EDMONTON — If you are one of those hockey “experts” who jumped online to criticize Ken Holland for not pushing more of his chips into the centre of the table Monday, well, then you’ve got a Hall of a lot to learn about the art of being a National Hockey League general manager.
It’s relatively simple: Before you can become a team that challenges for the Stanley Cup every year, you’ve got to become a team that makes the playoffs every year. And in order to become the playoff team, you can’t divest yourself of assets every trade deadline — like the annual Cup contender does.
And you don’t get to skip Step 1 and go directly to Step 2.
“I made a decision last year at the deadline to spend lots of futures. Unfortunately, the pandemic hit, we picked up in July and we were out in four games. It didn’t work,” said Holland, who spent two second-round picks on Andreas Athanasiou, who seemed a good bet as a pending RFA.
The wayward winger played just nine games before the pandemic hit, and when the game returned his $3 million qualifying price was totally out of whack in the new economy. Holland would have been insane to match it, and as an unrestricted free agent Athanasiou signed in Los Angeles for $1.2 million.
It was a disaster, partially — but not totally — of Holland’s making. Either way, it rendered him stingy this NHL Trade Deadline.
“When you make decisions in life, they’re going to affect future decisions,” he said. “I certainly made some decisions that affected my decisions going forward.
“You pick and choose. I don’t know that you can be all in every year,” he said. “I made a decision last year, my first year here, to try to get in. The hope is we’re going to do it again next year and try to make bigger noise.”
So with little inventory among his draft picks, and even less inclination to trade a top prospect away at a time when good players on entry-level deals are more valuable than Bitcoin, Holland set about improving his team in a subtle, non-sexy way, grabbing a veteran defenceman who does all the things that many fans will never notice.
Dmitry Kulikov: A defenceman noted for playing a consistent, hard game every night, who moves the puck well but won’t pile up many points. He is that 700-game, poised veteran who has played more NHL hockey than more than all but three Oilers players.
“Money was tight, assets were tight, and we felt that the priority was to get a little bit deeper on the back end,” Holland surmised. “When I think about the playoffs, you’ve got to be able to defend. You’ve got to be good on special teams. You’ve got to be able to win games 2-1, 3-2. We think he’ll make us better defensively, give us more depth, provide some edge, and get the puck moving forward.”
He is that defenceman who, if the game is over and you’re not talking about him, he’s probably played his game to a tee. A Russian Adam Larsson who hordes defensive zone starts, in Kulikov, Holland makes an acquisition that will help other players fit better as well.
He’ll push Kris Russell to the third pairing where his skills are best met, and from almost 19::00 per night to closer to 16:00, where the veteran Russell is most effective. Likely playing on the second pairing next to Adam Larsson, Kulikov’s ability to munch through nearly 20 minutes per game should pare a few shifts off of Darnell Nurse’s night, with the Oilers' top lefty currently fourth in the NHL at 25:42 per game.
And, yes, he’ll take some ice time away from young blueliners William Lagesson and Caleb Jones. But he will do so because he is a better player at this point — plain and simple. Those two will get their playoffs minutes when they are legit top-six NHL defencemen, and that time has not arrived yet.
Now, with his team set, Holland will watch the final 14 games with an eye for the summer — when real, lasting change can be made. A time when he’ll need to make a call on whether to sign UFA’s like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Tyson Barrie, Alex Chiasson and Larsson. Or let them move on and take their cap space to the free agent market.
He’ll lose someone in the expansion draft, and find out some time in July if Oscar Klefbom is going to play hockey again. In the meantime, there are 14 games down the stretch and at least one playoff series — a viewing opportunity the GM earns by building a team that has made the playoffs for two consecutive seasons.
This is where you find out who is worth keeping, and who can move on. These are the games where a veteran like Kulikov is a better option than a rookie like Jones or Lagesson, a pair who will get their chance to grip a regular job again next season.
This is when a general manager truly learns about his players, and Holland will be watching.
“You’re going to feel one way about your team if you lose out in the first round, you’re going to feel another way if you win the Stanley Cup,” he reasoned. “It’s going to get more difficult. We made the playoffs 25 years in a row in Detroit, so I’ve watched lots of hockey, lots of disappointments. And there were some years where we were the last team standing.”
The Edmonton Oilers aren’t that team yet, and forcing the issue because you have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl will actually shorten their window of success, not lengthen it.
Winning is hard, and it takes time. You’ve got to be in it for the long Hall.