Holland believes ‘time is now’ for Oilers to evolve into contenders

The Edmonton Oilers defenceman discusses the lessons his team is taking away from last year, getting his contract extension settled before the season, and becoming a father in the offseason.

EDMONTON — “The time is now.”

When Ken Holland says something like this, it’s never going to be a Mark Messier-like guarantee. Or a Peter Pocklington prediction that the 1979 Oilers would win a Stanley Cup within five years.

To Holland, a man of process, “the time is now” means it is time to move from being a good team to being an elite team. To evolve from a team that is feared in December and January, to one capable of being feared in May and June.

To grow from a team that could feasibly win its division, to a team that could feasibly win the Stanley Cup.

“The time is now,” Holland told us over the phone, on his way home from Team Canada Olympic meetings in Banff. “In my mind, the time to try and take a step. We’ve been 12th in the league, 11th in the league. But the aspirations are far greater than that.”

You can lament an organization that wasted the first few years of Connor McDavid’s career. Holland wasn’t here for that, and he doesn’t care what happened back then.

You can say that Holland’s Oilers have only won one playoff game in two post-seasons under the GM, and he’ll agree. It’s part of the process, losing. And honestly, you don’t take over a mess from Peter Chiarelli and have it ticking like a Swiss watch in 24 months.

The survival phase was in Year 1. Holland signed a whack of players to a bunch of one-year deals, and slapped together a lineup that was in second place in the Pacific when the pandemic struck. Four months later, the play-in series was a disaster, and with a frozen cap he put together another second-place team last season.

Again, the playoffs were a disaster. That has to end.

When?

“The time is now.”

“I wanted to bring in some people who have won before,” Holland opined. “(Zach) Hyman is 29, Foegele is 25 — they’re in the prime of their careers. Duncan Keith is going to have a lesser role (than in Chicago), but he’s bringing in his resume. He’s played in lot of situations at the international and National Hockey League level. He’s been brought in for what he can do on and off the ice.”

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When McDavid and Leon Draisaitl sit down at the second intermission trailing 3-2, and the people they see across the room have names like Gaetan Haas, Dominik Kahun, Joakim Nygard and Caleb Jones, they know that the comeback is on their backs. It’s been that way in Edmonton: If No. 29 and 97 don’t win the game for you, it doesn’t get won.

Slowly, the faces of fringe NHLers are being replaced with legit NHLers.

“The hope is that some of the guys who have been around here for a while look around the locker room, and they think that we’re a deeper team. That’s the plan,” Holland said.

Ask him about his goalies, however, and Holland simply can’t tell you what he really thinks.

He’s been in the market for a younger partner for Mike Smith for two summers, and been unable to succeed — largely because any deal had to include the weighty contract of Mikko Koskinen, who has one year remaining at $4.5 million. And Holland is still working the phones, with a handful of NHL GMs having to make some tough decisions on the goaltending front when they set their rosters after camp.

If he’s shopping, he simply cannot be happy with what he has. But you can’t expect an NHL manager to verbalize his displeasure with such an important position, when it looks very much like the Smith-Koskinen tandem may have to get Edmonton to the trade deadline at least.

“Since I’ve been here our goaltending has been a positive,” Holland reasoned. “It’s been part of the reason why we’ve made the playoffs. The big question mark is, one guy’s 39 (Smith), one guy’s 33.”

Smith can give you a great 40 games. Koskinen, not so much.

Smith can play for a couple of weeks in a row if he has to. Koskinen’s game runs out sometime during his third consecutive start, a distressing trait when the starter is 39 and bound to miss time to injury.

“Kosky, I think he knows that one of the areas he needs to improve upon is his consistency,” Holland allowed. “Obviously the question with Mike Smith is, he’s 39 years old. Can he do it again?”

You could say that, in a cap system, even the best teams have an area they’d like to be able to shore up. You could also say, “Yeah, but goaltending is the most important position.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

That why Holland’s proclamation isn’t a Stanley Cup guarantee, but an admission that he’s had two years here to affect change, and 12th or 11th place in the NHL has to now become a single digit conversation.

“The time is now to try and take a step,” he said. “The Stanley Cup doesn’t just happen. You evolve, you grow. You have multiple chances. You have disappointments. …

“In ’93, ’94, ‘95 we couldn’t get it done in Detroit. By ’98 we had the blueprint and the recipe.”

You can critique the changes he made this offseason, or the veterans — Darnell Nurse, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — that he signed to long-term deals.

But in Keith, Hyman, Foegele, Derek Ryan and Cody Ceci, he has added genuine, veteran NHL players who belong in the league. They aren’t some obscure player on a one-year deal, or a rookie whose “potential” comes with zero NHL experience.

“I guess I could have just said we’ll give jobs to the best of our young kids,” Holland said, “but my thinking process was to bring in established NHL players. And hopefully over the next 40 games some of these young guys become part of the solution. But while we’re waiting for them to grow, we have some veteran, established players on our roster.”

And the room does looks better.

From outside and within.

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