EDMONTON — Ken Holland has a dream.
He dreams of a process where today’s tangible disappointment turns, as it did in his time in Detroit, into success. Where losing precedes winning.
So he set out on Wednesday to paint that landscape for Oilers fans, opening up his general manager’s mind to try to explain how losing can actually mean that you are winning.
“We’re gonna have pain, there are gonna be disappointments, we’re gonna have adversity. And it’s gonna make us better,” he said, specific to the latest Round 1 loss, this time to Winnipeg. “The pain that Oilers fans are feeling today — that we and our players are feeling today — I think it’s a good thing.
“Why?” he asked. “Because expectations are greater. We weren’t just satisfied making the playoffs. We played at a high enough level (in the regular season) that we had aspirations that we were going to go on a playoff run. It hurts today. It’s massively disappointing.
“But it’s not massively disappointing because we underachieved. It’s massively disappointing because we had great expectations. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”
Don’t take Holland’s position the wrong way. He’s not trying to snow anyone into believing that a Jets sweep was in anyone’s plans, or that we should be happy with a series that didn’t even give an Oilers fan one lousy overtime goal to cheer.
What he’s saying is, this is the process that every successful organization endures, and the Oilers are fully immersed in it. That it’s better to be involved and engaged in the process than to be what this franchise has been for most of the past 25 years — an ad hoc entity flailing around trying to repeat the luck it had in 2006. Like a guy in Vegas who once won some money on Black 44, so that’s what he bets every time.
“If you win three Cups in 15 years, you have 12 or 13 years of massive disappointments,” he said. “I look back on my time in Detroit, and before we won our first Stanley Cup how many massive disappointments we had before we were finally able to get it done.”
So, as Holland embarks on his third summer of building something in Edmonton, let’s look back on what he has accomplished thus far.
Clearly he has built a strong regular season team, finishing second in its Division each year. Even more obvious, his team doesn’t have what it takes to succeed in the post-season, going 1-7 in post-season games over the past two years.
Year over year the Oilers improved again in many crucial statistics, both offensive, defensive and in their goaltending. Edmonton tied Washington for the best road record in the NHL this season, was the fifth best team in the NHL overall from Feb. 1 on (after a poor start), and had the seventh best save percentage in the NHL this season.
They weren’t just a good regular season for one years in a row. They have been very good for two. In Edmonton, that’s progress.
For the second straight season they had the best power play in the NHL, but what they didn’t do well enough was produce at five-on-five. That points to scoring depth, a flaw that proved fatal against the Jets.
As the free-agent season approaches, Holland spoke of building a team incrementally.
“Part of the evolution of a team is you need people who are on your roster to take a step. Part of our growth has to be internal,” he said. “It can’t all be (about) free agency. The good programs, the good teams in this league, do a lot of what they do from within. Drafting, developing, then you go out and you find the finishing pieces through free agency and through trades.”
Kind of the way the Winnipeg jets have been doing, far longer and far wiser than Edmonton.
“Winnipeg has been doing the same thing that I’m laying out to you, for the past six or seven years,” volunteered Holland. “It isn’t just one trade away. You don’t just wheel out a bunch of futures for one big guy and you have multiple celebrations. It doesn’t happen that way.
“The Jets were in the Final Four three years ago. They’re sticking with it, building their team.”
As such, Edmonton’s performance against Winnipeg, however painful, gives the Oilers GM more hope than pessimism.
“In three of the four games, when the buzzer went after 60 minutes, we were tied,” he said. “However they’re built, however we’re built, I don’t really think that we were outplayed. But, we lost 4-0. The results don’t say that the series was even.”
Holland’s priority is to finish exit interviews, and speak with his leadership group about what they think is required. Two of those leaders — Adam Larsson and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — are soon-to-be unrestricted free agents.
Larsson will likely be the first of Edmonton’s UFAs to sign, likely in the neighbourhood of four years and $15 million. Nugent-Hopkins is looking for bigger term and perhaps a raise on his $6-million salary. He appears to want to stay in Edmonton, but will have to accept something like five years and $28 million, or take his talents to market.
Tyson Barrie is likely gone, seeking long term and max dollars after playing on a one-year deal in Edmonton. Mike Smith will probably re-sign here, and perhaps get a two-year deal.
Then, Holland will seek an established top-six left winger, and a couple of depth forwards who also have experience.
“We’ve got some wonderful players who are just coming into the prime of their careers, and I can’t support them with just 22- and 21-year olds,” the GM said. “You also need those veteran players who have been there before. Who have been in those situations.”
Think Blake Coleman and/or Barclay Goodrow in Tampa, or Blues’ LW Jayden Schwartz.
He also needs a left-side defender and likely a goalie. Holland all but promised at least one buy-out this summer, which likely means goodbye James Neal.
“You need stability,:” he emphasized. “I can’t just keep switching players in and out. It’s about growing with some of the people we have here. Some we’ll re-sign and we will bring some new people in.
“We’ll grow this.”