With the Edmonton Oilers playing in Los Angeles on Thursday night, it afforded Oilers General Manager Ken Holland the opportunity for a quick trip to Bakersfield on Thursday to take a look at the Condors who were playing Stockton Heat in the team's annual Field Trip Day Game.
The longtime Detroit Red Wings GM kept a close on on Detroit’s AHL team while he was there and brought his same philosophy to the Oilers when he was named General Manager on May 7. In fact one of his first duties as a GM was to take a direct look at the Bakersfield farm team, attending two games in San Diego during the second round of last season's playoffs.
Holland took the time to talk with us after the first intermission Thursday. Here is what he had to say:
Q: This is your second visit to Bakersfield. Are you trying to see this team as much as you can?
A: Without a doubt. This team is important to the success of the Edmonton Oilers. When I was in Detroit, Grand Rapids was probably a two-hour drive away so I could get over there and watch them play 12-15 times a year. My hope is that I can see this team play 10 times by the end of the year.
There’s lots of young players here that are important to the organization. Obviously I know (Condors head coach) Jay Woodcroft. He started his days with Mike Babcock in Detroit in 2005-06.
I believe in winning. I define winning as making the playoffs. Last year this team went to the second round. Once you get into the playoffs in pro hockey at any level it’s wide open when you’re a playoff team playing in big games. Jay and his staff, (Keith Gretzky) and the people who did the job of putting the team together last year did a good job in building the team into a playoff team.
We’re around .500 now, hopefully we can get some traction and put something together.
Q: Going back to preseason, a lot of talk was if the Oilers could make the playoffs, if they would be battling for that last spot, and that Bakersfield was going to be loaded. The Oilers got off to the hot start and the Condors have struggled. Why the struggles here?
A: A lot of players have been going up and down. Here (on Thursday) there’s no (Kailer) Yamamoto and no (Cooper) Marody. We haven’t had a lot of stability for a variety of reasons. Injuries are No. 1. No. 2, we signed a lot of players (in Edmonton) and there was an unknown. There was a new coach, there was a lot of players we signed from the outside so we’re trying to sort it out.
I think at the NHL level coach (Dave) Tippett has done a tremendous job in defining roles. Obviously we have two superstars that get a large part of our offense, but there’s other people that have kicked in — checking, killing penalties.
At this level (goaltender) Shane Starrett went down for six weeks, he was a big part of the team last year. Between injuries and people coming up and down Jay Woodcroft probably had a different lineup on most nights.
Q: That can be typical of the AHL. When you’re down here you’re obviously looking the the development of young players, what about players like (Tomas) Jurco and (Colby) Cave?
A: They’re at different stages of their career. Jurco is 26, 27 and so is Cave. At the American League level they’re established and now they’re trying to get a ticket to the next level.
Guys like first-year pros (Dmitri) Samorukov, (Evan) Bouchard, certainly those two on defense, (Ryan) McLeod, (Krill) Maksimov up front …they’re just trying to get in and establish themselves. To show they can play on an every night basis at the American Hockey League level. They have nice glossy resumes at the junior level. This is another step up. I think the biggest step in a players career is from junior hockey or college hockey to the American Hockey League.You’re playing with men. That’s how they make a living. It’s a big, big jump.
Those young players, we want them to get in the lineup and learn how to be professional athletes on and off the ice. How to eat, how to train and how to go about maximizing your ability.
Q: You’ve seen that with Ethan Bear and now Caleb Jones getting his chance in Edmonton.
A: Yeah. They’re young. Bear and Jones are third-year pros, 22 years old. The National Hockey League is a hard league to play defense at 22, even harder to play goal at 22. Every time you go further back and make a mistake it usually ends up on the scoreboard. You can get away with a little more up front because there’s some people behind you.
We’re excited. Bear has been a great story for us. He made a commitment. He spent all summer in Edmonton. He was in the gym every day.
We have lots of young players (in Bakersfield) figuring out pro hockey. We think they are a part of our solution two, three years down the road, maybe sooner. That’s up to them. But certainly when you look at 20-year old players sometimes they need a year, year and a half, maybe two years in the American Hockey League to become pros.
Q: Gretzky has an expanded role this year as GM of the Condors. Why?
A: It’s what I did in Detroit ten years ago. Grand Rapids had missed the playoffs four out of five years. I talked to my assistant manager Jim Nill, who also ran my draft … Jim Nill became the (Grand Rapids) general manager. When Jim Nill went to Dallas to become GM, I made Ryan Martin my GM of Grand Rapids.
When I came here I took the same road. I think it’s important for the coaches, for the players down here to know people in Edmonton are watching, that we’re getting the news and information of who’s playing good on an everyday basis, who’s not playing good. That we have a vested interest in the success of this hockey team, competitively as to where we’re at in the American Hockey League, but at the same time if you’re a young player here that there is somebody from Edmonton here on a regular basis that you can communicate with. The word is traveling.
I talk to Keith 2-3-4 times a week and either talk or text after every game. He gives me a report. I just think it’s important for the franchise.
I knew of Keith, but didn’t know Keith. When I got hired, I went to two games in San Diego in the second round (of last season's playoffs) and spent three or four hours with Keith the day off between games. He’s got a ton of passion. He’s been around the game a long time. He’s got a real good understanding of professional hockey. And he knew the Edmonton Oilers organization. It was important for me to come in here and keep some of the people that have been here. They know the players. I brought in some of my own people but kept lots of people here.
Q: You mentioned that winning and making the playoffs are important. Is the ideal situation for you getting both teams into the playoffs?
A: Yeah. And long playoff runs.