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'Key building blocks are here': Ken Holland aims to provide stability to Oilers

Ken Holland's passion for hockey and plan to build a winning team convinced Bob Nicholson, CEO and vice-chair of Oilers Entertainment Group, why the former Detroit Red Wings executive was needed in Edmonton.

New GM, former Red Wings exec joins team with 1 playoff berth in past 13 years

Newly named Oilers general manager Ken Holland his hopeful the team is part of the NHL playoff conversation as early as next spring. "It's about trying to make the playoffs year after year after year, and then go on some playoff runs," he says. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Ken Holland's passion for hockey and plan to build a winning team convinced Bob Nicholson, CEO and vice-chair of Oilers Entertainment Group, why the former Red Wings executive was needed in Edmonton.

The architect of three Stanley Cup titles in Detroit, Holland was named the 10th general manager in Oilers history and president of hockey operations on Tuesday following the firing of Peter Chiarelli in January.

The addition of Holland, Nicholson told reporters at a 45-minute news conference, is a "perfect step for us to move forward in a positive way."

Holland, 63, spent the past 36 years with the Red Wings and recalled having a $80 million US payroll in Detroit before NHL commissioner Gary Bettman cancelled the 2004-05 season and negotiated a hard salary cap with the players' union. Holland returned for the 2005-06 campaign with a $39 million payroll and was forced to "find some pieces" to complement star forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

WATCH | Ken Holland introduced as new GM of Oilers:

Ken Holland is named the 10th general manager in Oilers history and president of hockey operations. 3:13

"That core is here [in Edmonton]. The key building blocks are here," said Holland, referring to superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl along with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the only forwards on the team to reach the 40-point mark this past season. "I have to go out and support that core, find a coach, provide stability and build a program that our fan base is excited about."

Hitchcock out as head coach

Holland said Ken Hitchcock, who came out of retirement in late November to replace fired head coach Todd McLellan, would not return to the bench and naming his successor is priority No. 1.

Current Red Wings assistant coach Dan Bylsma, ex-Philadelphia Flyers assistant coach Kris Knoblauch (he coached McDavid in the Ontario Hockey League) and former Oilers interim head coach Todd Nelson — who also spent three seasons with Detroit's AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids, Mich. — are some of the names linked to Edmonton.

An initial 8-2-1 surge under Hitchcock was followed by a few weeks of poor play, with Edmonton going 18-26-7 the rest of the way to finish 11 points out of a playoff spot at 35-38-9.

Holland, who has known Hitchcock since the early 1990s, noted it's time for him to make change in Edmonton and build a relationship with a new bench boss.

Keith Gretzky wanted by Oilers

Holland, who has complete autonomy to hire and fire at will, said he would examine the Oilers defence and noted the team could use another goaltender behind starter Mikko Koskinen and Anthony Stolarz. 

Less than 36 hours before his firing, Chiarelli signed the rookie Koskinen to a three-year, $13.5-million deal and he posted a 2.93 goals-against average and .906 save percentage in 55 games. Stolarz was acquired on Feb. 16 from Philadelphia by interim GM Keith Gretzky and had a 3.77 GAA and .897 save percentage in six games for Edmonton.

Holland, who had not spoken with the 52-year-old Gretzky before Tuesday's news conference, said he would like keep the former director of scouting with the Boston Bruins and Arizona Coyotes in the organization.

Providing stability to a team is how Holland described his management style and he's hopeful the Oilers can be part of the post-season conversation as early as next spring.

I believe in player development. ... If you put young players in the [NHL] too quick, [they're] more likely to fail than succeed.— New Oilers GM Ken Holland

"It's about trying to make the playoffs year after year after year, and then go on some playoff runs. That's where you need building blocks," said Holland. "We have to build around that core [group]."

Holland will travel to California on Wednesday to watch the Oilers' American Hockey League affiliate, the Bakersfield Condors, play their Round 2 playoff series against San Diego.

"I was at the world junior [hockey championship in December] and scouting for the Red Wings during the season so I've seen some of the young players the Oilers have in their system and there's some good, young players [like defenceman Evan Bouchard].

"I believe in player development, time in the minors. If you put young players in the [NHL] too quick, [they're] more likely to fail than succeed."

Oilers defence prospect Evan Bouchard, left, played seven NHL games earlier this season after being drafted 10th overall last summer and is one of club's younger players that newly named GM Ken Holland is excited about. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

'Restless'

Holland last guided Detroit to a Cup title in 2008, watching the team lose in the Cup final the next year and fail to reach the conference finals since. In each of the last three years, the Red Wings have missed the playoffs.

Recently, Holland shifted roles to senior vice president and signed a multi-year contract when former Red Wings player and executive Steve Yzerman returned to the club as GM after serving in the role for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

A week into his new job, Holland was attending the world under-18 championship in Sweden with Kris Draper, Yzerman and other Red Wings' staff when he became "restless" and yearned to return to a GM's role.

Chance to make impact

"I realized that I have the passion, the energy, the enthusiasm [and] desire to continue to be a general manager in the National Hockey League," said Holland in describing an "emotional" past two weeks.

Nicholson reached out to Holland upon the latter's return to North America and lured him to Edmonton on a reported five-year deal worth $5 million per season.

Holland, who worked 22 seasons as Red Wings GM, believed he would remain with the organization until retirement after accepting his new role, and looked forward to working with Yzerman.

"I think about the players [in Edmonton], the franchise, the fan base [and] I think there's an opportunity for me to try to make a positive impact," he explained. "I have the responsibility to build that culture, to find ways to make the team a little bit better for [next] season, get in the playoffs and keep growing and building."

That Holland has family in Calgary and a connection to junior hockey in Alberta — he was a goalie for the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League in the mid-1970s — made the Oilers job more appealing, as did his strong working relationship with Nicholson.

"It was a natural fit for me. I'm very, very excited," said Holland, who was born in Vernon, B.C., and makes his off-season home in Kelowna. "I have a daughter who lives in Calgary, my wife [Cindi] has a sister and brother living in Calgary and three sisters and her dad who live in Medicine Hat. The Prairies are home for us."

About the Author

Doug Harrison has covered the professional and amateur scene as a senior writer for CBC Sports since 2003. Previously, the Burlington, Ont., native covered the NHL and other leagues for Faceoff.com. Follow the award-winning journalist @harrisoncbc

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