‘I’m never relaxed’: A Q&A with Oilers GM Ken Holland

PENTICTON, B.C.  — Ken Holland is back where he grew up, a couple hours south of his hometown in Vernon B.C., sitting lakeside in Penticton. The triathletes are swimming laps in Lake Okanagan, and the ducks are wandering about alongside the seniors on a smoky, warm September day in the British Columbia interior. 

Nothing could be more relaxing, right? 

“I’m always nervous, okay?” Holland admits. “For 27 years as a manager, I’m always nervous. Because I understand how hard the league is, how close the games are, and how many games you got to win by one goal. 

“I’m never relaxed.” 

Holland has built the Edmonton Oilers into a genuine Stanley Cup contender, but in his mind, all of that work screams “yesterday.” By American Thanksgiving, if his Oilers are in a playoff spot the math says they have less than about a 10 percent chance of making the post season come April. 

So he’s already nervous about the preseason, and an open 20 games that could verify the folks who like his team, or give the detractors a voice. 

“Last year we started 210-5. If we didn’t get off to a good start last year we probably don’t make the playoffs,” he said. “Where are ya after 20 games?” 

We sat down with Holland here in Penticton for a lakeside Q and A, after which the 66-year-old turned down a ride and made the 20-minute walk to the rink to watch his rookies practice. Here is our conversation, edited (of course) for brevity: 

SN — 20 years ago you’d have never been hoping to have a rookie defenceman, a rookie left winger, and a sophomore defenceman on a team that had Stanley Cup aspirations. Today, that’s the goal. Does it make you nervous? 

KH — “First off, that’s just the salary cap world. Twenty years ago, we won the Cup in Detroit, we had Pavel Datsyuk. He was 23, and had played (the top league) in Russia. In ‘03 or ’04, we played Nashville In Round 1. We had a $70 million team and they had a $25 million team. The game’s changed. 

“Now, Broberg was the eighth pick in the draft. He was a captain of Sweden in the World Juniors when he was 19. Holloway was what fifth was in the nation (NCAA) in scoring as a 19-year-old, playing against guys who are 21, 22, 23. Skinner’s played four years of pro. He’s 23 years of age now.” 

SN — When the summer started, you were asked where Jesse Puljujarvi fit in. You replied, “I gotta figure that out.” What did you figure out, that Puljujarvi is still an Oiler? 

KH — “What I did in the offseason was, I talked to a lot of people at the draft about lots of our players. Lots of lots of ideas. I Jesse’s name came up a lot. But ultimately, nothing made sense that I thought would make us better because we’re in the position right now. The core of our team are in their prime, so I’m making decisions to win now. I’m not looking to trade players for draft picks. 

“I’m not sure where he fits. Is he a Top 6? Is he going to be in the Bottom 6? That’s a good thing, because I think our team is deeper and more competitive than it was last year. Let’s see where the dust settles here in the next month.” 

SN — Talk about the player: Puljujarvi. Now that he’s making $3 million, and he is 24 years old, does the dynamic change? 

KH — “It changes it a lot. You know, certainly 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 on our third line…  I would anticipate he’s going to be a Top 9 forward. 

“He got off to a great start (last season) then he hit the wall. I think he lost his confidence. I know he lost his confidence last year. This is a fresh start, a fresh opportunity. Let’s see where we land a month, a month from now.” 

SN — You told me privately late last season that your chances of signing Evander Kane were slim. You had no money. What happened? 

KH — “Evander was had a $7 million dollar AAV with San Jose. He was a $7 million player. What also transpired between then and now is, I felt that Duncan Keith was coming back. Well, Duncan is $5.5 million off the cap. I made a deal to move Zack Kassian to Arizona. If you don’t do make those two moves, it’s going to be hard for us to do anything. When those two moves happen, it allowed us to (sign Kane), — and dovetailing that with the fact Evander really enjoyed being an Oiler.” 

SN — You had Fedorov and Yzerman. You had Zetterberg and Datsyuk. Now you have McDavid and Draisaitl. Are you getting good at building around two superstars? 

KH — “Working with Jim Devellano and Scotty Bowman from ’94 to ’97, for me, was like going to Harvard. What I learned from those hockey people was team building … and what I’ve tried here over three years is to slowly build the team. You’ve got to have depth. 

“The good teams, they have an engine — four or five players. Certainly, we have an engine: Connor, Leon, Darnell… We’ve had to go out externally, making free agent moves, but also the development of some players that were in the system when I got here: Puljujarvi, (Kailer) Yamamoto, (Ryan) McLeod, (Evan) Bouchard… I’m trying to do the same thing with Holloway and Broberg.” 

SN — The best three-round performances I can recall were Doug Gilmour (‘93), Peter Forsberg (‘02, WCF) and Erik Karlsson (‘17). Were those by McDavid and Draisaitl their equal? Or better? 

KH — “We played three really good hockey teams, and they averaged two points a game or more. I mean, they won they have 33 and 32 points (in 16 games)? They were incredible. I mean, Leon playing with a high ankle sprain… Those two performances by Connor and Leon last year, were as good as anything that I’ve seen by players in all my years in Detroit. What they did is one of the greatest achievements in the playoffs under pressure that I had the pleasure to watch.” 

SN — Your cap situation could make for a 21-man roster to start the season. That seems risky. Your thoughts? Would you go with 22…? 

KH — “I would just say to you, we’re trying to win. So we’re pushing. We’re pushing up the cap. Probably 20 other teams are in the same situations. We’re tight because we’re trying to win and we’re trying to keep as many of the pieces as possible.” 

SN — Does this view of Lake Okanagan remind you of growing up? 

KH — “You don’t realize how beautiful this is until you leave. I leave for 30 years — I come back every — but you leave, you start to see all these other places in the world, you realize how beautiful the Okanagan is.” 

SN — In Detroit, you won Cups by not spending much on goalies. Is a $25M investment on Campbell a move away from that? 

KH — “We got three great years out of Smitty (Mike Smith), and he’s banged up and can’t play anymore. (Mikko Koskinen) made a decision to go back to Europe, so we needed a goalie. But we’re actually spending less in goal in 2023 than we did in ‘22. We’re going to spend $5.75 million this year. Last year was $6.7 million. We’re a million dollars less in goal this year for one year.” 

SN — Are you concerned that the expectations might be too high for your team? 

KH — “Connor is (turning) 26, now Leon’s (turning) 27. I know Hyman is 30 and Darnell is 27. Jack Campbell’s 30. You know, I think that that the expectations are good. Our goal was to grow into a Cup contender. 

“Now, my message to our team next week is going to be, ‘Last year is history.’ Three of the four teams that were in the Final 4 a year ago, Montreal, Vegas and the Islanders, all missed the playoffs last year. That was a wonderful story (last spring), but we got to start all over again here next Wednesday and over eight preseason games. We got to build we got to be ready to go. 

“There’s nothing wrong with expectations. It means that people believe there’s real potential your team. But it starts from scratch next week. We got to we got to do it all over again.” 

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