Progress, yes, but an inability to defend a lead against a playoff-savvy team ousted the Edmonton Oilers early from Stanley Cup contention.General manager Ken Holland pointed to statistical categories in which the Oilers improved in his first season at the helm in 2019-20.But the GM was "massively disappointed" to fall to the Chicago Blackhawks in four games in a best-of-five qualifier."We know that we've got a lot further that we want to go, that we need to go in order to be a team that can really compete for the Stanley Cup," Holland said Tuesday on a video conference call with media.Fifth in the Western Conference at 37-25-9 when the NHL halted the season March 12 because of the advancing COVID-19 pandemic, the Oilers were poised to make post-season strides after two years of playoff-free hockey.The Blackhawks (32-30-8) arrived in Edmonton the NHL's 23rd seed out of 24. Chicago has enough Stanley Cup winners — a half-dozen own at least two rings if not three — to rise to the occasion, however.Edmonton led by a goal every game against Chicago, but often couldn't hold it. The hub-city hosts struck first in Game 1 before giving up four goals to the Blackhawks.Up 3-2 early in the third period of Game 3, the Oilers allowed two late goals in a loss. Tied 2-2 heading into the third in Game 4, Chicago produced the series winner to close it out Friday."I thought in Game 1 we weren't ready to play," Holland said. "I thought that was a veteran team in the other locker room and they were up four-one 10 minutes into the game."They knew the playoff series started when the puck dropped. It looked to me like we were going to try to wait into the series. "Every game we had a one-goal lead, but when we got those leads, we didn't hang on to them for any longer than three, four, five minutes."Edmonton got the necessary production out of its stars.Captain Connor McDavid led all scorers in the NHL's restart with five goals and four assists, including a hat trick in a Game 2 win.Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Leon Draisaitl combined for 14 points between them. But Edmonton allowed an average of four goals against in the series."You've got to be able to defend. You can't just outscore your opponents," Holland said."I don't think that's totally a reflection on the defenceman. I think it's a reflection of the commitment of the entire team to keeping the puck out of the nets."The Oilers climbed from 25th in the NHL in 2019 to 12th this year due in large part to improved special teams. Edmonton boasted the league's No. 1 power play and No. 2 penalty kill units.Winner of four Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings — three as GM — Holland says the Oilers must make the playoffs more consistently."We can't fall back," he said. "The good teams find a way to play their way into the playoffs every year."With multiple opportunities, somewhere along the line, you start to piece it all together. That's what happened in Detroit. If we go out next year and go backwards, the progress is all for naught."The GM gave head coach Dave Tippett a stamp of approval in the latter's first season behind the Oilers bench."I think he was a big piece of the progress," Holland said. "He keeps everybody feeling they've got stock in the company and that's really important as a head coach."Defenceman Adam Larsson sat out the third and fourth games of the series because he injured his back in practice. Forward Tyler Ennis fractured his leg in Game 3 and didn't play the fourth.Goaltender Mike Smith is an unrestricted free agent as are defenceman Mike Green, who opted out of the NHL's restart, trade-deadline pickup Ennis, forwards Riley Sheahan and Russell Patrick.Utility forward and trade-deadline acquisition Andreas Athanasiou and defenders Matthew Benning and Ethan Bear are restricted free agents."We're salary-capped challenged, but there's probably 20 like us," Holland said. "Trades are going to have to be similar money for similar money if there is a trade."With the cap being flat and it looks like it's going to be flat for the next two, three years, certainly, lots of teams are going to be looking for cheaper support players."This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 11, 2020.Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press
After a disappointing end to the Edmonton Oilers' season, general manager Ken Holland said he hopes the loss to Chicago will fuel future success.The Oilers improved to 12th place in the overall NHL standings compared to 25th last year, but lost their qualifying round series to the veteran-led Chicago Blackhawks in four games.Holland said the team improved in several areas, such as special teams, scoring and goals against, before the season was suspended in March due to COVID-19.Given those improvements, Holland said, the team had higher expectations heading into the qualifying round."Obviously, (we're) massively disappointed that we weren't able to win the series with Chicago and advance further," he said. "I know that we've got some things that we need to accomplish over the course of the summer to take another step."Players met with Holland and team officials for exit interviews on Saturday before leaving the playoff bubble.Holland said the defence improved this season but needs to get even better, and the team needs more production from depth forwards to help out superstars Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid.The team will try to build while keeping the core intact, he said. The Oilers face some tough decisions on whether to re-sign restricted free agents like Andreas Athanasiou and Matt Benning, while unrestricted free agents Mike Smith and Mike Green are expected to hit the market after the playoffs end.For now, Holland said he doesn't expect to see many moves across the league. "It's a normal May or late April after you've lost in the first round of the playoffs," he said. "It's a time to evaluate and decide what direction we're going to go."As general manager of the Detroit Red Wings for more than 20 years, Holland helped the team win four Stanley Cups. It was the many disappointments along the way, he said, that inspired those teams to later find success.He had hoped that would have happened after the Oilers' made the second round of the playoffs in 2017. Instead, the team missed the playoffs the next two seasons. For this year's progress to matter, he said, the Oilers will have to make another run at the playoffs next year."The good teams find a way to play their way into the playoffs every year," he said. "And then with multiple opportunities, somewhere along the line you start to piece it all together."
This season's Stanley Cup playoffs create a chance for young stars-in-the-making to shine on center stage.