Haas. By his own numbers, one of them could be expected to make the team. Maybe two. Today, however, all three are on the Oilers roster, and two are regular players in head coach Dave Tippett’s lineup.
All told this summer, The Holland Tunnel produced eight players on one-year contracts — with only goalie Mike Smith ($2 million) making more than $1.3 million. (The seven skaters average less than $1 million per player, again, all on one-year deals). Then he turned Milan Lucic into James Neal, turning $6 million in dead money into a player who has eight goals already, and can reasonably be expected to return to his normal 20 to 25 goal production — a number that is at least commensurate with what Neal and Lucic are being paid.
With the Philadelphia Flyers in town on Wednesday, here’s a look at what’s worked for Holland, and why the Oilers are playing like a real team thus far:
Sheahan, Archibald and Granlund
Over the last six NHL seasons, Edmonton ranked dead last in the NHL in penalty kill. The unit has crushed Oilers fans’ dreams, with a sub-79 per cent success rate since 2013-14.
Thus far in 2019-20 it ranks second in the NHL at 95 per cent, the single biggest factor in Edmonton’s resurgence. The Oilers are tied for eighth, having been shorthanded 20 times. They are tied for first, having allowed but a single power-play goal.
Sheahan wins draws, another bugaboo for previous Oilers teams. This was a huge Band-Aid applied by Holland.
Persson and Ethan Bear
Persson is quiet, doesn’t have a point, and only plays 16 minutes per night. But remember when Adam Larsson went down with a broken fibula on opening night, and they talked about everyone “stepping up” to compensate? Well, Persson stepped in on Oscar Klefbom’s right side, fresh out of the Swedish team Vaxjo, and he has been seamless.
Then there is Bear, a 2015 draft pick for whom Holland gets no credit. Another right-side Dman, he has lapped up the rest of Larsson’s minutes, and between he and Persson, Kris Russell has been able to play on his natural left side. Russell and Matt Benning comprise that solid third pairing that good teams have — where nobody is playing a role they are not capable of.
Smith and Neal
Holland couldn’t afford more goaltender than what Smith brings to town. And we should say, Smith’s injury history leaves us nervous, to be sure.
For now though, Smith is the safety net this team needs, and allows Mikko Koskinen — whose contract is another crippling Chiarelli hand-me-down — to perhaps come within a reasonable distance of what he’s being paid ($4.5 million for three seasons).
Then there is Neal, both a tangible gain as pucks continue to go in, and an intangible one as Oilers fan can finally enjoy the fun side of an apparently lopsided trade for once. A fan base that cringed as Drake Caggiula left town for Brandon Manning, as Ryan Strome was shipped out for Ryan Spooner, as Taylor Hall won a Hart Trophy in New Jersey, is finally on the right side of a transaction.
With heir hated provincial rivals, no less.
C’mon — if there’s one fan base that has been kicked in the teeth on the trade market, it is this one. Let them enjoy a deal for a change.
It’s the Oilers fans’ turn, finally.