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TALKING POINTS: Holland ahead of Oilers season opener

Ken Holland spoke about the Oilers roster heading into the 2019-20 season, the development of the team's prospects and more

by Staff /

EDMONTON, AB - Oilers President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Ken Holland held a media availability on Tuesday ahead of Edmonton's season opener on Wednesday.

Read Holland's full comments from the scrum below.

Q: Where do you think you're at going into your very first game here, in terms of the big picture? And where do you think you're at in the picture presently? More specifically, Connor McDavid's window to win.

A: I think McDavid's window is going to go into his mid-30s, so it's a big window. I'm excited going into tomorrow night. In the first game of the year, there's always excitement, optimism, anticipation for where we are. I think that we're pretty pleased with Training Camp. 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. 

Sam Gagner, he's an NHL player. We made a decision to put him on waivers. He cleared and he's going to go to Bakersfield to start. Tough decisions are always good decisions. I think in pre-season, most of the roster is half NHL, half American League. Pre-season can be deceiving. I think you got to get into the regular season starting tomorrow night to really evaluate our players and where we're at. But I know that our guys are excited. I'm excited. The coaching staff excited to get going here seeing how we stack up.

Video: RAW | Ken Holland 10.01.19

Q: Was there any problem convincing yourself to do what you normally do in terms of sending players down to the AHL to develop?

A: A week ago we sent down some players that I think are going to really impact this franchise down the road. (Evan) Bouchard, (Dmitri) Samorukov, (Tyler) Benson, (Kailer) Yamamoto, (Ryan) McLeod. I wanted them to get down there, find a place to live, get ready for their season on Friday night. We need those players to develop into NHL players. 

We went out and signed this summer, a lot of players that are 24-28 years of age. I'm going to call them 'pros.' Whether they've played pro in Europe or played pro in North America, they're pros. They're seasoned veterans and we thought - when I say 'we' I mean, (Dave) Tippett, the coaches, Keith Gretzky, Scott Howson, the people on the management staff - that we wanted to get more pros on the bottom part of the roster. 

We wanted to bring some different dimensions: penalty killers, some speed. We think we've done that but the real test, obviously, starts tomorrow night with Vancouver. And it's one game and when the game is over, you'll assess. It's an 82-game marathon. Win or lose, we'll assess Thursday morning, make some adjustments and get at it on Saturday night. But I think, obviously, we'll have a better feeling 10 to 15 games in what we've got. Certainly, we know that we got to get off to a decent start. We want to be in the hunt. If you fall too far behind - St. Louis last year made a comeback - but I think if you fall too far behind, it's a real uphill battle when you get to the second half of the season.

Q: Anybody ask you to investigate trading for any other players?

A: Yeah, that's what goes on this time of the year. The needs that I think we need, I don't think those types of players were necessarily available. Most teams are looking for a top-six forward. Most teams would like another top-four defenceman. Certainly, we'd like to have both of those. And then we're auditioning for a third line centre. We signed Riley Sheahan, you've got (Colby) Cave, you've got (Gaëtan) Haas. We'll see how that sorts out. I know Tipp is going to, as the games and season wear on, going to move people around and find solutions but those types of players that I've talked about aren't necessarily out there. Teams are keeping those players.

Q: Ken, you've talked about it taking time to build. Fans have been told to be patient here for a long time.

A: What I've said from Day 1 is that our goal is to compete for a playoff spot. We've got a nucleus of players that we need to surround better. In the short term, on the one-year look, on the '19-20 look, our goal is to put some veteran players on the bottom part of the roster and compete for a playoff spot. 

On the longer look, while that's going on, we need to develop players at the American League level or players that we own - whether it's (Raphael) Lavoie in Halifax or (Philip) Broberg in Sweden - those people on the longer-term look need to be part of the solution. I'm not talking rebuild. I'm talking about we got to compete for a playoff spot. Did we make the right moves? Certainly, the answer is in the 82-game season. But as we speak here today, what I'm going to tell you is 31 teams in the League feel their leaving Camp and have a chance to compete for a playoff spot. If not 31, 26 or 27 (teams) and we'd be one in the 26 or 27. Lots have got to go right. 

Certainly, as you go along, injuries are going to be a factor. How many injuries? Who's injured? How long are they out? Are they hurt? All those things are going to be factors. They test your depth but I think as we sit here today, I want to get off to a good start. I want to be in the race. 

When the calendar turns into March, somewhere along the lines you've got to win big games. But you've got to position yourself with those big games and big wins meaning something. We need to play really good over the first 60-65 games. Or be in the race and then in the month of March, you've got to win big games. And if you want to win a playoff series in April, you've got to win big games. And if you want to go to the second round, you got to win big games in April and May. 

Certainly, the goal here is to be in the playoffs, to compete for playoffs but it's October. I'm going to worry about the playoffs in March. We got to put ourselves in that position. It's all talk. We've got to worry about tomorrow night's game, then Saturday's game, then Tuesday's game. If we take care of business, we'll put ourselves in that position.

Q: Ken, what have you seen from your goaltenders that makes you believe they can give you good enough goaltending to compete and be in the run by March?

A: I think they're NHL goaltenders. We look at them as being 1A and 1B. Both 40-game goalies. I don't think they're both going to play 40. One's going to play 50, one's going to play 30. One's going to play 45, one's going to play 35. They're going to sort it out by how they play. 

If you're going to be a playoff team, goaltending has to be a positive factor for that to happen. I wasn't here last year. I think there was a stretch, if I'm not mistaken, where (Mikko) Koskinen played early in the year. He won a bunch of games and his save percentage was good. We got two guys that we can go to. 

Mike Smith has had a great career. He's an older guy but he's motivated. He's hungry, he's in great shape. He's been a guy that prides himself on being in tremendous shape throughout his career. Those types of players can defy Father Time a little bit longer than the players that aren't as committed in the gym and in their decisions with what they eat. He's a competitive guy. Mike Smith has a real ability to handle the puck. I think that will help our defence when he's in the lineup. I'm hoping that there's internal competition between those two guys that will push one another and the team is going to be the benefactor.

Video: RAW | Dave Tippett 10.01.19

Q: You were at the finish line of your career last year. Now, you're at the starting line. Can you describe the emotions and feelings involved with that?

A: I think the media thought I was at the finish line but I didn't think that. I felt I was at the finish line in Detroit. I felt that it was time for a change and certainly, in working behind the scenes with Chris Ilitch and Steve (Yzerman) for the transition, it became obvious to me very quickly. 

After the transition I went to the World Under-18s with Steve Yzerman. We were watching the World Under-18s and my juices were flowing while analyzing players. When this opportunity came up, it got me very, very excited. A passionate fan base, a core of great players. I was aware of some of the players. We had watched Bouchard in Detroit since we were picking high that year. Samorukov played in Guelph. I knew that this team had some really good young players, especially on defence. 

In talking to Bob Nicholson as we ultimately worked our way towards them making me an offer and accepting it, I'm excited. I think I'm blessed. I got lots of energy. A ton of passion. A lot of experience and 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. But certainly, want to build it into something better than that over the bigger window.

Q: How do you feel about the identity of this team and work ethic that you've seen?

A: Somebody asked me yesterday about culture. Culture isn't something that I pack into a suitcase and I put into the trunk of my car and drive it from Detroit with me or fly on the plane to Edmonton. You've got to build it. We got to build it. Build the team and believe in one another. Build a team that has some depth and some different dimensions. That's what we tried to do this summer. We wanted to get some speed and I think we signed some players like (Josh) Archibald has got speed, (Joakim) Nygard's got speed, Haas can skate, (Tomas) Jurco can skate. Sheahan's got some size, (Markus) Granlund's scored in the past in Vancouver and Calgary. So, we brought in different dimensions. Now, it's up to the coaching staff and players to find that identity. Good teams compete hard every night. We got to compete hard every night.

Q: Any updates on Jesse Puljujarvi?

A: I talked to a couple of teams in the last couple of weeks but I think most teams are focused on the opening day roster with what they had in Training Camp.

Q: Does Gagner going to the minors eat up ice time for prospects?

A: When you're building an American League team, you have to have some veteran players down there. They are important in being the role models, mentors and helping those young kids develop. I talked to Sam about the Detroit days when Dan Cleary went down to Grand Rapids and how much he enjoyed that experience. It's now led to him being a Player Development person for the Detroit Red Wings. We need him to go down there with a great attitude and work hard. I think you're going to need 15, 16, 17 forwards. You're going to need eight or nine D. You're going to have injuries. You're going to have people that don't play at the level you want them to play and have to make changes.

I told him to go down, play well and we're going to be watching. When you coach the American League team, there's a fine line between developing and winning. But it's important to have a winning environment for your young kids - a positive environment - to develop. They've got to be given opportunity but they've got to be challenged. I'm not big on - just because someone has potential - handing them the power play or ice time. They got to push. They got to take someone's job. That's what pro hockey's about. It's about competition. 

Video: RAW | Zack Kassian 10.01.19

Q: Did you and Dave talk about chunks of the season and how long they will be until you make a change? How long do you let this group come together?

A: I think that's my 22 years of experience as a manager and Dave's 1,200 games behind the bench. There is no blueprint. There is no manual. You go on experience. I thought it was important to hire somebody that had been behind a bench. We'll make decisions based upon the information. We'll watch the game tomorrow night, then there are always adjustments. If you're not making adjustments, you're on a nice winning streak. I think that you look at the standings and you look at your team and what's going on, and you make decisions on an everyday basis based upon the information you've got at hand.

Q: Would you call up older players rather than prospects?

A: Probably. I think with the young players, I'd like to get at least until Christmas. Maybe the entire year. I put Dylan Larkin on the Red Wings at 19. Is the player that we're talking about a player that we think is going to be a top-six forward here? Is he better off in a top-six position in Bakersfield on the power play playing 18 minutes or do you bring him up here at the age of 20 and say, 'OK, learn to check.' 

I think it depends on where you project that player to be. That's why sometimes when you're in the American League and a player goes up, they don't understand. You're not coming up to be on the power play in the National Hockey League. You're coming up to be in defensive situations. It's a different player. Every player is a little bit different but for the most part, I want those young players to be important and develop into NHL players that are going to help us win.

Q: What did you tell those prospects?

A: I told them that we're making a decision. They got to go to the American League and we want them to be important. There are areas of their game, and I told each individual what area of the game we think they need to improve upon to be an Oiler. Keith Gretzky, he and I would have the talk. Keith's job is to work very closely with Jay Woodcroft and report to me on what's going on there on an everyday basis. I'm going to try to get down to Bakersfield once every six or seven weeks to watch two or three games. Bill Scott's going to go down once every five or six weeks. Keith Gretzky's going to be down there on a regular basis. So, we're going to be aware of what's going on down there. How they're playing and how they're developing.

Some questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

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