Oilers GM Ken Holland Q&A: Can the team be improved? If so, how?


NEWARK, N.J. — The Oilers have hit the skids. They’ve tumbled down the standings after reversing their 7-3 start over the next 10 games.

At 10-10, they’re out of a playoff spot at American Thanksgiving, which so often foreshadows a team’s fate when it comes to the end of the regular season.

Sitting in the stands watching his team practice on Friday, Oilers GM Ken Holland wished things were different. But it’s clear he doesn’t think all is lost.

The Athletic spoke with Holland about where the Oilers are at, if and how they can be improved, and defensive woes that are being fixed — even if not fast enough. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Let’s start with the news of the day. What went into Philip Broberg coming up from Bakersfield and Markus Niemelainen going down?

Broberg’s been playing a lot of hockey down in Bakersfield — 24 to 27 minutes a night. When Niemo does play, he’s been playing under 10 (minutes) – lots of times with seven defencemen. It’s a good opportunity to get Niemelainen a lot more ice time. Broberg’s been playing well in Bakersfield.

Do you think Broberg can get more ice time than Niemelainen?

I’m not coaching. I talked to Jay Woodcroft yesterday. He talked to his coaching staff. We’ve won three (games) out of our last 10. So, you look to make a tweak or two. We’re going to tweak the line combinations and we’re bringing up Broberg. We’ll see.

How would you assess where your team is 20 games in?

We had a great first 10 (games), 7-3. I’m really disappointed with the last 10 in terms of wins and losses. We feel like we’re doing some things better the last 10. Our penalty killing has been better ever since the game in Washington, when the other team was 4-for-5. We’ve made some adjustments. The penalty killing has been better since that point. We’ve tightened up. Now we’re struggling to score. But we’re doing lots of things right.

What certainly gives me hope is when I look around the league and I see teams that have lost four to seven (games) in a row, they’ve bounced back and gone on runs. It’s that kind of a league. So, if we keep doing things right, we believe that we can start to put something together.

I know you’re a big believer in American Thanksgiving being a sign for making the playoffs. You guys are on the outside, though not by much. How do you feel about that and what do you think it means for your team?

When you get off to a 7-3 start, you’re hoping the next 10, you’re going to go to 5-5, 6-4 or 7-3 and you can be sitting in a comfortable position on U.S. Thanksgiving. We’ve had a tough go the last 10 games. We’re a point or two out. There’s 62 games to go.

With the loss of (Evander) Kane, and with the loss of Yamo (Kailer Yamamoto) – two of our top six forwards – we’re also trying to figure out, what are the best line combinations? How are we going to play with making some changes? Am I happy that we’re 10-10 after 20 (games)? No. I don’t think anybody’s happy. We’ve got to find a way to dig. We’ve got to find a way to fight through it. Starting (Saturday), we’ve got five games in eight days. At some point, you’ve got to put something together.

We talked about this in Carolina — recognizing Kane will probably come back this season, is there anything you feel you can do in the interim to improve your lineup in any way?

We brought up (Mattias) Janmark. We did the deal for (Klim) Kostin. We’ve brought up Broberg. Somebody might say you’re not doing anything. Well, we are making changes. But the reality is, in my opinion, (a trade) is not going to be any impact.

Last year, halfway through the year, we got in a situation where we got Evander Kane. He scored 22 goals in his last 43 games.

And those were extenuating circumstances.

Yes, exactly. That’s not an everyday occurrence.

So, when I look at these other teams … we’ve got to dig in. Again, I believe we’re doing things better. I think we’re playing tighter. I thought the other night our guys really dug in. They didn’t quit on the Island. We’ve got to stick with it. We got to there are no magic pills.

We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing, in the sense of we’ve got to keep playing tight defensively. We’ve got to keep competing. Certainly, special teams are important. We’ve been better on the penalty kill. I believe, when we get a win or two, that we’ll start to you know get some good vibes. For right now, the guys are digging in.

Darnell Nurse and Connor McDavid said the other night that there’s room to grow defensively. How do you feel about that?

Well, we’re 29th in goals against (per game). We’ve done lots of good things, but we’ve got to tighten up defensively. The coaches are working on it. I thought we did a good job on the Island. I thought we had a real tight game against L.A. I thought New Jersey the other night was really tight. Certainly, there was a fluky play on the puck handle by Stu (Skinner). We’re playing a lot tighter than we were early in the year. We were giving up lots more grade-As early in the year.

We’ll see. Tomorrow’s another test, another game. I’ve got to watch and keep watching me. I don’t really have a crystal ball. I’ve just gotta keep watching.

As a former goaltender, do you empathize with what Jack Campbell has through early in the season? I know he’s worked pretty hard to get out of this. Do you think he can get out of it?

Quite often when you when a player signs a big contract, and there’s big expectations, you feel pressure to live up to the contract and the expectations when you really start to learn that you’ve just got to do what you do (best).

I thought he played really good the other night on the Island. Again, we’re playing tighter. Earlier in the year, we were giving up lots of grade-As and it was 5-4 and 6-5. I’m sure the Dallas game he’d like to have back and a goal here and there.

I believe he’s digging in and I believe he’s going to be fine. I believe we’re going to have good goaltending. Coming into the season, there was big pressure. He puts pressure on himself to live up to the expectations. He’s just got to learn how to deal with it on a day-to-day basis.

Jack Campbell (Kim Klement / USA Today)

You’ve been in Edmonton long enough to know there’s a lot of angst right now. It doesn’t sound like you’re pushing the panic button. Do you see some signs from your team that things are going to be OK?

Yeah. I do. But I also understand that an NHL season for most teams is a roller-coaster ride. There’s no hockey store. Every time you have an injury, you can’t go out and make a trade. Everybody’s got injuries. Just look around the league. You look at the players that Washington’s got out and these other teams have got out – certainly Toronto on defence. There are some small deals around the league, some little deals. There are no major deals around the league. The adversity that you’ve got to deal with, you got to deal with – for the most part – internally.

Again, I believe that our team is competing hard. I believe we’re doing lots of good things. We’ll see. There’s 62 games to go. But certainly, I understand – I think we all understand – the next 10 to 15 games, you can’t let things get away on you. You can’t wake up after Christmas and be six or eight points out of the playoffs. As long as you can move with the pack, we feel we’re OK. We’d like to think that middle of February till middle of March and that timeframe, we’ll get Evander Kane (back). Now, he won’t have played for a long time, so it’s not like he’s going to come back (to form) the first game,

It’s time for us to build something – how we’ve got to play to win. Obviously, it’s been tough last 10 games.

Nurse said he doesn’t feel like the sky is falling and you guys have been through something worse last season …

I don’t know that I want to sit around and wait until the middle of January and think we’re going to go 26-9-3 (record under Jay Woodcroft) or something. We played at a high level, but there was also a lot of things that also factored into that.

(Starting) tomorrow, we play five games in eight days. You want to be in the positive. You want to win more than you lose. Over the long haul, you start to stay with the group and move with the group (of teams in the standings). We had a great first 10 games, 7-3. We have given it back the last 10 games by going 3-7. It seems you were probably two points out of the playoffs, but (there are) 62 games to go.

I’m watching the games, I don’t feel like we’re getting outplayed. I thought the game was pretty even on the Island. I thought the game was pretty even in New Jersey. I thought the game was pretty even against Vegas. I thought the game was pretty even against the L.A. Kings. It’s not like they’re swirling around our zone and it looks hopeless. The games look pretty even. We’ve got to figure out a way to be on the right side of pretty even instead of on the downside of pretty even. That comes to different things. Sometimes, it’s your power play. Sometimes, it’s your goaltender. Sometimes, it’s your stars. Sometimes, it’s your depth players to find a way to win a game.

A lot of the games have been pretty even. I’m talking about scoring chances and end-zone time. We probably won a couple of (extra) games in the first 10. Maybe we weren’t a 7-3 team. It all evens out over 82 games.

The reality is, for me, there are no mega trades on the horizon. We’re 20 games in. Most teams, if not all the teams, are still trying to make the playoffs. It’s not like there’s a hockey store, (like) there’s this independent group out there where you can go find a player to have on your team. The player the fans are talking about has to come from another team. And then you’ve got to pay assets to that team. But you’ve also got to find teams that are wanting to give up in their year. We’re not even into December. Nobody’s given up. Everybody feels that they can go 4-1 in the next five and they’re back in it. It’s got to be done internally.

Will I talk to some teams here the next few days? Yeah. But I’m going to talk to teams that are struggling, because teams that are going good, they’re not looking to do anything. They’re happy with their team. They like where they’re at. They like the group. They’re not making any changes to their team. It’s got to be teams that are struggling. Then, on top of that, you factor in the money that we’re talking about is going to be back on the roster, one or two months before the season the season’s over, with Kane.

(Top photo: Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)


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