Oilers’ 2019-20 season an opportunity for new culture to take hold

Gene Principe explains if Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers can turn things around quickly in hopes of making the NHL Playoffs.

EDMONTON — They don’t give a new general manager a year outside the schedule to put his imprint on a team, or an option to start playing games in November or December, when he feels like his roster is ready.

In fact, the opposite is true: The reason Ken Holland is the new GM in Edmonton is because the old one was fired with cause, leaving a mess behind that makes it even tougher to ice a playoff-worthy roster beginning Wednesday night.

So as the new regime Edmonton Oilers open the season against the Vancouver Canucks, Holland’s job is to keep an eye on the present, while paying particular attention to the future of a franchise that has missed the playoffs for 12 of the past 13 seasons.

“We tried to make some moves this summer so we could compete for a playoff spot,” Holland said Tuesday. “But, I have bigger desires and designs for this team than just competing for a playoff spot. Certainly, you want to build it into something better than that.”

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As a GM in Detroit, Holland was blessed with the best defenceman of his generation in Nicklas Lidstrom. He surrounded Lidstrom with good teammates, built a proper developmental system in Detroit and had Stanley Cup success in Motown.

Here, Holland has Connor McDavid — perhaps the best player in the world today — and Leon Draisaitl, the NHL’s only 50-goal, 100-point player last season.

There is some other talent as well, enough that he can look you in the eye on the eve of opening night and tell you the goal in Year 1 is the playoffs.

“What I’ve said from Day 1 is, our goal is to compete for a playoff spot,” Holland said. “We have a nucleus of players — we need to surround them better. On the short term look, in the ’19-20 look, our goal is to put some veteran players on the bottom part of the roster and compete for a playoff spot.

“While that’s going on, we need to develop players. Those players need to be part of the solution.”

With only 23 contracts on the books for next season, and everyone of note signed except for Darnell Nurse, Holland has to survive a season with a roster largely built by the deposed Peter Chiarelli, while cultivating a farm system that is, in fact, better than any that has greeted a new GM in Edmonton’s history.

So he went out this past summer and signed five depth forwards on one-year deals at an average of $975,000, to help with the penalty kill and lack of depth beneath McDavid, Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. He took a flyer on Swedish defenceman Joel Persson, and shored up his nets by adding an experienced Mike Smith. Then he dealt a player who simply was not working here, Milan Lucic, for one who might in James Neal.

It wasn’t flashy work, but it was all Holland could afford under the salary cap. What those moves also allowed Holland to do, however, was not to make the same mistake they’ve been making in Edmonton for years.

He didn’t have to rush the prospects, sending Tyler Benson, Evan Bouchard, Dmitri Samorukov and Ryan McLeod down to AHL Bakersfield early-ish in camp, and leaving Swedish first-rounder Philip Broberg at home to play pro in Skelleftea.

“I wanted them to get down there, find a place to live,” Holland said. “They’re opening their season down there on Friday night … We need those players to develop into NHL players.”

In a town that has suffered like this one, you just cannot keep asking for more patience. Sure, patience is required, and it is a legitimate request from a new regime. But you won’t catch Holland saying, “We’re not going to make the playoffs this year.”

“I never said that,” Holland corrects. “Don’t put words in my mouth.”

“Certainly, the goal here is to compete for the playoffs. But, it’s October the (first). I’m going to worry about the playoffs in March.”

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In the meantime, ticket sales are expected to be down in Edmonton due to a struggling Alberta economy, and a number of three-year season seat leases that were not renewed by fans who have tired of the losing. None of that is Holland’s fault, though it undoubtedly is his problem now.

His mission is to take a dysfunctional organization and lend it some stability. To install the kind of developmental system that proper, winning organizations have. And to erase a culture that has simply been nonexistent here in Edmonton, the Northland that playoff hockey forgot.

“Culture isn’t something I put in a suitcase and pack with me from Detroit. You’ve got to build it,” he said.

How long will it take for him to know the roots are beginning to take?

“That’s my 22 years as a general manager, and Dave (Tippett’s) 1,200 games behind the bench,” Holland said. “There is no blueprint. There is no manual.”

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