Rating Ken Holland II: Acquisition of Mattias Ekholm transformed Edmonton Oilers both present and future

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With the signing of RFA Ryan McLeod to a 1-year contract extension in the hour before Edmonton Oilers’ training camp took to the ice, GM Ken Holland had added the final piece to the roster that would start the 2022-23 season. As discussed in Part 1, the precision of McLeod’s price point of $798,000 was a major tell as to how the squad would be set up when the season opened a couple of weeks later.

Pre-season trade

One of Holland’s goals was to add a big, aggressive winger on the bottom six to replace the departed Zack Kassian. Plan A was something of an own goal, as former Canuck Jake Virtanen was invited to camp to much derision, both local and international. He did little to impress on the ice but cost the team some goodwill in the process before being cut.

Plan B turned out to be the ticket as Holland found a much better version of the player type on the trade market. In the days before the season opened, he obtained winger Klim Kostin from St. Louis in return for d-man Dmitri Samorukov. Both had been taken in the 2017 NHL Draft, Kostin a late first-rounder in fact, but had reached the end of their ELC without locking up a spot. Both were successfully waived by their NHL clubs 2 days before the trade, a key ingredient for any sort of minor league deal. (No point trading for a guy for the farm club only to then lose him on waivers before you can assign him.)

Samorukov ultimately got an NHL call-up at season’s end, playing a couple of games for the Blues. Kostin would spend a month in the minors before getting his chance, but when he did the 6’3, 215-pounder would make the most of it. He’d go on to play 57 games for the Oilers, posting double digit goals, assists and plus (11-10-21, +12) in 10 minutes a night while leading the team in hits, fights and penalty minutes. The call-up did more to replace Kane’s role on the roster than anyone else who was already here.

Roster management

The Oilers would start with a 21-man roster consisting of 12 forwards, 7 defencemen, and 2 goalies. Though just 1 man over the minimum, that set-up allowed coach Jay Woodcroft full flexibility for using either the 12/6 or 11/7 line-ups on game nights, and for the team to be fully ready for either alternative in case a random player was sidelined by injury or illness.

With the top of the roster locked in, Holland had room for just one $1.25 million forward, choosing Derek Ryan over Mattias Janmark. He had to find temporary space for rookies Philip Broberg and Dylan Holloway so allowances for their bonuses could rightly be allocated to next year’s cap. That was a paper move in the case of Broberg who the following day was sent out in a 2-up-2-down move that barely fit under the ceiling. It was the beginning of a month-long balancing act with the cap, many subtle details that required a deft touch at the helm.

Cap “relief” came on Nov. 14 when Evander Kane was felled by a gruesome skate cut to his wrist that could have turned out much more badly than it did, even as Kane ultimately missed 10 weeks and, arguably, was never “right” thereafter. With Kane on LTIR and plenty of cap space available, the Oilers recalled both Janmark and Kostin. Both stepped directly into the line-up and were regulars the rest of the way on an ever-more-productive bottom 6.

Holland’s next impact move was the internal recall of defender Vincent Desharnais in early January. The 26-year-old had been drafted by the Peter Chiarelli regime in 2016 and ultimately signed to a pair of minor-league deals. That was upgraded to an NHL-class pact by Holland in March of 2022, and within 10 months, the giant Desharnais was in the NHL and playing like he meant to stay.

Kane’s return from injury in late January meant some more tiptoeing through the tulips on the salary cap front, with the team reducing to 20 at one point and playing a couple of games with just 19 as the trade deadline approached.

More trades, including the Big One

The cap crunch was resolved a second time by the late-February trade of Jesse Puljujarvi and 100% of his $3 million cap hit to Carolina for unsigned prospect Patrik Puistola.

That set the table for the gigantic deal that made Mattias Ekholm an Oiler. The deal, by far Holland’s biggest to date in Edmonton, saw popular Tyson Barrie and his $4.5 million contract go the other way, along with first round picks from 2022 (Reid Schaefer) and 2023 (TBA). Holland included a sweetener to buy Ekholm’s cap hit down a smidge from $6.25 to $6.0 million, not just for the current year but the 3 beyond it.

Which was easily the biggest part of the Ekholm deal. Whereas every single one of Holland’s prior deadline adds in Edmonton — Mike Green, Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Ennis, Dmitry Kulikov, Brett Kulak, Derick Brassard — had been the rental of an expiring contract, Ekholm is under lock and key for 3 more years through 2025-26. His addition was a major step towards resolving a persistent problem on Edmonton’s left-side defence not just for the short term but the longer as well.

Overnight, Edmonton’s top 4 was transformed, as Evan Bouchard was promoted to 2RD and lined up with Ekholm at 5v5. Both excelled. Bouchard also took on the powerplay duties of the departed Barrie and more than held his own on the Oilers’ record-breaking unit. Meanwhile, Ekholm lined up on the penalty kill, mostly paired with Desharnais.

The Viking’s calm, steady presence helped up and down the line-up. On the left side Darnell Nurse responded to some much needed help on the top 4, while Brett Kulak re-established himself on the third pairing. Just like that the Oilers had gone from a top-2-bottom-4 (or 5) defence corps to a true top 4, vastly preferable for match-ups against strong opponents.

Holland’s buy-down of Ekholm’s salary by a measly 4% increased Edmonton’s available cap from $200,000 to $450,000, far below NHL minimum. The detail made little sense until the GM’s final move, the acquisition of big forward Nick Bjugstad and farmhand Cam Dineen from Arizona in a deal that sent prospect Michael Kesselring and a third round pick the other way. Arizona retained 50% of Bjugstad’s $900,000 salary, reducing his cap hit to exactly $450,000. That allowed Holland to squeeze the versatile vet on the roster as a 22nd player without further disruption.

Team size

One common thread to all of Holland’s in-season moves was that the Oilers got bigger. Call-ups Kostin (6’3, 215), Janmark (6’1, 205) and Desharnais (6’6, 215) are solidly built, as are trade acquisitions Ekholm (6’4, 215) and Bjugstad (6’6, 209). Over the course of the season the Oilers became as big or bigger than most opponents, and played with an edge that was a factor on some nights. It seemed like a team built for a playoff run.

Stretch drive and playoffs

They certainly looked like one down the stretch. Ekholm made his debut on Mar 01 and transformed the team in the final quarter. The Oilers rolled to an 18-2-1 record over their last 21 GP, a terrific run that saw them solidify a playoff spot, then home-ice advantage, and finally make a hard run at first place in the West which they missed by just 2 points behind Vegas.

It was the fourth consecutive season under Holland the Oilers had a strong finish to comfortably qualify for a playoff spot.

  • First quarter: 20 GP, 10-10-0, .500
  • Second quarter: 21 GP, 11-7-3, .595
  • Third quarter: 20 GP, 11-4-5, .675
  • Fourth quarter: 21 GP, 18-1-2, .881

The Oilers were comfortably the hottest team in the NHL entering the post-season. For a second straight season they managed to eliminate Los Angeles Kings in the first round. This time, however, they met their comeuppance in Round 2 when they fell in 6 games to Vegas. Just like that, Edmonton’s most promising season in some years came crashing to a sudden halt.

The architect of that contending team deserves some credit for key moves both in the summer and during the season, and points for creativity on the cap management front.

Alas, not all problems were solved, notably goaltending which many observers pinpointed as a big difference maker. Vegas switched goalies partway through the series, with career backup Adin Hill coming on due to injury in Game 3 and bamboozling the Oilers the rest of the way. Skinner struggled with the workload of starting every single playoff game, his save percentage in the 4 losses dropping from .848 to .826 to .818 to .765.

The coaching staff frequently replaced him in-game but never once gave Campbell a start. Whether this was a coaching problem or a GM-ing problem is an open question; my take is “both”.


The Edmonton Oilers are a team on the build, and in the past 2 years have become a serious contender although hardly wart-free. Holland’s primary job of building a solid support staff around superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl has produced some nice results, but not uniformly so. In 2022-23 the acquisition of Ekholm had a major positive impact, those of Kostin and Bjugstad smaller but nonetheless positive ones at very marginal cost.

The salary cap remains a big issue, as it does for so many NHL teams. Holland did pull off a couple of magic tricks, notably a series of moves that turned $6.2 million for Kassian and Puljujarvi into $1.2 mil for Kostin and Bjugstad, a decrease of a full $5 million against the cap in the year just passed.

But one of those fixes was for Holland’s own mistake (the 4-year Kassian extension), while others of his signings remain on the roster with the jury still out with respect to their value.

Looking ahead

All of which brings us to the present day. Many readers will be most interested in the question, what happens next? For now we know that Ken Holland intends to finish out the fifth and final year of his contract. Whether he wants to be renewed is unknown, and whether he deserves to be falls in the same category. Much depends on whether the Oilers can take another major step forward in 2023-24.

In Part 3 (of 3) we will dig into the current state of the roster and into the GM’s most pressing issues and priorities in the upcoming off-season as he tries to mould a champion.