Oilers GM Holland: Commitment to defence can take team to 'another level'

Oilers GM Ken Holland is anxious to see if his club is better, deeper and more prepared for a playoff run heading into this season, says he feels really good about the moves that were made this offseason.

EDMONTON — Better depth, bitter experience and time.

If those three ingredients can’t help Ken Holland’s Edmonton Oilers go from being a good regular season team to a serious playoff contender, then the wily old general manager is stumped.

The best Canadian team in last year’s regular season was the first one on the golf course, grounded by the 12th place Chicago Blackhawks in the playoffs' qualifying round.

Holland spent the offseason trying to fix that.

“Some of that is in (roster) makeup, and some of that is in players digging in and understanding the way it’s got to be played,” Holland said in a wide-ranging Zoom conference on Monday. “I reflect back on my time in Detroit … and there was a run there for 15 years where we had players in those situations multiple times and they started to understand how we as a group needed to play. Learning how to play in tighter games and harder games and winning more puck battles and winning 2-1.

“Losing out to Chicago, it was very disappointing. But I’d also like to think it was educational.”

After one year running this enigma of an organization, Holland had all balls in the air this summer, juggling in a replacement for lost-for-the-season defenceman Oscar Klefbom (Tyson Barrie), catching a third-line centre (Kyle Turris) to play next to Jesse Puljujarvi, signing the big Finn to a two-year deal and adding Dominik Kahun for some extra punch.

Holland still has to sign Ethan Bear, who is skating in Kelowna. The GM spoke with some urgency on that front.

“We’ve got to get at it, now,” he said. “Certainly if you’re going to be ready for camp, you’ve got to be in Edmonton by the 26th of December (to pass testing protocol in time for camp). I would like him in camp. I would like him signed. I’m sure the player and agent want the same thing.

“I’m prepared to do one year, two years, three years … We haven’t talked anything other than one, two or three years. So hopefully we can find a solution to get him into camp. He’s an important part of our team.”

Agent Jason Davidson is sitting by his phone, and the deal will get done. With Holland announcing Monday that Klefbom is officially done for the season — he has an arthritic shoulder — that extra cap space could perhaps impact a Bear contract.

Holland is an old hand at building teams, and often takes you back to a younger Detroit team that had lost for many a year before they became a powerhouse in the mid-90s. The experience may be a quarter-century old, but from Holland’s perspective, he sees many similarities between Steve Yzerman’s Red Wings and Connor McDavid’s Oilers.

“The Detroit Red Wings: in 1992, ’93, ’94, we’d win 5-3 in the regular season and come playoffs … those became 3-2 losses,” Holland said. “We’re trying to get more secondary scoring. We’re bringing in veteran players, trying to get deeper, trying to get offence from up and down our roster. But the team commitment to defence — to keeping the puck out of your net — I think is a big part of taking your team to another level. You’ve got to get comfortable in 2-1 games.

“The more times we’re in those situations, we’re going to learn how to come out on the winning end more often than the losing end.”

At risk of repetition, though the Oilers organization has been a historic failure over the past 20 years, this is only the second year in charge for Holland and head coach Dave Tippett. They cannot be blamed for the sins of their forefathers, and in fact the team showed much improvement last season — until the playoffs.

Now Holland does his thing, adding a veteran like Turris, a project like Puljujarvi, a guy with something to prove in Barrie, and depth in names like Tyler Ennis, Kahun, Gaetan Haas and Joakim Nygard. While Holland provides help around the edges, he gives the core of the team another chance to get back to the playoffs and accrue the experience required to grow into a winner.

“We’ve got to continue to be in those situations. We’ve got to dig in, win more 50-50 battles, win the low-scoring games, protect leads and kill penalties and all those things,” he said. “When you look at the Chicago series, one game we’re up 3-2 with less than five minutes to go and I think we gave up two goals in the last minute to turn a 3-2 win into a 4-3 loss.

“You’ve got to be in those situations over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, and the players evolve and adapt and adjust. That’s why you don’t win the Stanley Cup right off the bat.

“There’s a process.”

Year 2 is about to begin. It could must-watch TV.

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