Oilers’ Holland hopeful team’s best is yet to come after season of success

Did the Oilers catch a bad break drawing the Blackhawks to start their postseason? Our Oilers experts break down the series.

EDMONTON — With the regular season officially over, Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland knows a few things for sure and thinks he might know a few more. But for the most part, as Holland told the media on a Zoom call Wednesday, “Lots of these questions I don’t have answers for.”

Here is what he knows: His Oilers will play the Chicago Blackhawks in the play-in round, and with the 2019-20 regular season declared closed, he officially has his first Art Ross Trophy winner in Leon Draisaitl.

Here is what he think he knows: Holland doubts he’ll have to pay Mike Smith a $250,000 bonus for reaching 40 games played, with the veteran goalie stalled at 39 games played when the NHL hit the pause button. And, though he is still awaiting word from the league on whether he gets to keep his third-round pick in the James NealMilan Lucic trade, it seems black and white.

Neal never scored the 21 goals stipulated in the trade clause. If the NHL isn’t ready to pro-rate every player’s production vis a vis bonuses, which is highly unlikely, it’s doubtful they’ll pro-rate Neal’s production just to satisfy the Calgary Flames.

Here’s one more thing he doesn’t know: With his first regular season as the Oilers’ GM in the rear-view mirror, Holland was asked, what was the highlight?

“I’m hoping the favourite moment is down the road,” the veteran GM said. “The favourite moment being an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup. I know how hard it is. How great it can be when you do win.”

And so it will be. Or, at least that’s the way things look, with Holland and all the GMs having a completely healthy players list from which to fill his roster.

“I’ve talked to [head coach Dave] Tippett last 10 days about numbers,” Holland said. “We’ll for sure carry 10 defencemen and the goalies are unlimited, so we’re working off a 28-skater list. We’ve talked to the league about Philip Broberg. He’s a [drafted] and signed player, and certainly a player we would like to invite for Phase 3 [full training camp].

“The most important thing is having players with us who’ll give us depth and the opportunity to play. If we can have a young player or a couple in camp to get experience for the future that’s a good thing, but it’s not our No. 1 priority.”

Holland will work the phones this week to ascertain how many Oilers players plan on being in Edmonton for the optional Phase 2 small group workouts. It might not be very many. Then he’s got to worry about bringing European and American players into Canada so they can satisfy the 14-day quarantine and be ready for the opening of July camps.

While Holland could be complaining about the fact his team was second in the Pacific and fourth in the West — but dropped into fifth place behind Dallas when the NHL decided to use points percentage — he wasn’t too upset about having to take part in the play-in round. All in all, it’s been a pretty good season in Edmonton. Now, presumably, we’ll all get to see how it ends.

“I had heard talk it would be a best-of-three in the play-in round. I’m happy it’s a best-of-five,” he said. “Having no games played from the middle of March until we get started, there might be a little rust in the first game or two. Over the course of a five-game series, if you get off to a sluggish start, if you have a bad first game, you’ve still got to lose two more. As opposed to how quickly a best-of-three can go.

“Everyone is excited to get back up and running, and see what we can accomplish to finish off the 19-20 regular season.”

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It’s the third time in four years that an Oilers player has won the Art Ross as the NHL’s top scorer, and the first time in Holland’s career as a GM that he has had the pleasure of watching one of his players win the scoring race. Of course, back in Detroit they measured success a little differently — in Stanley Cups.

“Coming to Edmonton [from Detroit], Leon had scored 50 goals and 100 points last season — the first player in the NHL [since Evgeni Malkin in 2011-12] to accomplish that,” Holland said. “To be the player with the most points in the league at 24 years old… he continues to take steps forward in his career.

“There was a time when Connor [McDavid] got hurt for six games and Leon took the team on his back. Leon did it with Connor, and on separate lines. It makes our team deeper and better when we know that we can play them together or we can break them up,” he said. “I think that’s why we’re all excited about the opportunity …to see what we can accomplish in the playoffs.

“Being in Detroit for so many years, and we had lots of gritty, talented players there.”

“Ultimately, the most important thing is the Stanley Cup, which is a team goal.”

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