EDMONTON — When he arrived in Edmonton, Ken Holland knew he was joining a team that would set a National Hockey League record for futility if it missed the playoffs for the 13th time in 14 seasons. But he didn’t talk much about the post-season.
What Holland stressed then, as he does now, is stability. Build something the right way, develop your prospects with patience, believe in your coaching staff for longer than two seasons, and you won’t have to worry about the playoffs. They’ll be there waiting for you, if you do things right.
Today, his team has fared as well as he could have hoped, sitting second in the Pacific Division as they enjoy their January break. The Oilers could just as likely win the Pacific as miss the playoffs altogether, but they’re 5-1-1 in 2020 and are certainly trending in the right direction.
Coming out of the break Edmonton hosts Calgary, then St. Louis, before traveling down Highway 2 to meet the Flames for the second time in four days. It’s coming at the new Oilers GM fast, so Sportsnet sat down with Ken Holland while we could, right before the break, to get his take on a few things.
(This conversation has been edited for brevity.)
SN: As the trade deadline approaches, are your goals where you thought they’d be? Or, has a fairly successful season changed your approach?
KH: “That’s a great question.” (Thinks for a moment)
“When I took over in the summer, and sat in a room for eight days leading up to July 1 with Dave Tippett, our pro scouts and Bob Nicholson, our goal was to create a little more depth at the bottom of (his forwards) in hopes we could get to March and be in the thick of things.
“We got off to a great start, and then for about 20 games we played about .500. There are five teams in the Pacific within about two or three points of each other. The next 10 games or so leading up to the deadline are going to impact my thinking. I think we have 13 games before the deadline. The next eight or 10 games will really impact my thinking. I would say to you today, I don’t anticipate being a seller.”
SN: As much as you can tell us, positionally speaking, what are your needs at the deadline, in order?
KH: “Historically at this time of year a team’s looking for some experience. You’re always looking for some depth. There is the odd deadline where you can make a blockbuster — I acquired Chris Chelios at the deadline one year.
“What are we looking for? Is there someone who gives you a little more depth on defence? A little more depth up front? (Someone) who makes you just a little bit deeper.”
SN: You’ve taken all levels of teams into the post-season, from Cup favourites to teams looking to upset. Where do you think a strong deadline can get this team to?
KH: “The regular seasons means a ton, because you’ve got to get in. Beyond that, history suggests … that it’s somewhat wide open. The two No. 1 seeds last year, Tampa and Calgary, between them they won one playoff game. And the team at the bottom of the standings at Christmas time won the Stanley Cup. Getting in, it will be a photo finish for someone. And someone is going to miss by a point or two.
“Lots of our players had experience three years ago in the San Jose series and the Anaheim series — Connor, Leon, Nurse, Klefbom, Nugent-Hopkins… They’ve been there before. And we’ve added some players who’ve played in playoff series’. And what happens between now and the deadline? Can we add a little bit?
“You know, I was on the flipside in ‘05-06, when I was with the Red Wings. We had 126 points, we played the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the playoffs. They traded a first-round draft pick at the deadline for Rollie the Goalie (Dwayne Roloson) … and we got bounced in the first round by the eighth seed. You don’t really ever know. You’ve just got to get in.
“The eighth-place seed today is way closer to the No. 1 seed than it was prior to the (salary) cap world.”
SN: Zack Kassian is a pending UFA. The fans love him, and we believe Connor McDavid very much likes playing with him. How are negotiations going, and do you value this player differently than the day you walked in the door?
KH: “Yes. I love Kass. I’ve had a number of conversations with his agent, Rick Curran. The hope is that we can keep him in an Oilers uniform. I love his passion, his physicality. He’s a presence, and I am aware of the big playoffs he had three years ago. There is still five months before free agency. I believe Kass loves it in Edmonton, so hopefully we can find a solution that works for him and us.”
SN: While we’re talking contracts, what about Darnell Nurse?
KH: Well, Darnell is a restricted free agent. We’ll find a solution for Darnell. Would you like to do it during the season? It always feels good to get people signed, and done. But if they’re restricted, it’s something I can deal with in the summertime if I have to. It certainly looks that way.”
SN: Draisaitl and McDavid. Do you believe they have to run on separate lines for your team to be successful?
KH: “Well, I do believe you can’t be a one-line team. It was working early this season, we had the one line going and the power play going. But eventually in the NHL, the other teams start to figure a plan to neutralize whatever plan you’ve got. Yamamoto has come up and given us one more player who can play in the Top 6, Top 9. You only need a player here and there, and splitting those guys up has given us a depth in scoring…
“So, the answer is it depends on your other forwards. If you put them together as a top, No. 1 line, and you have some depth in scoring, it’ll work. But if you put them together and you don’t have depth in scoring, then it doesn’t work.
“For right now, you’ve got to have depth in scoring. You can’t look at a team and say, ‘If we shut down that one line then nobody else can beat us.’”
SN: You signed a lot of one-year contracts for roughly $1 million this past summer. Some have worked, others not so much. Overall, how do you view your success rate?
KH: “We went into the summertime, we didn’t have a lot of cap space, and we wanted to build some depth up front. We wanted to go to training camp and have a competition. Two or three of those guys (Tomas Jurco, Markus Granlund, Joel Persson), as we wake up today, they’ve worked their way to Bakersfield. Guys like Sheahan and Archibald have really helped us on the PK. Same with Haas. And the penalty killing has been a factor in us being able to stay in the race.
“And with one-year deals, at the end of the season we can decide if we want to re-sign three or four of these guys.”
SN: When the break ends, you’ve got Calgary in two of your first three games. What’s your take on the rivalry, and the whole Tkachuk-Kassian thing?
KH: “Lucky for me, I was involved in Colorado-Detroit, an incredible rivalry for six or seven years. So I’ve lived through it before. Any time you have huge games on the schedule that take on more meaning than just another regular season game, it’s great for your players and your fans. But, it also means you’re competitive. You want to play big games.
“The Calgary games, you want to play with passion and play hard, but you’ve got to play smart. The media goes to the players and the players talk. But at the end of the day the most important thing is that you find a way to win the game. Part of being a successful team is playing on the edge, but playing within the rules of the game. I’m looking forward to those games — they’re great games (in which) to evaluate your players. We’ve got to make sure we play hard, we play tough, we play physical, but we play within the rules. Because we don’t want to go to the penalty box, and we don’t want people suspended.”
SN: That could be tough. There’s a lot of juice in The Battle right now.
KH: (Laughs) I know. It’s good. I lived in Medicine Hat (Alberta) from 1985-94, scouting for the Red Wings. The Calgary-Edmonton games, everyone in Alberta was watching. Both of those teams were great, great teams.
“We’ve got a young core. Connor just turned 23 (on Jan. 13). Leon’s just 24. Nurse turns 25 (on Feb. 4). We’ve got to add to the core, but this competing for a playoff spot — big games against Calgary and battling for a playoff spot — it’s fabulous for the players, and for the fans. For me, it’s a great place to evaluate our players to make decisions going forward.”