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SIGHTS SET ON STABILITY

BY PAUL GAZZOLA

Ken Holland envisioned being a Detroit Red Wing his whole life.

He did, after all, join the organization as a western Canada scout in 1985 and never looked back.

He targeted potential draft picks as Detroit's amateur director of scouting, watched their development as assistant general manager then - when named the Original Six franchise's GM in 1997 - aimed for Lord Stanley's Cup.

Over his 36 years with the Red Wings organization, he saw it all: 16 NHL Division Championships, six Presidents' Trophies and not one, two or three, but four Stanley Cup championships.

Under Holland's gaze, The Motor City maintained consistent success.

Now, the Oilers General Manager eyes replicating it in Oil Country.

"When I think about the Edmonton Oilers and the players here, this franchise and the fan base, I just think there's an opportunity here for me to try to make a real positive impact," Holland, sitting in the Oilers Hall of Fame Room on May 7, said.

The decision to leave was not short-sighted. Red Wings Governor, President and CEO Christopher Ilitch offered the former goaltender a presidential title with the franchise, which would have cemented his career in Michigan.

"As the process went along for me that I knew that Steve Yzerman was going to be taking over, the owners in Detroit gave me an unbelievable offer to remain with the Red Wings in a senior vice president role," Holland said.

Foreseeing the incoming changes to the Red Wings organization but urged to continue his managerial role in the NHL, Holland peered over his shoulder at the opportunity in Edmonton.

"I went over to the World Under-18 Championships with Steve, with Kris Draper, with the Red Wings. As I was over there, I realized I had the passion, the energy, the enthusiasm, the desire to continue to be a general manager in the National Hockey League," he continued.

Oilers Entertainment Group Owner and Governor Daryl Katz, seated next to Holland at the introductory press conference, lauded his new President of Hockey Operation's resume and focused approach to executing long and short-term visions. 

"When it comes to hiring someone with the experience, credibility and authority to make an immediate impact, which is what we need, nobody else comes close," Katz said.

"We didn't hire Ken just because of what he has done in the past. We hired him for what he can do for the Oilers right now and in the years ahead.  

"He knows how to build a culture of winning."

With that, the stabilization process began. Holland articulated his modus operandi in his acquaintance with the media, privy on sharing his dedication to the operation.

"We get it going by stability," he stated.

"I don't believe there's one trade and all of a sudden, things turn. It's a move at a time. It's a piece at a time. It's going down to the locker room. It's providing stability. It's knowing that we've got a plan and we're going to push forward with the plan."

Surrounded by Oilers memorabilia in the packed Hall of Fame foyer, Holland pointed to the pieces that would contribute to his strategy. Star players like Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and of course, Oilers Captain Connor McDavid. 

"I've got a core to work with. Now I've got to go out and support that core. Find a coach, provide stability and build a program here that our fan base is excited about."

Holland didn't need to squint through binoculars to see what was ahead.

With only a few months until the 2019-20 regular season, his focus turned to the Bakersfield Condors and upcoming NHL events such as the Scouting Combine, Draft and Free Agency.

But priority No. 1, before any of that, was finding the Edmonton Oilers next head coach.

Holland's search began the day he joined the Oilers. He targeted roughly 17 potential candidates, exploring prospective bench bosses that had experience and others that didn't.  

As the process continued unfolding, the number of candidates reduced. Holland continued his homework, conversing with players and managers to gauge their perspectives. His scope enhanced on one clear-cut favourite.

Then, in the same Oilers Hall of Fame Room where he was named Oilers Pres. Of Hockey Ops and GM three weeks earlier, he declared his decision.

"I'm here today to introduce the next head coach of the Edmonton Oilers, Dave Tippett," Holland announced.  

"Dave was always the leading candidate in my mind going through the process but I wanted to make sure that as I worked my way towards making a decision, that I felt comfortable that we were hiring the best man possible."

Holland and Tippett have much in common, a realization founded during the interview process. Five-hour meetings, one in San Diego when Holland was watching the Condors playoff run then another in Vancouver, showed the two hockey minds that they were looking at the game through the same lens and staring at the same goal. 

"We believe in the same things in building a hockey team," Holland said of Tippett. "You got to have some pace. You got to compete. you need some depth of scoring. The defence has got to join the rush but you can't take chances.

"We believe in the same things. That's why we're here today."

Step one of the process was complete. Holland, now, could fixate his attention to the Combine and Draft.

"Today, for me to announce Dave Tippett as the Head Coach, was a massive decision," Holland said. "As a general manager, that's probably your most important decision. I feel great about the decision…

"I feel great about the process."

From the JW Marriott Parq in Vancouver, near the city's picturesque port, Holland provided media with his outlook on the Draft.

He and his brain trust would be stepping on the podium just a day later to choose the eighth-overall selection from Rogers Arena.

Holland, with the Oilers organization for under two months, referenced his situation in Detroit and how it helped prepare him for the upcoming prospect selection pool, and how he intended to avoid deviating from his long-term goal of providing the Edmonton Oilers franchise with unwavering steadiness.

"I determine the direction and philosophy," he said. "But certainly, the first pick, the manager is really involved. Thereafter, you're really counting on your people that are out in the field to find players. It's no different in Edmonton than it was in Detroit."

Whatever decision Holland and Co. would make with their six draft picks would be for the future.

"We know we got pick eight. You cross your fingers that you get three NHL players. That's how you speed the process up," Holland said.

When Draft Day came, Rogers Arena buzzed. Fans from all teams were in attendance, waiting to watch their chosen organization add a prospect to the pipeline.

Holland, joined by colleagues Keith Gretzky, Tippett and Bob Green, made a choice intended to stabilize the Oilers defence in the coming years.

"With the eighth pick in the Draft, the Edmonton Oilers select, from AIK Sweden, Philip Broberg," Holland declared.

For the Oilers General Manager, who witnessed first-hand the fortunes a steady defence core could yield when he was with the Red Wings, the decision to take Broberg was simple given his pedigree.

"Those teams that go for long playoff runs have good defence," Holland, before a Draft backdrop, said. "Deep defence. Big defence. We're going to build a good, big and deep defence.

"That's part of the thinking in this selection."

Holland had Swedes Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall providing a calm and offensively threatening game from the blueline for years - culminating in annual playoff berths.

"We certainly believe he's going to be a top-four defenceman. That was the thought process."

Holland and his management team rounded out Day 2 of the Vancouver Draft by selecting forwards Raphael Lavoie, Matej Blumel, Tomas Mazura, Maxim Denezhkin as well as Russian goaltender Ilya Konovalov.

All of the skaters chosen would be for tomorrow. Meanwhile, Holland steered his sights to July when the NHL Free Agency period would begin.

Looking to add some secondary scoring to the team and bring in another netminder to carry the load alongside Mikko Koskinen, Holland - no stranger to the Free Agent frenzy - was prepared to file paperwork on July 1.

The general manager needed more cap space to work with before signing any deals, causing defenceman Andrej Sekera to be bought out.

Seeking more competition in the bottom forward roles, Holland, who inked Swedish forward Joakim Nygard earlier in the summer, signed several depth players to short-term deals on Day 1 of Free Agency.

Recipients of one-year contracts included former Vancouver Canuck Markus Granlund, former Red Wing Tomas Jurco and Swiss centre Gaëtan Haas, while incumbent wingers Jujhar Khaira and Alex Chiasson were re-signed.

In the blue paint, goaltender Mike Smith - Calgary's keeper for the past two seasons - went from playing with fire to burning oil, agreeing to a one-year contract with Edmonton.

"On the short-term, we want to compete for the playoffs in '19-20," Holland said after the dust settled on Canada Day.

"On the longer term, we want to try to build. Certainly, the building is going to be about some of the drafting, developing and ultimately, pushing players through the system onto your roster."

Holland, still tinkering with his player personnel, agreed to a pact with winger Josh Archibald on July 16 but made his biggest splash as Oilers GM three days later.

The President of Hockey Ops and General Manager orchestrated a trade with Flames General Manager Brad Treliving on July 19, sending Milan Lucic and a conditional third-round pick for James Neal.

"This deal was about making a change to our team," Holland said.

"We think James is a guy that's going to be in our top six. So, we're hoping that this fresh opportunity for James is going to energize him and get him excited to bounce back and be the guy that's scored 20 or more goals throughout most of his career." 

Holland's final moves of the off-season were signing veteran centre Riley Sheahan, who he drafted when he was with the Red Wings, and inviting Russian winger Anton Burdasov to Oilers Training Camp.

After a busy summer, Holland, finally, could see the fruits of his labour go to work.

With his sights set on providing a steady presence to the Oilers organization, Holland's stabilization process motioned.

Oil Country's collective brow raised ahead of 2019-20's home opener. Holland, 24 hours prior, reiterated the optics.

He glanced back at the off-season and voiced his view for the upcoming campaign. His opening roster had been set. Now he could set his scope on the season.

"In the first game of the year, there's always excitement, optimism and anticipation for where we are," Holland said.

Condors graduates Patrick Russell and Ethan Bear passed more than just the eye test, earning spots on Edmonton's 23-man roster. So too did Euros Nygard, Haas and defender Joel Persson. Jurco, the 2019 AHL Calder Cup winner, also parlayed a five-point pre-season into a position among the forward group.

"I think that we're pretty pleased with Training Camp," Holland said. 

"You always would like to have some players play a little better but I think we had some players that surprised us. We felt like we had some difficult decisions to make when we put the roster together."

Holland could continue his process. His all-seeing approach to providing another organization with the same stability he maintained for so many years previously.

"I think I'm blessed," he said. 

"My goal here is to, in the short-term, compete for a playoff spot. But I got bigger desires, designs and visions for this team than just competing for a playoff spot. You're always going to compete for a playoff spot. 

"I want to build it into something better than that over the bigger window."

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