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As the Oilers head to the playoffs, Ken Holland’s report card deserves a fresh grade: 9 Things

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The Edmonton Oilers are post-season bound for the 3rd consecutive season.

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These playoffs promise to be the closest to “normal” of the COVID-era. And I believe this is the best edition of Oilers of the last 3 years as well.

Will that combination result in a better outcome for Edmonton?

We are about to find out.

That and more in this week’s edition of…

9 Things

9. With just 4 games left, the Oilers 98 points is the 2nd highest for the franchise since 1987-88 (99) when Oilers won a cup. I wonder how that sits with the camp who wanted Ken Holland’s job and the roster new blown up? More on that in a minute or two…

8. Player agent Dan Milstein appeared on Oilers Now with Bob Stauffer this past week. Milstein represents Evander Kane, who has been great since arriving in Edmonton. Given that Connor McDavid went to bat for Kane, actively helped recruit him and by observation so enjoys playing with him, one can’t help but wonder how hard Ken Holland would work to re-sign him. Milstein described his relationship with Ken Holland as “great” and called him “one of the greatest General Managers of all time.”

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7. Few things make me nuts more than officials who think we pay admission to see them. The latest example? Versus the Av’s Friday. Referees Kelly Sutherland and Gord Dwyer gave suddenly angelic Colorado a 7-3 edge in man-advantages (off-setting minors aside). Part of the putrid parade: A phantom holding call on Ryan Nugent-Hopkinsa snooty waving off of Head Coach Jay Woodcroftand then a butt-hurt bench minor measured after they missed the hack to the hands of Connor McDavid on a break-away.

6. One of the concerns behind the scenes as the Oilers enter the playoffs is depth on Defense. The Ken Holland acquisition of Brett Kulak looms large. Not only has the smooth skating D-man made this club better. But depth past their best 7 has fallen off rapidly, making Kulak more valuable still. Slater Koekkoek is away from the club, Dmitri Samorukov and Marcus Niemelainen are both hurt. That leaves Philip Broberg as the next (and practically only other) man up if there’s an injury. That could be a problem the deeper the Oilers get into the post-season when teams often need 9-10 D-men to get by.

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5. A hail of criticism greeted Duncan Keith’s acquisition. But piece by piece, the veteran has answered many concerns. It is difficult to argue that Keith has not turned into the experienced rearguard this team needed deeper in its lineup. With him being asked to play a little less than he did in Chicago (averaging 19:46 this year versus his 24:42 career numbers) Keith is delivering one of his best performances since the 2017-18 season. Where Keith’s combined experience and ability should really have a chance to shine is in the playoffs, where he has 135 games under his belt. Questioning the acquisition cost is fair. But what if they win with him? Dos the calculus change?

4. The Oilers expect to have Darnell Nurse in the lineup for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs if not by one of the 28th or 29th home games. That’s tremendously good news. There are few things the Oilers could afford less to be in the playoffs without than their # 1 D-man and minute-muncher. Just how close Nurse will be to 100% after the lower-body injury? Your guess is as good as mine. Getting a couple games off before the playoff grind begins would otherwise have been a good thing. I also continue to maintain that people do not give Darnell Nurse enough credit for the tough matchups that he faces night-in and night-out.

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3. Since Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson were elevated from the Bakersfield bench to the Edmonton Oilers the big club has gone 23-8-3. To be entirely fair to their predecessors, Woodcroft and Manson have not had to deal with the injury and COVID issues that Dave Tippett did while the club was mired in a debilitating skid down the standings. However, with more or less the same lineup (but healthier) the Woodcroft & Manson combination has clearly enjoyed more success. I understood the interim tag when Ken Holland first brought them in. Until you know what you have, it’s not smart to lock yourself in and shut yourself off from other good options. But given the run this team has been on, it’s damn hard to gaze into any crystal ball and not see an extension coming.

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2. Mike Smith is turning back Father Time. It seems to me that Smith bristles a bit when his age is brought up. It’s largely meant as a compliment but not many people I know enjoy being told that they are “old”. However, in an era when one indistinguishable goaltender tends to fade into another in terms of style, Smith is a welcome splash of color across the hockey canvass. Yes, he sometimes elevates our blood pressure. But when he’s on, he’s swashbuckling, thrilling and effective. And down the stretch, he has managed to do the 2 things a lot of fans thought were no longer possible: Staying healthy (you can put my name down on that list, at 40 you just don’t know) and stopping pucks. Smith has at least a .919 SV% in all his last 7 starts and has won 9 of his last 10. Not long ago, I wrote that it’s rare for any team to win in the playoffs with a tandem. That’s no longer an issue in Edmonton, where Smith has clearly emerged as the # 1. And that’s no disrespect to Mikko Koskinenwho has been very good in 3 of his last 5.

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1.Is Ken Holland owed an apology? He has faced more heat in this city this year than perhaps in his entire Hockey Hall of Fame career. Still, I highly doubt he’s looking for one. Mr. Holland has been around a long time. You don’t get to be an NHL General Manager with a career like his without having thick skin. But it also requires a high degree of confidence. That doesn’t mean you think every decision you make is the right one. It’s usually quite the opposite, in fact. In my experience, an appropriate level of confidence allows you to strike out occasionally while swinging for something bigger and greater. Then, it becomes all about success rate while avoiding paralysis of analysis. That same confidence also can allow you to be patient when times are tough. The trick is to not lose your head in those situations while those around you are losing theirs. So, what has that confidence reaped?

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A list:

Zach Hyman is having a career year.
-As mentioned a few paragraphs back, 38-year-old Duncan Keith is having perhaps his best campaign in 5 years.
Warren Foegele will just about match his best year in Carolina, while the talented D-man he was traded for is a 6-7D for the Canes.
Cody Ceci. Disbelief was the reaction of many to his 4-year, 13-million-dollar contract. But as an Oilers regular? But he’s another guy having a career year.
Evander Kane. Lots questioned the wisdom of this move. But so far, he has been an impact player on the ice with no sign of an issue off it. Has there been a more successful mid-season acquisition in the NHL anywhere this season?
-the Coach. Holland had never fired a coach mid-season. He gave Dave Tippett longer than many would have. But he ultimately went against a career’s worth of experience with the results being we see in he standings now.
Mike Smith. Many wanted the struggling veteran goalie gone altogether. But Ken Holland repeatedly cautioned that he wanted to see this team when it’s # 1 goaltender was healthy. And Holland was right. It’s very difficult to argue that Smith hasn’t been a major reason for the late season surge.

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Some were concerned that Ken Holland had “lost his fastball.” But to continue with the baseball analogy, the best hurlers can afford to lose a few miles per hour on the heater and still be effective. How? Because they have smarts and guile acquired over a career that enable them to overcome challenges and continue to win.

Does Ken Holland still need to win in the playoff, to prove he’s “still got it”? That’s air. But as I think you’ll agree…

… You’ve got to get there to win. And that Ken Holland has accomplished.

Find me on Twitter @KurtLeavins

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