This time was supposed to be different. And for a while, it actually was. The Edmonton Oilers canvassed the hockey world for candidates to fill their vacant GM position. They talked to people around the league, compiled a comprehensive list of names and did their research on each of them, extensively interviewed them and got their input on everything from how to get the Oilers out of a cap hell to their top coaching candidates. One person who was interviewed said he spoke with Oilers president Bob Nicholson for six hours and came away impressed with how well prepared Nicholson was and how much he had done his homework.
So then what did Nicholson and the Oilers do? After all that work, they went out and threw $5 million a year on a five-year contract at Ken Holland, a guy who wasn’t even interviewed and whom Nicholson has a relationship from his time at Hockey Canada. For a franchise trying to shake the old-boy network image, it was a curious way to go about things.
So what do we make of all this? The safe and prudent choice or the predictable one doomed to fail…again? Well, of course, all of that will depend on Holland’s performance and which route he goes down with this franchise. If he’s Jim Rutherford 2.0, Nicholson will look like a genius. If Holland is the second coming of Peter Chiarelli, the Oilers will be mired in mediocrity for another decade. (And by the way, Oilers fans have every right to question Holland’s hiring and look at it warily. They are not the problem in Edmonton. They are not toxic. They react the way they do because their team has been dismal, dysfunctional and terrible and all those people have done is kept supporting it.)
Ken Holland is 63 years old, two years younger than Rutherford was when he took the helm of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2014. If you think there is criticism to the Holland hiring in Edmonton, check out how people in Pittsburgh reacted to the Rutherford hiring. But what Rutherford brought to the Penguins with him from Carolina was his decisiveness and his abashed courage to swing for the fences. He saw two world-class players who needed to be supplemented and he made bold decisions, both in terms of player personnel and coaching, that led to the Penguins winning two straight Stanley Cups. So age is not a factor here. Not in any way.
Chiarelli was only 50 when he took over the Oilers hockey operations in 2015. Like both Rutherford and Holland, he had won a Stanley Cup and checked off a lot of boxes for a team looking to build around a superstar player. But he made a series of franchise-crushing moves that set back that rebuild. He also did not have the clout Holland will have to marginalize the cabal of former Oilers that did so much to help create this situation in the first place.
Ken Holland is a terrific hockey mind who has made some mistakes. Yes, the Red Wings regressed under his watch, but part of that was a natural regression that was prompted by the fact that the Red Wings were perennial contenders who often had to deal futures in exchange for players who could help them in the present. The Pittsburgh Penguins currently hold the mark for consecutive appearances in the playoffs with 13. Well, the Red Wings almost doubled that until they missed the post-season in 2017. The fact is, there are currently, oh, about 25 teams that would gladly swap their past two decades with the Red Wings’.
It’s clear that Holland could have been content to simply be a figurehead and advisor in Detroit and cemented his legacy by going quietly into the night as the Red Wings rebuilt themselves into a contender. For as much damage as he did with questionable contracts, the Red Wings are actually in a pretty good spot in terms of their rebuild and better days are ahead, in part because of some of the things Holland put in place before he left.
He’s taking an enormous risk here. If he comes in and is decisive and bold the way Rutherford was and the Oilers do return to serious contender status, history will be kind. But speaking of the Oilers, Glen Sather had a Hall of Fame career there as coach and GM, then undid much of his legacy with his handling of the New York Rangers. Nothing is guaranteed here either way.
The Oilers have been a franchise that has been unable to get out of its own way for the better part of the past decade. Holland will clean up much of that and he’ll instill a sense of oneness and integrity to a hockey department where those particular qualities have been lacking. His first order of business, aside from hiring the right coach (which has been another millstone for this organization), will be getting the Oilers’ cap situation in order.
Ken Holland brings instant credibility, success, a sense of competence and clout to the Edmonton Oilers. He also brings a fair bit of baggage. He has the latitude, resources and time to get this right. The betting in this corner is that he eventually will.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.