Detroit — Ken Holland is excited to be back in the NHL playoffs — although this time it’s a different time of year, it’ll have a different feel, and under strange conditions.
And it's with a different team, as the long time Red Wings’ general manager is now the GM of the Edmonton Oilers.
Holland has the Oilers in the playoffs in his first season in western Canada, with Edmonton opening its best-of-five play-in round series Aug. 1 against Chicago.
“I’m excited to be involved, to have my team involved,” Holland said, while watching his Oilers go through a morning skate. “It’s going to be exciting to watch and you’re going to get nervous and you’ll want to win.
“We made the playoffs for 25 straight years in Detroit. From my perspective, the fans’ perspective, it’s the best time of the year.
"The games are great, the weather is good, the games are big.
“It’s just an exciting time of the year.”
Holland left the Wings’ in April 2019 after guiding the organization to three Stanley Cups, four Presidents Trophies, and 10 division titles.
The Wings missed the playoffs the last three seasons — after qualifying the 25 previous, consecutive seasons — under Holland, who gave way to Steve Yzerman returning to the organization as the new general manager.
Holland was expected to remain with the Wings in a senior advisor role, but quickly realized he wanted a more involved, day-to-day role.
Joining the Oilers several weeks later, Holland landed with an organization in need of stability but with two generational stars in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
It was expected to be a gradual rebuild. But with Draisaitl enjoying an MVP-caliber season, McDavid playing otherworldly hockey, and new coach Dave Tippett bringing structure to a lineup that needed it, Holland has gotten his team into position for a Stanley Cup run.
“Our guys, from day one of training camp, they’ve dug in and bought in to Dave Tippett and what he asked them to do,” Holland said. “The Oilers have made the playoffs twice in 13 years, so the city is excited for the opportunity, and personally, I’m excited be involved and have a chance.”
Although, because of the pandemic this year, the NHL playoffs have a different feel to them.
The NHL season was shut down March 12 because of the coronavirus. For a fair playoff structure, the league and players’ association concluded on the top 12 teams from each conference (based on winning percentage) be housed in separate hub cities — Toronto for the East, Edmonton in the West — with a best-of-five play-in series, then the normal four rounds of best-of-seven culminating in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Despite being a hub city, Holland and his Oilers will be in a hotel with the other 11 teams in the West.
“I”ll be watching a lot of hockey, like everybody else,” Holland said.
Because of the challenges involved, Holland believes this year’s Stanley Cup winner will be uniquely respected.
“The team that wins the Stanley Cup will be as deserving a champion as any other year because there are so many other issues to deal with,” Holland said. “There are 24 teams instead of 16, you’re going to be in a hub, not able to get out and be part of the community. You’ll be in hub life for months.
“Every team has to deal with the hub life. If you get to the final four teams, the families can come in (into the hub), so you don’t see families for the first five weeks. It might be as hard or harder to win the Stanley Cup than in the past because there are 24 teams instead of 16, you’re in this hub, and we’re all going to have to deal with it.”
The championship team, said Holland, is going to be the one who can deal with the off ice issues as well as on ice.
“It’s not going to be perfect but it’s going to be the best you can make it. Those teams and players that can deal with whatever issues or frustrations or discomforts you might have, will have a better chance to play your best hockey,” Holland said. “If you don’t, and you get frustrated with this or that, it’ll distract your ability to play your best hockey.”
Teams have been skating for several weeks, attempting to regain the conditioning they had in March.
The Oilers have been emphasizing intra-squad scrimmages and game conditions, said Holland, and the camp has been competitive.
“Our guys have competed competed, they’ve scrimmaged almost every day,” Holland said. “Away from the puck they’re backchecking, they’re playing hard, and embracing the opportunity.”
Holland doesn’t feel because Edmonton is a hub, the Oilers have any sort of advantage.
“Maybe it’s a comfort level in knowing the rink, but at the end of the day, everybody will play in this rink day after day after day after day, and it’s going to be a level playing field,” Holland said. “If there is an advantage, it might be in the first couple of games. Then after that, everybody plays in the same rink, it’ll the same for everybody.”
Holland made a trade with Yzerman just before the trade deadline, acquiring Andreas Athanasiou and Mike Green from the Wings.
Green has chosen to opt out of the playoffs, while Athanasiou is skating on a line with former Wing Riley Sheahan, and Josh Archibald.
Athanasiou had 2 points (one goal) in nine games with Edmonton, attempting to adjust to the lineup late in the season.
“AA has looked good (in camp),” Holland said. “He and (Tyler) Ennis (another trade deadline acquisition) have give us more depth up front. We can now dress four lines we feel good about. You need depth.”
One thing that Holland is sure of — the games will be intense and any of the 24 teams are capable of winning the tournament.
“Anytime you set up a game and keep score, and these are competitive athletes, they’re going to be competitive games,” Holland said. “It’s going to be on television, coast to coast in Canada and the United States, and there will be a lot of eyeballs watching. Guys have been into it and they want to go on to the next stage. They haven’t played hockey since March, it’s been five months, they’re excited to play games.
“All these teams are good teams. It’s wide open. If someone gets hot and gets on a roll, anybody can beat anybody.
“There are 24 teams looking at it as an opportunity, to get their name on the Cup.
'It’s always up for grabs — but this time it’s more up for grabs.”