PENTICTON, BC – Ken Holland is back where he grew up, two hours south of his hometown of Vernon BC, sitting by the lakeside in Penticton. Triathletes practice swimming courses in Lake Okanagan, and ducks roam alongside seniors on a warm, September day in the interior of British Columbia.
Nothing could be more comfortable, right?
“I’m always nervous, okay?” Holland recognizes. “For 27 years as a manager, I am always nervous. Because I understand how hard the league is, how close matches are, how many matches I have won with one goal.
“I never rest.”
Holland built the Edmonton Oilers into a true Stanley Cup contender, but in his mind, all that work screams “yesterday”. By American Thanksgiving, if his Oilers are in a playoff stage, the math says they have about a 10 percent lower chance of making the next season come in April.
So he’s really worried about pre-season, 20 open games that can check out the people who love his team, or give a voice to the detractors.
“Last year we got off to 210-5. If we didn’t get off to a good start last year, we probably wouldn’t do the qualifiers.” “Where are you after 20 matches?”
We sat with Holland here in Penticton by lake Q and A, after which the 66-year-old refused a 20-minute walk to the rink to watch rookie training. Here’s our conversation, edited (of course) for brevity:
SN 20 years ago, you never hoped to have a junior quarterback, a junior left winger, and a sophomore quarterback on a team that had Stanley Cup aspirations. Today, that is the goal. Does it make you nervous?
KH – “First of all, this is just the world of salary cap. Twenty years ago, we won the Detroit Cup, and we had Pavel Datsyuk. He was 23, and he played (first league) in Russia. In 2003 or 2004, we played Nashville in the first round. We had a $70 million team and they had a $25 million team.The game changed.
Now, Broberg was the eighth pick in the draft. He captained Sweden at the World Junior Championships when he was 19. Holloway was the fifth in the Nation (NCAA) scoring when he was 19, and he played against two-year-olds 21, 22, 23. Years of pro. He is 23 now.”
SN – When the summer began, I was asked where Jesse Bolgwarvi would fit in. I replied, “I should understand that.” What did you find out that Puljujarvi is still oiled?
KH – “What I did in the off-season was I talked to a lot of people in the draft about a lot of our players. A lot of ideas. Jesse’s name came up a lot. But in the end, there was nothing that made sense that I thought would make us better because we are where we are now. The core of our team It’s in its prime, so I’m making decisions to win now. I’m not looking to swap players for draft picks.
“I’m not sure where he fits in. Is he in the top 6? Will he be in the bottom 6? That’s a good thing, because I think our squad is deeper and more competitive than it was last year. Let’s see where the dust settles here next month.”
SN – Talk about the player: Puljujarvi. Now that he’s made $3 million and is 24, has the dynamic changed?
KH – “He changes it a lot. You know, definitely in the last two years he was at $1.175 million. Three million, that’s not a lot of money for a top 6 player. But if he’s in our third streak… I expect he’d be a top 9.
“He got off to a great start (last season) and then hit a wall. I think he lost his confidence. I know he lost his confidence last year. This is a new beginning, a new opportunity. Let’s see where we come in a month or a month from now.”
SN You told me privately late last season that your chances of signing Evander Kane were slim. You don’t have money. what happened?
KH – “Evander earned a $7 million AAV with San Jose. He was a $7 million player. What happened also between then and now is, I just felt like Duncan Keith would come back. Well, Duncan is $5.5 million off the cap. I held A deal to move Zach Cassian to Arizona. If you don’t make those two moves, it’s going to be hard for us to do anything. When those two moves happened, that (signing with Kane) allowed us—and that matched the fact that Evander really enjoyed being a oiler.”
SN – You had Fedorov Wasserman. You had Zytterberg and Datsyuk. Now you have McDavid and Draisaitl. Are you good at building around two stars?
KH – “Working with Jim DeVillano and Scotty Bowman from 94 to 97, to me, was like going to Harvard. What I learned from these hockey teams is team building… and what I’ve experienced here over the course of three years is team building slowly. You have to have depth. .
“Good teams, they have a drive – four or five players. Sure, we have a drive: Connor, Leon, Darnell… We had to go outside, do the free-agent moves, but also develop some of the players that were in the system when I got here: Puljujarvi, (Kailer) Yamamoto, (Ryan) McLeod, (Evan) Bouchard… I try to do the same with Holloway and Broberg.”
SN The best three-round performance I can remember was Doug Gilmore (93), Peter Forsberg (2002, WCF) and Eric Carlson (17). Are those from McDavid and Draisaitl equal? Or better?
KH – “We played three really good hockey teams, averaging two points per game or more. So they win and they have 33 and 32 points (in 16 games)? They were unbelievable. I mean, Lyon is playing with a sprained ankle… those two performances he made. Connor and Leon last year, they were as good as anything I’ve seen by guys in all my years in Detroit. What they did is one of the greatest achievements in the playoffs under pressure that I’ve had the pleasure of watching.”
SN Setting your max can start a 21-man roster of the season. That sounds risky. your thoughts? Do you go with 22…?
KH – “I would just tell you, we’re trying to win. So we’re pushing. We’re taking the lid off. There are probably 20 other teams in the same positions. We’re tough because we’re trying to win and we’re trying to keep as many pieces as possible.”
SN Does this view of Lake Okanagan remind you of growth?
KH – “You don’t realize how beautiful that is until you leave. I leave for 30 years – I come back every time – but you leave, you start seeing all these other places in the world, you realize how beautiful the Okanagan is.”
SN In Detroit, I won cups by not spending too much on goalkeepers. Is investing $25 million in Campbell a step away from that?
KH – “We’ve had three great years from Smitty (Mike Smith), and he has exploded and can no longer play. (Mikko Koskinen) made the decision to go back to Europe, so we needed a goalkeeper. But we’re actually spending less on goal in 2023. than we spent in year 22. We’re going to spend $5.75 million this year. Last year it was $6.7 million. Our goal is $1 million less this year for one year.”
SN Are you worried that expectations may be too high for your team?
KH – “Connor (turning) 26, now Leon (turning) 27. I know Hyman is 30 and Darnell is 27. Jack Campbell is 30. You know, I think the outlook is good. Our goal was to become contender for the cup.
“Now, my message to our team next week will be, ‘Last year is history. Three of the four teams that were in the Final Four a year ago, Montreal, Vegas and the Islanders, all missed out on the playoffs last year. That was a great story (last spring), but we have to start over here next Wednesday and over eight pre-season games. To build we must be ready to go.
“There is nothing wrong with the forecast. It means that people think there is real potential for your team. But it is starting from zero next week. We got to do it again.”