Professional hockey remains in the dark ages when it comes to managing teams and looking for competitive advantages in the front office. Whenever there is a job opening for a general manager or when club re-structures itself to have an executive overseeing hockey operations, you realize that the list of potential candidates is small and the overall talent pool is extremely shallow.
The Edmonton Oilers at a critical juncture in their history, with the best player in the world and pressure mounting to deliver a championship went down a very predictable path to find a new general manager. They interviewed a number of assistant general managers, sought out the ones with potential and those that had connections to Hockey Canada. And while Ken Holland has the experience, the credibility, the knowledge and the professional network to handle the assigned tasks, his hiring isn’t all that exciting or inspiring. Going with Holland perfectly exemplified the Oilers risk-averse nature, their conservative approach to building a championship contender, and their lack of innovation and creativity when it comes to finding any competitive advantages in the modern era.
Now Holland does have a history at finding inefficiencies in the market when constructing a roster, being one of the first to tap into Europe for players and discarding one-dimensional enforcers from his teams. The problem is that the rest of the league caught up to him fairly quickly, and in the salary cap era he hasn’t done anything that sets him apart from his peers. He’s also shown a lack of understanding when it comes to player’s prime ages, giving out a lot of bad contracts with no-trade and no-movement clauses to players who are well past their primes, but he feels a deep connection with. Holland doesn’t appear to have that ruthless nature that’s needed to get the Oilers out of their current cap and roster issues. And we know that in the modern era one of a general manager’s key tasks is to find roster inefficiencies and squeeze out as much production and value from all corners of the club.
The one other issue I have with Holland is his “over-ripening” philosophy when it comes to developing prospects. While I do agree that prospects need time to develop and that a strong AHL program is critical to support the regular influx of talent to the NHL roster – management needs to be able to leverage a player’s entry-level deal and get production from players especially on the third and fourth lines. This would require identifying those players earlier and if appropriate, take on some risk by signing them to team-friendly deals. Again, it’s fine to allow players to develop in the minors, but managers need to be very strategic so that they know what they’re paying for when a player completes their entry-level deal and needs a new contract. Highly recommend checking out Iyer Prashanth’s piece from 2016 on entry-level contracts and asset management related to Holland’s time in Detroit.
Coming to Edmonton, Holland will have a lot of work to do including assembling a coaching staff, improving the roster and addressing the team’s scoring issues when McDavid isn’t on the ice. He’ll need to add a goalie and possibly add more skill to the blueline. And he won’t be able to do any of this without shedding some salary and also getting a better sense of the prospect pool and which players may be ready to contribute at the NHL level.
For me though, the biggest area Holland needs to address is the overall decision-making strategy and processes within hockey operations. This of course will depend on the management group he surrounds himself with, the professional and amateur scouts and (hopefully) a well supported and integrated analytics department. But Holland needs to focus on implementing the right processes that leverages all of that information that’s going to inform the roster construction. Hopefully he can do that and have the support from ownership to get all the resources required including people, technology and infrastructure – but we’ll have to wait and see.
While I do hope that the hiring of Holland is what turns this team around and start competing for championships, I remain fairly skeptical that the Oilers gained any sort of competitive advantage through this hiring.
For one, I don’t have a lot of confidence in the Oilers owner and his ability to allocate the right infrastructure and resources to support the general manager. We’re hearing that Holland will have a lot of control overseeing the entire hockey operations, but it remains to be seen what changes he’ll make to the people and processes in areas such as scouting and player development. Secondly, I don’t have a lot of faith in Bob Nicholson who facilitated the hiring process, had the opportunity to talk to anyone in hockey, but yet picked someone from his own history through Hockey Canada. In his time with the Oilers, the team took a reactive approach to several issues, and he’s a big reason why the Oilers are in the mess they’re in.
Lastly, I have little faith in the current hockey management talent pool. There’s clearly a need in hockey for common sense business acumen and a better understanding of risk management. The fact that the same names from the same demographic with the same type of backgrounds come up again and again makes it obvious that hockey management isn’t progressing. And that an opportunity exists for a team if they want to exploit an inefficiency in their management structure and find a significant competitive advantage.