"Smart moves while avoiding crippling mistakes": Oilers GM Ken Holland gets strong reviews for offseason work

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Ken Holland’s offseason looks to be pretty much over, with Edmonton’s cap space all but gone now. There could be some move that surprises us all, or maybe a minor signing or two, but Holland’s options are now limited.

On his offseason receipt, Holland has a number of purchases, including:

  • Tyson Barrie, 1 year, $3.75 million
  • Mike Smith, 1 year, $1.5 million
  • Tyler Ennis, 1 year, $1.0 million
  • Kyle Turris, 2 years, $1.65 million per
  • Jesse Puljujarvi, 2 years, $1.175 million per
  • Alan Quine, 1 year, $750,000
  • Seth Griffin, 2 years, $750,000
  • Adam Cracknell, 1 year, $700,000
  • Patrick Russell, 1 year, $700,000
  • Anton Forsberg, 1 year, $700,000

In a Cult of Hockey poll, fans weighed in and handed Holland high marks with 86.5 per cent of them giving him a grade of A or B:

On Oilers Now, former NHL GM Brian Lawton said Holland did well. “For me, when I look at how teams have done, and I’ve been going through and seeing who had made some really nice adjustments in the offseason that will help them win more, I always compare it to what their ability was to spend money as well. The Oilers didn’t have a lot of money to spend. What they were able to accomplish, I would actually rank in the top third in terms of the position they were starting from.”

And former NHL GM Brian Burke, also on Oilers Now talking to Bob Stauffer: “I think Kenny is a Hall-of-Fame for a reason. I know people are upset about the goaltending but keep in mind the goaltending was above average during the regular season. It just kind of fell apart in the playoffs. I use MacGyver analogy. I used to watch MacGyver. He always found a solution. When you’ve got cap issues there’s two courses of action you can follow. You can do nothing or you can use a little bit of chicken wire and chewing gum and cobble together a solution, and that’s what Kenny has done. He’s used small chips, short term deals, small deals. I loved Turris coming in in the three hole. He’s taken the small amount of cap room he had and maximized it.”

Then there’s Adam Gretz, hockey writer for NBC Sports: “Letting Andreas Athanasiou walk after giving up two second-round picks for him at the trade deadline makes the trade look quite dubious in hindsight. Not making any change to the goalie situation is also a significant risk, especially given how deep the free agent and trade market was this offseason. But, overall, the offseason has been solid when it comes to the outside additions…. Russell is a flawed player, but a $1.25 million extension isn’t terrible, and while I do not think this should ever be the determining factor in signing someone (it has often times been used as a weak defense of a signing), it does give them another defender to leave exposed in next year’s expansion draft. Beyond that, the additions of Kyle Turris and Barrie were very smart low-risk additions… It is still a very top-heavy roster, but they have made some smart moves while avoiding the type of crippling mistakes that defined so many of their previous offseasons. That is progress.”

And TSN’s Craig Button, another former GM: “I think they’re going to be a much more capable team. Tyson Barrie is going to have to step in and do some things offensively, but they know what Yamamoto is and Yamamoto can score. They also know that Ethan Bear is a really good, solid defenceman on the blueline. Puljujarvi comes back, he’s refreshed, call it a reset… The goaltending comes back and there’s consternation among Oilers fans, but this team up to the pause was a really good team. They had a bad week in the qualifying round against Chicago and if you’re going to define your team based on one bad week you’re going to be in trouble…I like what Ken Holland has done under serious, serious cap considerations.”

And, finally, a dissenting vote from TSN’s hockey writer Frank Seravalli: “The number that stood out to me was the .869 save percentage that those goaltenders, Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen, had in that short playoff run. That’s unacceptable. That’s the reason why they lost to the Blackhawks and nothing else. It didn’t have anything to do with the production from Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl or the leadership or anything else related to that. It simply came down to goaltending. You can’t win with those kinds of numbers, and to bring those same guys back, even understanding the cap constraints this team had doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, not in an offseason in which more goaltenders were available than seemingly ever before. There was a real opportunity for Ken Holland to upgrade his team in net, even find a long term starter, and that didn’t happen. I think the Oilers are looking at more of the same instead of a chance to really improve this season.”

My take

Seravalli is a strong reporter but I can’t agree with his assessment that the only reason the Oilers lost in the playoffs was goaltending. As I see it, Edmonton’s loss game down to a number of factors:

1) Coach Dave Tippett’s decision to break up the NHL’s top line of Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto.

2) Weak-to-atrocious miscues by the team’s minute-munching d-men Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Kris Russell and Ethan Bear.

3) A lack of proficiency and leadership at the defensive end from stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

4) A lack of toughness, intensity and effectiveness from role players like Zack Kassian and Riley Sheahan.

5) The Oilers goalies got outplayed by Chicago’s Cory Crawford, especially in the first and fourth game.

6) Too many bad bounces and also too many iffy calls by the referees.

7) The lack of dynamic puck-moving and skating from the Oilers defence and an overall break down in team defensive discipline, as former NHLer Alan May so eloquently described on Oilers Now, saying: “With the Oilers defence’s lack of mobility on their back side, they were exposed. You needed to have all your forwards back. Especially the second, third and fourth lines needed to be way better in getting back and protecting the house. Your goaltending is not going to be able to look good if you’re not playing defence against a team like Chicago. And the Oilers don’t have the speed to go back and forth… The Oilers are not a fast team. They have some very fast players, but they are not a fast team. The defence is not that agile, it’s not that mobile. (Oscar) Klefbom is a good skater, he’s a different skate but he’s not a speedster. Darnell Nurse can wind it up but he’s not an agile guy. Ethan Bear is still learning how to play the game, he’s not a high-end speed guy in my opinion. And then the other guys, (Kris) Russell, he doesn’t have the speed, (Matt) Benning doesn’t have the speed to play the game so you have to rely on a five-man unit of defensive play and the Oilers didn’t do that… The overall skating dynamic of that team has to drastically improve to get this team to go and start winning playoff rounds because right now it’s just not there.”

In terms of addressing team speed, one huge difference will be the subtraction of Matt Benning, one of the slowest skaters on the team, and the additions of Tyson Barrie and Jesse Puljujarvi, two dynamic skaters, especially in the case of Barrie. Kyle Turris will also bring much more offence in a third-line role than Riley Sheahan. It looks like Caleb Jones will replace Oscar Klefbom in the line-up, and Jones is at least as strong a skater as Klefbom, maybe better. Finally, the Oilers lost out on Athanasiou, a super fast skater, but did he ever use that speed to good effect on the forecheck against Chicago? I never saw it. What good is it if you’ve got wheels but no foot on the gas, or gas in the tank, whatever the issue was?

Could the Oilers have done better than bringing back Smith in net? That’s what almost every Oilers fan hoped to see. Very few wanted Mike Smith back. At the same time, most fans were relieved that the prospective deal with big time free agent Jacob Markstrom fell through:

In the end, Holland took the small number of cap dollars he had and used them to improve team speed and skill at centre, wing and defence at the expense of spending big in net. I certainly prefer how things worked out to the notion of signing up a 30-something goalie to major dollars over a long term. Maybe I’ve got this wrong and Edmonton really does need a goalie like Markstrom to win.

But I like Koskinen. And I prefer the smaller bets that Holland made to one big bet on Markstrom.

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