It is hard to believe that it was this time a year ago that the Oilers were still coached by Dave Tippett. After a blistering start to the season, largely powered by a torrid and unsustainable scoring, succinctly and aptly quipped by Leon Draisaitl’s: “Do you expect me to score 82 goals this year?” With the division favourite Vegas Golden Knights floundering, it was barely Hallowe’en by the time some were crowning the Oilers runaway division champs.
The Oilers early 2021–22 season under Tippett
Eventually the “elite team” costume that the Tippett-led Oilers were wearing faded. Subpar results in key metrics like xGF% lagged below 50% once again, and the playoff appearance of 2017 faded just the same. It seemed everything was into the abyss of misery and doubt.
COVID protocols shut down the league entirely, coaches were calling out goalies who were having career years, things got “pissy,” not to mention we learned quite a bit about the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks and truly hockey as a whole. But for a shining pearl Perlini almost nothing could pierce through the darkness that befell Oil Country that January.
Although the calendar changed over to a new year, other things haven’t changed much, especially considering the larger scope items on hockey culture’s proverbial do to list (re: Hockey Canada et al.) and we need to continue to reflect and take action on those regards.
The most prominent change the Oilers needed
Yet for the Oilers specifically, February saw it all turn around. In the end, it might’ve been a long list of things. Starting goalie Mike Smith returned from injury. Key acquisitions in Brett Kulak and Evander Kane were added. Perhaps a bounce or two went the Oilers’ way and got the positive vibes going. Truly, though, the one change that has come to be remembered was the promotion of coach Jay Woodcroft.
Even without the mini training camp the Oilers were afforded, and even still with a heavily backloaded regular season schedule that cut into potential practice time the results seemed instantaneous. Players were quick and numerous in mentioning an improved attention to details. Ultimately, the team’s key stats like xGF% and GF% raised into a tier becoming of a perennial contender, as opposed to a flawed but up and coming team with young offensive stars the Oilers had been flailing in.
Is this yet another brief oasis, like 2017 and 2006 before it, or can Woodcroft and the Oilers assert themselves as a perennial force in the Pacific Division and NHL as a whole?
The specifics implemented under Woodcroft
The foremost thing that changes in the power vacuum of a new coach is icetime. Woodcroft’s familiarity with younger players, built in his time as the AHL Bakersfield Condors head coach, emboldened him to trust new options throughout the Oilers lineup.
Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Darnell Nurse saw decreases to their gaudy time on ice averages and instead being deployed more efficiently and purposefully. Totals between 25–30 minutes a night became a much more reasonable 20–25. That standard of tactful deployment was held throughout the lineup, stabilised by trusting recent Condors like Ryan McLeod and Evan Bouchard .
The question was never if McDavid and Draisaitl were good enough for the Oilers to succeed, a Cup champion requires much more than that. The path to true contention lay instead through the Oilers becoming a strong team outside the two superstars.
That metamorphosis is exactly what took place, and like clockwork the Oilers ascended from the sludge of the playoff bubble to the comforts of the second seed in the Pacific Division.
We saw the third pair and the third line thrive while populated with the likes of Brett Kulak, Ryan McLeod, and at times Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. With Derek Ryan manning the fourth line, there was not much to worry about throughout the Oilers lineup. Even in obscure 11 forward/seven defencemen lineups, Woodcroft and his staff, notably defensive assistant Dave Manson, were able to get the most out of their players by putting them in positions to succeed.
In short, having more of a cohesive team plan, or at least the improved communication of such, lead to fundamentally better results.
The Oilers were not reminded of what it was like to be thoroughly outplayed until they reached the Western Conference Final, where the steps the Oilers have yet to take were apparent in being swept by the eventual champion Colorado Avalanche.
What lies ahead for the Oilers
All that being said, this season’s iteration of the Oilers comes with a new look, a new set of questions, and new possibilities.
Can Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner hold the fort behind a strong defensive team? Doubtless Woodcroft will manage a more modern and evenly spread timeshare in net, especially given the pointed comments towards the Calgary Flames‘ use of Jacob Markstrom during the Battle of Alberta second round series. Considering Woodcroft’s relationship with Skinner it seems an even harder fact to deny.
Can the blueline remain strong? Perhaps it’s not wrong to think that Philip Broberg might outperform Duncan Keith’s level in his season with the Oilers, not to mention the possibility of an even more impactful Evan Bouchard.
The forwards will still be as deep as ever, now with the likes of Dylan Holloway in hot pursuit of a spot in the lineup. Perhaps some continued improvements from Ryan McLeod or Jesse Puljujarvi can bring the group to even greater heights. No doubt adding a legitimate top-six forward in Kane helped in this regard.
Now, with the luxury of time, Woodcroft might even be able to fine tune certain deployments or tactics. The dream of what could have been under Tippett—that of perennial contender status—is the expectation of what is to be continued under Woodcroft.