Edmonton Oilers

The Edmonton Oilers case for Coach and GM of the Year

A lot of things have had to go right to reach this point, but the Edmonton Oilers have rounded into form as one of the NHL’s best teams. The Oilers are in line for the league’s ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup, but their collective excellence will be represented by their fair share of individual awards as well.

The Oilers will be heavily decorated this season

Some of these are obvious, if not a matter of statistical dominance. Connor McDavid, the league’s best player, is all but guaranteed a quarter of major awards, the Rocket Richard, Art Ross, Lester B. Pearson, and Hart trophies. Stuart Skinner will likely be a top candidate for the Calder Trophy.

Altogether, the Oilers have a legitimate shot to win at least five individual trophies,—if not a sixth: the Conn Smyth—if all goes according to plan, but could there be more individual hardware that the Oilers find themselves in contention for?

No defenceman on the roster is close to a legitimate Norris Trophy or the Selke Trophy; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins might be in line for a “Most Improved” or “Most Underrated” Trophy if such awards existed. As McDavid has won his fair share of awards in previous seasons, the Oilers have not been as strong of a team as they are now. Surely some credit is due somewhere.

With most of the analysis presented so far, two conclusions become, at the very least, worthy of discussion. The Oilers have true candidates in two more major individual awards: Coach Jay Woodcroft for the Jack Adams, and GM Ken Holland for Jim Gregory. Despite little fanfare in these categories, the conversation surrounding who should be nominated for these awards is still in its infancy, the perfect time to start the hype train. Let’s take a look at what their chances are.

Who usually wins?

As much as the art or science of player evaluations is in revolution with more stats being used to measure process as much as results on the ice, the larger scope of evaluating coaches and GMs lags behind. For the most part, both the Jack Adams and Jim Gregory are awarded favourably to their own set of archetypical results.

Coach of the Year sees two profiles rewarded for their work, the unexpected success and the sheer dominance. Normally a newly hired coach with an outstanding team record and a dramatic outperforming of pre-season expectations is the top candidate.

The favoured criteria in the GM of the Year race is present, though less of the focus is on how recently the person in question was hired by their current team. Instead, the Jim Gregory is normally awarded to a team that makes the Conference Finals, with the GMs of the final four teams likely to have a stranglehold on most if not all the top nominees. As the playoffs unfold, the eventual winner will reveal itself, but until then we can still speculate some options that might fit the criteria well.

Around the league

The Boston Bruins have set the record for most wins in an NHL regular season, have done so with muted pre-season expectations, and with a new head coach. Their coach/GM duo could easily sweep these awards.

Strong cases exist for other duos around the league that have had surprisingly strong seasons, in particular with the New Jersey Devils and Seattle Kraken. Neither coach is a new hire, but both turned their teams around after disappointing 2021–22 seasons.

Both the Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights have seen improvements under the first season of their new head coaches, while other top teams have continued their consistent dominance like the Carolina Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs, and New York Rangers. Meanwhile, strong teams in the Los Angeles Kings, Colorado Avalanche, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Minnesota Wild might be worth mentioning as having an outside shot.

With these parameters set, let’s look at how one might make a case for the Oilers duo.

Coach Jay Woodcroft has continually improved the team

While last year’s half season of work saw the type of dramatic turnaround that voters value for the Jack Adams, the limited number of games was likely not enough to sway voters on Jay Woodcroft’s 2021–22 candidacy for the Coach of the Year. The turnaround might be too far in the past for voters to consider, but any latent appreciation in this respect would be welcome support.

This season has seen the Oilers continually improve as the season has drawn on, overcoming a middling start to emerge as one of the favourites in the Western Conference. For the first time in the cap era, the Oilers are a strong defensive team by key metrics such as expected goals against. While the Oilers performance in raw goals against and penalty killing efficiency leave a bit to be desired, it’s clear that Woodcroft’s season and a half with the team has yielded the best results the Oilers have managed in decades.

What more is that the Oilers have continually improved as a team as the season has worn on, a clear sign that Woodcroft’s coaching is continuing to forge the Oilers into a stronger team, aptly illustrated by the following chart showing rolling 25-game expected goal differentials.

Offensively McDavid and Leon Draisaitl lead the charge, but Woodcroft has overseen career seasons for other top Oilers forwards in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman. Scoring going up league-wide certainly helps in this area, but still it is clear that Woodcroft is getting the most out of his top players, generally putting them in positions to succeed.

Oilers blueline has never looked better

Things have gone well on the back end as well. None of Cody Ceci, Brett Kulak, or Tyson Barrie (prior to his trade) would be thought of as bonafide top four defenders, but all three have been surprisingly effective under Woodcroft. Most notably the development of Evan Bouchard is the highlight of the Woodcroft-era blueline, with the defenceman going from intriguing prospect to legitimate top four defenceman.

It is worth mentioning that Philip Broberg appears to be closely following Bouchard’s progression here, seeming destined to hold down the regular spot that has eluded him so far. Once again, Woodcroft is getting the most from his roster, if not fostering an environment that is conducive to players reaching or surpassing their potential.

Woodcroft has proven to be effective in utilising the bottom of his roster. Trusting depth pieces like Ryan McLeod and Vincent Desharnais has been invaluable, as has the coach’s being able to navigate an 11 forward–7 defencemen lineup to great success.

Locker room morale has greatly improved

Finally, from an anecdotal standpoint, the locker room discord that existed under former Oilers bench boss, Dave Tippett, has been silenced. Despite some potentially tumultuous moments the morale around the team is greatly improved.

Last winter, before Woodcroft’s promotion, speculation surrounding the happiness of McDavid and Draisaitl was highly discussed in league-wide conversations, not to mention a public airing of grievances between former coach Tippett and former goaltender Mikko Koskinen.

Winning has a lot to do with this improved morale, but many of the narratives of discord have been quelled. Even topics surrounding team toughness and the Oilers ability to perform without McDavid or Draisaitl on the ice are a thing of the past. It is almost impossible to suggest that Woodcroft’s tenure has been anything but a resounding success, solidifying a legitimate candidacy for his being the Coach of the Year.

Holland has played a role in the Oilers’ success

Meanwhile, even further up the chain, Oilers GM Ken Holland is worthy of some level of praise in the team’s overall success. The team’s overall results apply here as well, with Holland designing the team that Woodcroft has had so much success with.

Most recently, and likely the centrepiece of Holland’s candidacy for the Jim Gregory, is what the Oilers were able to achieve at the trade deadline. Acquiring veteran defender Mattias Ekholm has been an unequivocal success, upgrading the team’s blueline in overall quality as well as stylistic balance. The fact that Ekholm was acquired for what essentially amounts to draft capital and two of what were once widely considered the Oilers more worrisome contracts, Zack Kassian and Tyson Barrie, only further cements how strong the series of moves was. Not to be overlooked was the retained salary on Ekholm’s deal that allowed for enough space to acquire Nick Bjugstad, an upgrade to the Oilers bottom six forward group.

Are Holland’s missteps hard to ignore?

Of course, it hasn’t all gone perfectly for Holland this season. Notably, Jack Campbell’s contract is worrisome in both length and cap cost; though the goaltender’s 21–9–4 record across 36 games on the season shows that Campbell has not actually cost the Oilers many standings points regardless of his struggles. Campbell will not be expected to push for a Vezina Trophy at any point, but his price tag illustrates this aptly, despite being a point of contention. Campbell might as well be able to produce better individual results throughout the remainder of his deal, but perhaps like Kassian and Barrie, the contract might be moved on from before it becomes debilitating to the team’s overall construction. For now, Campbell has still managed to be a contributor.

Campbell’s inefficient contract, not to mention other contracts signed by Holland that might be described as such, are counteracted with a significant amount of value elsewhere on the roster. Recent signees Nugent-Hopkins, Skinner, McLeod, and Hyman are all great value deals that are worth mentioning and focusing on as much as the less desirable contracts on the Oilers roster are.

Holland’s second chance as Oilers GM

From a legacy perspective, the Oilers emergence adds a significant chapter to Holland’s storied GM career. With the Detroit Red Wings dynasty operating and ultimately fading under his watch, the public perception of Holland’s abilities had its positives and negatives. Was the team established enough by the time the NHL introduced the salary cap that Holland’s abilities were overstated? Were the ineffective moves made in the dying years of the Red Wings dynasty more to do with an owner who mandated a stubborn refusal to rebuild, or a result of Holland’s misevaluation of the roster?

By building the Oilers up from a disappointing team with elite talent to a true contender, Holland has likely tipped the scales in his favour, cementing his legacy as a capable GM. Yes, having two MVPs in their primes simultaneously is a favourable place to start, but even with McDavid and Draisaitl the Oilers were floundering when Holland took the reins.

Over Holland’s time with the Oilers the team has consistently improved, a trend that should outweigh any perceived individual missteps by this point. His work over the past handful of seasons is punctuated by some strong changes this season, which might be worthy of a GM of the Year nomination.

Likelihood of earning both awards

Though both Woodcroft and Holland have legitimate cases for the Jack Adams and Jim Gregory awards, the Oilers duo is not likely to be the favourite in either category. That being said, neither should be overlooked when discussing the nominees for the awards.

At this point one might think that Woodcroft has the better chance of the two, though another trip to the Western Conference Finals would undoubtedly put Holland in a very strong position for the GM of the Year. Though the discussions for individual awards for players are hotter topics at this point, now is the perfect time to start the hype trains for both Woodcroft and Holland for the excellence displayed in their roles.

Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

Gregory Babinski

twitter: @axiomsofice

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