Big win from Edmonton Oilers was Ken Holland's top achievement, so far at least

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There is no shortage of critics of Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland. There is plenty of fair criticism of some of Holland’s moves.

The Andreas Athanasiou trade, the Zack Kassian contract and the Jack Campbell signing come to mind, with the mega-deal signing of Darnell Nurse also looking mighty iffy just now, thought Nurse may still prove his worth.

There’s no denying, however, that Edmonton’s 2024 playoff run — with particular emphasis on Edmonton’s 8-1 thrashing of the Florida Panthers in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final — has been Holland’s biggest achievement so far as Oilers GM. He took a team that was out of the playoffs two years running in 2019 and has helped lift it to final round of the NHL playoffs. Many of his most controversial moves have helped lead the way.

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For example, there’s been an outcry for years in some corners of Oilers fandom about the team drafting Philip Broberg 8th overall in 2019 and, to a lesser extent, about selecting Dylan Holloway 14th overall in 2020.

The talk that Edmonton screwed up by not drafting Trevor Zegras over Broberg has been at high boil for years, though it’s only simmering now that Broberg has stepped up in these playoffs and Zegras appears to be on the outs in Anaheim. Many fans still wish the Oilers had selected Cole Caulfield or Matthew Boldy over Broberg in 2019, or Dawson Mercer over Holloway in 2020.

That’s fair enough.

But when such criticism has come up over the years, I’ve refrained from joining in, mainly because it was apparent that big, fast and skilled Broberg and Holloway still had all the tools to make it as big-time NHLers and were coming along, despite both of them having to deal with injury issues.

Holland’s Oilers took Broberg and Holloway because they projected them to be players with the necessary attributes (large frames, excellent skating and good skill) that could help a team win in the playoffs. Both of them have done just that in the 2024 playoffs, Broberg defending and moving the puck well and providing a useful partner to struggling Darnell Nurse, Holloway working his way from the press box to the top lines and scoring some huge goals.

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Holland’s fingers are all over the signing of playoff star Zach Hyman and the trade for stalwart Mattias Ekholm. Those moves were never controversial. Almost everyone in Edmonton welcomed them from the moment they happened. Nonetheless, they represent major successes for Holland.

There was an anguished public outcry when Holland signed up controversial Evander Kane, but Kane has repeatedly come through for the Oilers, including in the 2024 playoffs. His physical menace was a key in beating first the Los Angeles Kings, then the Vancouver Canucks. Kane took on and eventually got the best of Van’s Apex Predator, Nikita Zadorov. Kane was too banged up to play in Game 4 of the Final, but this series isn’t over.

Three stars of Game 4 were on the same line, Adam Henrique, Connor Brown and Mattias Janmark. There’s been plenty of complaining about Holland over-paying for Henrique, signing a dud for big money in Brown, and Edmonton’s continuing to see Janmark as a useful NHLer. But all three have been key pieces of Edmonton’s playoff success, Janmark especially leading the way in terms of intensity and checking, setting a high standard for everyone on the team.

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Some folks will grouse that Holland failed to bring in a right shot d-man like Chris Tanev this trade deadline and that he overpaid for Henrique, but Tanev decided his own fate, choosing Dallas. There was little Holland could do about that. I will also suggest the last part of the price for Henrique was fully paid off with the centre’s critical goal in Game 4.

Another controversial Holland acquisition, Warren Foegele, had a strong regular season but was mediocre in the playoffs until the Stanley Cup Final. He’s now stepped up and played his best hockey, as has Holland trade acquisition Brett Kulak. Kulak has quietly done his job for three playoff seasons running.

Holland’s contract with the Oilers is up this summer. He may decide to retire or move on. I’d not clear there’s a role for him in hockey boss Jeff Jackson’s upper management.

If he does go, Holland will leave the team in much better shape than he found it, with an exceptional core group, some rising young talent in Evan Bouchard, Stuart Skinner, Ryan McLeod, Holloway and Broberg, and the prospect of signing up Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid long-term.

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Well done, Ken Holland.

Of course, the Stanley Cup Final is not over. Holland’s Oilers may yet make NHL history with a miracle rebound in the series. It’s highly unlikely.  But whatever comes, the Stanley Cup run of 2024 indicates that, all told, Ken Holland got more right than wrong in Edmonton, which was always his goal.

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