It can take years to know who won or lost trades, or whether the right draft selections were made. In analysing a GM’s body work, a macro multi-year perspective might be more informative in weighing managerial performance.
While we are not, and will not, be privy to every machination and decision unmade, we can look at the moves and signings that Ken Holland has made to the roster this season, and discuss briefly how those decisions have played out so far.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Snap grade: B+
As usual things are complicated with Evander Kane. Considering the various and complex issues that surround the person off the ice, too much to cover in a piece like this, many fans will not endorse this signing from the outset.
Definitively, Kane’s Oiler teammates have embraced him, leading to as harmonious a team fit that Kane has ever been able to enjoy. Any concerns surrounding his effect on team chemistry have died down, along with much of the off-ice fervour.
Out long term from a gruesome and unfortunate injury, time will tell how quickly Kane will be able to regain his top form. It might not be until the calendar changes to 2024 that we see that. The Oilers do need the legitimate scoring talent that Kane provided, but even at a diminished level Kane brings a lot of other dimensions to the lineup.
Both with four years left at just over a $5M cap hit, it is reasonable to compare Kane to Zach Hyman. Both legitimate offensive wingers heading into their 30s, the future might gloom over them. Neither has shown signs of slowing yet, and if they can average roughly a 20 goal 60 point pace over these deals it would be money well spent.
Snap grade: D+
No doubt things have gone poorly to start, Jack Campbell looking lost and giving up the starter’s job early into his five-year deal. However, all players have their ups and downs, even over games, months, and years. Perhaps it’s because they are most noticeable, but goalies can be particularly prone to this.
Campbell is hardly the only or most noteworthy goalie to get off to a poor start this season. The good news is that the Oilers have been able to weather that storm, or at least tread water, while Campbell tries to get a hold of things.
Despite Stuart’s Skinner’s meteoric rise, things will not be a straight line, a perfectly steady ascension for Skinner. He will have his ups and downs as well, and the Oilers will need Campbell to step up in those moments, at least.
Though his contract will never be seen as a bargain from an Oilers cap perspective, NHL teams need at least two goalies that can be trusted with the starting reins for at least a month at a time. If they could, the Oilers might move on from Campbell’s contract and look elsewhere for cheaper equivalences, but as it stands Campbell should be able to regain his form as a legitimate tandem option, even as the 1B to Skinner’s 1A.
Snap grade: A-
Much like Kane’s contract and position being similar to Hyman’s, Brett Kulak shows some similarities to another strong Holland signee, Cody Ceci.
Kulak has continued his strong play, a much needed defensive presence on a blueline that includes many offence-leaning players. In particular, Kulak brings out the best in Tyson Barrie, well demonstrated by Barrie’s highest level of play in years.
The cap hit is reasonable enough that virtually no one would consider moving Kulak at this point. From his acquisition to his re-signing, things could not have gone much better for Kulak and the Oilers.
Snap grade: B+
Though Mattias Janmark’s cap hit of $1.25M is more than can be buried completely in the minors, the one-year deal costs the team about as much as a roster spot. As such, the bar for whether or not this is a successful signing is lower than other UFAs signed this offseason.
Despite starting the season in the AHL, Janmark has made himself indispensable in the Oilers lineup. Handling a top spot on the penalty kill and of late on a line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Janmark is almost certainly playing above his depth.
While not ideal in general, with the Oilers missing several key forwards for stretches this season, Janmark’s playing up in the lineup speaks to how crucial his signing was.
Snap Grade: B
Ryan Murray was a low cost signing that has delivered upon his reputation. In some ways, he has been the most relied upon option in the 3LD spot, earning more icetime than Philip Broberg and Markus Niemelainen on average.
The results have been solid and unspectacular, but this represents a good outcome for Murray. He is currently out until late-January, presumably, with a back injury. Injuries, the back specifically, have hampered Murray’s availability in recent years, so his (already) multiple absences are not unexpected.
There are some prevailing thoughts that the Oilers might target a defensive veteran LHD, potentially spending a ransom of assets for a player that sounds a lot like Murray does, at least from a distance. Rumours about Vladislav Gavrikov, for example, have the Oilers forking over assets comparable to the Ben Chiarot to Florida trade from last deadline, a costly move that the Panthers surely regret. Though most would say that Gavrikov and Chiarot are more impactful than Murray, particularly from a physical standpoint, their similarities show that having done Murray for close to nothing in the summer was strong work from Holland.
Restricted Free Agents
Snap grade: A+
Skinner was extended mid season to a very affordable three-year deal. Skinner’s rise is built off of years of steady progression, dominating as an AHL starter, and doing it again to prove it wasn’t a fluke – even looking every bit as capable as Mikko Koskinen or Mike Smith in his brief NHL action last season. Skinner’s combination of age and resume makes him a player worth watching, a potential star in the making.
Early on in the year it was his steady play, demonstrated by his results in stats such as GSAx, that lit the path through the autumn portion of the 2022–23 schedule. Despite everything going for him, there will certainly be challenges ahead for Skinner, let alone the generously middle of the pack defending by the Oilers as a whole.
The modest cap hit is a good enough value that it makes the sum of Campbell’s cap hit, their combined value and skills totalling a reasonable tandem for the Oilers contention hopes.
Jesse Puljujarvi: B
Kailer Yamamoto: B
Ryan McLeod: B+
Three RFAs were re-signed this offseason, and for all three it has been a less than ideal start. With all three in the lineup, the onus will be on this wave of Oilers to consistently make tangible contributions to the lineup.
The oldest of the group, Kailer Yamamoto is most settled into his role. It is unlikely we see an increase of production, but Yamamoto is feisty, getting into contested ice and winning battles.
The relationship between the front office and Jesse Puljujarvi does seem tenuous, or at least uncertain, illustrated with a one-year deal. Between his next qualifying offer and arbitration rights, it will certainly be interesting to see how his next contract unfolds.
This is the first season in which Ryan McLeod entered with expectation instead of hope. With an injury unsettling his place in the lineup, McLeod is well positioned to be more of a contributor in the second half of the season. Holland held firm late into summer, ultimately using the leverage to keep costs low on a bridge deal. For the time being, McLeod has yet to prove himself beyond, a convenient timing for the cap strapped Oilers.
Though all three won’t produce much offence, the trio can bring a lot of dimension to the Oilers lineup. At least two of these young players will need to step up for the Oilers to achieve their potential.
Snap grade: C
Tyler Benson was retained for minimal-to-no consequence against the cap, fully buriable in the minors. The AHL might be exactly where Benson stays, as what might have been his last good chance to make the NHL team fell flat earlier this season.
Benson is a contributor at the AHL level, which does have some value, but it is difficult to imagine that he will have much more of an effect on the roster.
Zack Kassian, 2022 29th overall, 2024 third round pick, and 2025 second round for 2022 32nd overall
Snap grade: B+
Going back to the unofficial opening of the offseason, the draft is a pressure cooker for many dealings across the league. The Oilers managed to offload Zack Kassian’s contract, which would have hampered Holland’s ability to make other needed moves.
The cost included a 2022 first, a 2025 second, and a 2024 third round, but brought in a 2022 first round of their own. While a notable prospect in Brad Lambert was taken in the handful of spots the Oilers traded down from, there is good reason to believe the Oilers selected the same player they might have taken at their original pick. The second round pick is valuable, but so far down the road; two years until the selection is made, and presumably at least another two years before the prospect might have a reasonable shot at cracking the lineup, it is a worthwhile price for the flexibility the move afforded.
Some might say that the Kassian contract was Holland’s mess to begin with, a valid point, but no general manager will be without missteps. More important is the ability to recognize and clean up those mistakes, as Holland was able to here.
Dmitri Samorukov for Klim Kostin
Snap grade: A-
Klim Kostin is playing the best hockey of his young career, now on his second NHL franchise. As much as we can try to quantify a given player’s effect on the game, not to mention their overall progression, sometimes a change of scenery or circumstance can unlock a player’s potential, breathing new life to their seemingly stagnated development.
Such might be the case for Kostin, a big winger with some skill who thrives when playing a purposeful and straightforward game. Little things like being in the right place, or making direct and efficient decisions with the puck allow Kostin’s deft touch to shine more than when he tries to rely on said skill to make plays. His contributions have continued to be inconsistent, but at times Kostin can look every bit the part of a top nine forward option.
In exchange, the Oilers dealt Dmitri Samorukov to the St. Louis Blues. A solid player with some hope of pushing for a roster spot out of training camp, Holland did well to pivot off of Samorukov when it became clear that both Murray and Broberg, perhaps even Niemelainen, were ahead of him on the left side.
Given the diminished depth up front, as well as some other failed experiments to acquire another power winger, the trade showed some prescience and at the very least, diligence. Acquiring cheap and controllable talent is critical, particularly in this cap strapped year.
Although it is nice to see some excitement from Oil Country every time Kostin has a strong game, expectations should not necessarily be that he ascends to a top six role. That being said, the fact that the Oilers got an upgrade to their forward group as a whole, Kostin a winger who can punch up to the top nine at least, represents a win for Oilers management.
1st Schaefer, 5th Jonsson, 6th Yevseyev, 7th Maatta
Snap grade: A
While it can take years to see if a draft class was good or not, the Oilers made due with their limited number of selections. As a rule, finding a player that was available that any fans might have personally preferred is not necessarily a reasonable criticism of the player that the Oilers ultimately selected.
The power forward archetype is clearly one that Holland has been targeting for years, and Reid Schaefer fits the bill as a high end prospect in this regard. A bigger role on his WHL Seattle Thunderbirds has seen Schaefer’s production skyrocket, among the best WHL goal scorers.
Samuel Jonsson is a big goalie, fitting of the current prototype for the position league wide. He has done well as the starter in Sweden’s junior ranks, essentially all one could hope for this season. At some level, it might be a worthwhile thought process to select a goalie in each draft.
Nikita Yevseyev looks to be an absolute steal, playing the the KHL as a top six defenceman in his draft+1 season. Already years ahead of what expectations might have been, it’s clear that the Oilers did well to find a pro defenceman in the sixth round.
Joel Maatta plays for Todd Woodcroft’s (Coach Woodcroft’s brother) University of Vermont team along with fellow Oilers prospect Luca Munzenberger. Given the familiarity with the players and person, the Oilers might know something about their seventh round overager. Playing as the top centre on an offensively challenged team, Maatta’s offensive profile does not inspire much promise, but work ethic and responsible play might see him in the mix for a fourth line role at some point.
Two prospects making lots of noise in their draft +1 seasons, and a goalie, is a great haul for any draft, let alone for the limited number of top 100 draft selections the Oilers had.
Depth and non-NHL signings
Snap grade: B
At one point Jason Demers was an unheralded top six right shot defender, even a second pair option, but into his mid to late 30s, Demers is a depth option. Were any injury to occur on the right side of the blueline, at this point, the Oilers would likely turn to either Demers or the ascending Michael Kesselring to fill the gap. Though Kesselring is authoring an impressive season, Demers offers a more known commodity in case of emergency, even the ability to spot start as a gravely needed right shot defender on the penalty kill.
As much as Demers might not see any NHL action, having him as a mentor in the AHL and a last line of reinforcement at a key position was prudent.
Reid Schaefer and Maximus Wanner
Snap grade: B
While neither player will be seeing NHL action this season, likely next season as well, the Oilers are showing us exactly how they feel about two of their more highly touted prospects. While the drafting of both are commendable moves from Holland, signing them a year before necessary shows a long term belief that might well have eased the minds of both players.
Both Schaefer and Max Wanner have authored promising WHL seasons, likely their last in Junior, and seemed to be focused on playing effectively rather than trying to pad stats to earn a deal.
Calvin Pickard, Greg McKegg, Dino Kambietz, Yanni Kaldis, and Justin Bailey
Snap grade: B-
Essentially AHL depth, these players aren’t likely to suit up for the Oilers, but it is important to fill out a competent roster for the AHL affiliate Bakersfield Condors to operate with. Considering the number of high profile rookies and prospects on the team, acquiring players that could support them instead of blocking them from minutes might well have been a consideration.
In particular, Dino Kambietz, Yanni Kaldis, and Justin Bailey have played quite well for the Condors, showing some chemistry with key young players across the Condors lineup.
That being said, the Condors are not exactly world beaters, likely too far back to qualify for the AHL playoffs already. The main goal of the Condors is more so to provide these prospects with a good place to grow, having to earn minutes with capable linemates and playing meaningful games so that work habits will be reinforced.
Snap Grade: B
A winger with some tools, Ostap Safin never quite blossomed in the Oilers system. Last season was likely crucial for any long term hopes for Safin, and his inability to produce at a high rate in the AHL, including being a presumptive power play option, put an end to the fairly long shot of Safin becoming an NHLer.
Though there is time yet for the player himself, and good careers can be had outside the NHL, Safin was made easier to move on from by an influx of AHL rookie talent.
Snap grade: F
Jake Virtanen had inconsistent results, despite some strong production on the Vancouver Canucks for a short time. A top ten draft pick in his year, at one point Virtanen had some intriguing potential.
However, his play waning on the ice was hardly the only reason to dislike the idea of giving Virtanen a shot, as an off-ice legal situation cast doubt on his future in the NHL, not to mention his person as a whole. Virtanen missed quite some time due to this, which certainly wouldn’t have helped his game on the ice either.
From a purely on ice perspective the tryout was questionable, but the off-ice realities of the player were unsavoury, at least. Virtanen looked to have little success in training camp, all but cementing his fate outside the NHL. Despite whatever perceived upside the Oilers thought they might get from the player, no other NHL teams were interested, a fairly damning fact when it comes to Holland’s handling of the situation.
The optics surrounding the Oilers did them no favours either, with stories of Hockey Canada unfolding around that time, both Holland and Nicholson’s potential involvement and influence in those cases, and the Kane signing prior, the Oilers compounded the scrutiny that they found themselves in with a gamble of middling upside at best.
Some fans will hardly agree, citing that the Oilers cap and contract numbers were ultimately unaffected, but for many the Oilers acting on much looser standards than the rest of the league on this issue was a dark enough cloud to shake faith in the club permanently.
In all, Holland manoeuvred the cap to retain key additions from last season’s turnaround, revamped the goaltending entirely with a new tandem, built around the edges of the Oilers depth, and adequately supported the Condors – all of these elements were critical goals to the team’s offseason.
Sure, it was not all smooth sailing, with the Campbell contract sure to draw some deserved criticism, but in all the results have been acceptable in these regards (minus, of course some concerning circumstances regarding Hockey Canada and Jake Virtanen).
While some have thoughts of moves they would have liked to see made, instead of or in addition to the rest of Holland’s moves, it might not be productive to base evaluations of Holland on a speculative or hypothetical set of criteria.
For one reason or another, there are fans who dislike Holland’s work prior to this offseason, which as a body of work is probably more polarising than his work this year. Regardless, the overall trend is that the Oilers have improved over Holland’s time as GM.
It might be quite difficult to handicap the race for the Jim Gregory GM of the Year Award, but Holland is not likely to garner much recognition in that respect. By the same token it would be hard to suggest that Holland’s work has been in the bottom tier of that metric either.
There is still the fulcrum that is the trade deadline on the horizon, where a great deal of mistakes are bound to be made league wide, but for now Holland’s work is deserving of a B.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire