Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland has faced his share of criticism, especially this past offseason. When Holland engineered the trades of Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones, fans and some media members were quick to judge these moves as a step backward for the organization. And when the Oilers retained the full salary of Duncan Keith in the Jones deal, still more people felt that Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman got the best of the Oilers GM. But this is all wait and see at this point.
If you begin to examine the impact that Holland has made on the Oilers a little more closely, you might see that he and assistant general manager Keith Gretzky have moved the team and the organization forward. For the past two seasons, the Oilers have improved their finish in the regular season, making it to the playoffs this past season and to the playoff qualifier in 2019-20.
Both the playoff series against the Winnipeg Jets and the qualifying series against Chicago were tough to stomach for Oilers fans. When you have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl winning back-to-back Hart and Art Ross Trophies in those years, much is expected. As great as these two leaders are, the rest of the team has to catch up, and they have begun to do so. Slowly and methodically, the Oilers are getting better; they might seem light years away from the Tampa Bay Lightning, but they’re getting closer.
Exorcising the Ghosts From the Oilers Decade of Darkness
Much has been written about Holland’s predecessor, Peter Chiarelli, and the decade of darkness that was in high gear well before Chiarelli was hired. Some fans believe the team was cursed after losing Chris Pronger in 2006. But the organization had taken a step back before Pronger had arrived. In 2005-06, the Oilers were without a dedicated AHL franchise. Players were shared between the Hamilton Bulldogs and the Iowa Stars, and Oilers prospects had to battle players from the Montreal Canadiens and Dallas Stars for ice time.
One of the biggest disappointments was the development of goaltenders during this period. Devan Dubnyk and Jeff Deslauriers were top prospects, but unfortunately, they were limited in minutes and opportunities. Yes, Dubnyk eventually became a bonafide NHL keeper with the Minnesota Wild, but at the time he and Deslauriers were with the Oilers, they both struggled. Unfortunately Deslauriers, though an excellent prospect, didn’t find his way to becoming a regular in the NHL.
This is just an example of how two players in the organization faced difficult challenges, and the team spiraled down the standings. The Oilers eventually did get their own AHL franchise in Springfield, then Oklahoma City, and now Bakersfield, and you can trace some of their current success to the fact that they started rebuilding their minor league system, especially their AHL team. They are now at the point where they have players down on the farm that they don’t need to rush.
Building a Solid Farm System for the Edmonton Oilers
Holland built Detroit into a powerhouse in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He combined great drafting with timely trades and was able to guide the Red Wings to 13 100-point seasons in 17 years. So far with the Oilers, he has been at the helm for two second-place finishes in the regular season. This year, much of the talk going into the team’s main camp is how deep the competition is.
The Oilers are deeper than they’ve been in years thanks to drafting and development, the acquisition of free agents, and some positive trades. Yes, they have holes. The defence has question marks, and the team might lack overall toughness, which is important for the playoffs. Their goaltending also needs to be solidified, and they need success from players drafted beyond the first round.
But it’s looking better than it did a decade ago. And for all the criticism that Holland has faced in his short time in Edmonton, he might just have a plan. Let’s see if the history of his success with the Red Wings will repeat. His successor in Detroit, Steve Yzerman, has high praise for his mentor, and Stevie Y is one of the best minds in hockey.
Stanley Cup Champions Are Built, Not Acquired
With the restrictions of a salary cap and the high cost of free agents, the path to the Stanley Cup is still marked by teams who draft and develop well. When you look at recent champions, like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago, and now Tampa, that’s been their blueprint. It was Holland’s blueprint in Detroit, and it could be his swan song with the Oilers.
Fans of the team want to win now. Who can blame them after living through so many losing seasons and even watching respected pundits, like Bob McKenzie, smirk about trades, like the one-for-one Hall-for-Larsson deal in 2016. It’s been a tough road for Oilers fans, but it looks like there’s light at the end of the tunnel (the Holland Tunnel?). Holland and Keith Gretzky, along with Dave Tippett and Jay Woodcroft, might be the right people in charge at the right time. Oilers fans will be watching closely.
D. Edward Bochon covers the Edmonton Oilers. His background is in marketing writing where he worked with the Edmonton Oilers, the Edmonton Football Club (now known as the Elks), and the Edmonton Rush of the NLL.