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Holland working to feel at home with Oilers

New Edmonton GM using offseason to forge relationships with Tippett, players

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- This was home for Ken Holland. Well, it still is, for the moment.

Before the Edmonton Oilers hired him as general manager May 7, he was GM of the Detroit Red Wings for 22 years and part of the front office for 12 years before that. His house is about two miles from USA Hockey Arena. When he would scout the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, he could leave 10 minutes before a 7 p.m. game and make puck drop.

So he has been a familiar face during the World Junior Summer Showcase here this week. Fans have come up for autographs and photos. Friends have stopped by to say hi, like Kris Draper -- the former Red Wings center who became assistant to the GM in Detroit, first to Holland, now to Steve Yzerman -- who gave him a passing pat on the arm during a media interview.

"Certainly it's a little bit different, but every day that goes by, I'm more and more comfortable," said Holland, who stepped aside for Yzerman and became senior vice president of the Red Wings on April 19, then left for the Oilers. "I was so fortunate to work for the same team for a long time, but it was time, and I'm excited about the new opportunity."

Video: Holland on Neal acquisition, first season with Oilers

Holland will put his house up for sale by the end of August and transition his home to Edmonton. He has been transitioning his new team by hiring coach Dave Tippett; parting with defenseman Andrej Sekera and forwards Milan Lucic, Ty Rattie and Tobias Rieder; and adding goalie Mike Smith, center Markus Granlund and forwards Josh Archibald, Tomas Jurco, Joakim Nygard and James Neal.

In Detroit, Holland worked with different types of coaches, inheriting Scotty Bowman, who already was in the Hockey Hall of Fame; giving Dave Lewis his first NHL job; hiring Mike Babcock, who had led the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to the 2003 Stanley Cup Final; and giving Jeff Blashill his first NHL job. Each depended on the circumstances at the time.

This time, Holland wanted an experienced coach. Tippett had played 721 NHL games and coached 1,114. He had a more offensive team with the Dallas Stars from 2002-09 and a more defensive team with the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes from 2009-17. The Oilers have missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs 12 times in 13 seasons but have top-end talent in center Connor McDavid and forward Leon Draisaitl.

"When I went through the process, I felt that it was important to put somebody behind the bench that had been there and had been in different situations," Holland said. "Everybody I talked to talked about [Tippett's] ability to build relationships."

Holland and Tippett started to get to know each other after the 2019 NHL Draft ended June 22, hunkering down for 12 hours a day for eight days leading up to free agency July 1.

Video: Holland on NHL Draft, adjusting to new organization

"He's a people person," Holland said. "But he knows what he likes and he knows what he wants, and I like all that. I look forward to working with him. Hopefully we can build a relationship and do it for a lot of years."

In terms of personnel, Holland wanted to give Edmonton a different look by improving its skating, scoring depth and internal competition. 

"The coach has got some clout," Holland said. "If you don't play tonight, then somebody else goes in."

Archibald, Granlund, Jurco, Nygard and Smith are on one-year contracts by design, giving the Oilers flexibility.

Neal is signed for four more seasons. After scoring between 21 and 40 goals for 10 consecutive seasons, he scored seven goals in 63 games for the Calgary Flames last season. His shooting percentage was an NHL career-low 5.0. The Oilers think he had an off season and playing with centers like McDavid, Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins should help.

"They can all score, but they can make plays, and if he gets open, they'll find him," Holland said of Neal. "And he's shown historically he's got the ability to put the puck in the net."

Tippett has been talking to players this offseason and will travel to meet with some this month. In the meantime, Holland will work on restricted free agent forward Jesse Puljujarvi, the No. 4 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, who has 37 points (17 goals, 20 assists) in 139 NHL games.

"He feels frustrated in what's gone in in Edmonton," Holland said. "Obviously there's three things: Can you talk him into coming back? Does he want to play in Europe? Or trade him? So I've got to settle that situation by the end of August. … I don't want to box myself into any situation, but I've got to find out what I think is going to be the best solution."

Once Holland moves to Edmonton and the Oilers open training camp in September, he and Tippett will have to figure out where everyone fits after McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins. It's not only a fresh start for them, it's a fresh start for everyone.

"They had a tough year," Holland said of the Oilers, who finished 14th in the Western Conference last season. "That's why [Tippett] and I are there. So obviously some … spots are locked down, but there's lots of unknowns. We're just trying to create competition."

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