After any team’s being eliminated from the playoffs, there is a procession of events and emotions. The initial shock of an exit taken too soon, the ceremonial handshake line ripe with storylines, right down to diagnosing the missteps of the team, the first days of a summer long autopsy. It might be easy for fans to get lost in the disappointment and heartbreak of a season gone by, but there is much to garner from the events that unfold, the wake of a season.
Among the most informative and revealing of the ceremonial closing of the shop are the exit interviews. While players are often in these scrums, the most interesting of these interviews comes from the coach and general manager. This year was no different for the Edmonton Oilers, who saw a handful of players take questions from the media, as well as Coach Jay Woodcroft and GM Ken Holland. There were some key takeaways that we can gather from these press conferences, tidbits about what went wrong, what the team thinks of the season from a larger perspective, as well as what plans might be coming in the near future.
Holland’s future with the organisation
Holland finished his fourth season with the Oilers, seeing their standings in the league continue its upward trajectory since taking over. With one year left on his deal, there were, and will continue to be, speculations on what the future might hold for Holland and the mantle of Oilers GM. Holland was clear in his commitment to returning for the final year of his deal. With rumours certain to continue following this story, at least until a plan beyond next season is shared with the public, this reassertion of purpose will only kick the story down the road for now.
Some of the speculation surrounding Holland’s future suggested that he will move into the president’s role for the Oilers. His vast experience as a GM would certainly be an asset to his abilities in such a role, as would his long history of preparing his former staff members for GM positions of their own. Steve Yzerman, Jim Nill, and Pat Verbeek have all become GMs after being part of Holland’s management teams in the past.
Explicitly, Holland was asked about Steve Staios, a name that is widely speculated to be on a trajectory to become an NHL GM at some point. Staios returned to the Oilers organisation after a successful run of seven seasons as President and GM of the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs. Staios’ time with the Bulldogs ended with an OHL championship as well as a second place finish at the 2022 Memorial Cup. Holland did little to quell speculations that Staios is being groomed for command, as Holland referred to Staios’ responsibilities growing to that of an Assistant GM next season, or Holland’s “right hand man”, as he put it, to be involved with every key decision the team makes.
Woodcroft continues to grow with the team
With the Oilers posting back-to-back 50 win seasons for the first time since the 1980s, there was little speculation surrounding the coach’s standing with the organisation. Despite this, both Holland and Woodcroft were asked about the coach’s performance, as were star players Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. From above and below these questions were met with a glowing endorsement of Woodcroft’s work.
Holland mentioned that although Woodcroft will continue to learn and gain experience that the team was responsive to the coach’s passion and attention to detail. Holland also mentioned that Woodcroft’s strong relationship with the Oilers key players is a sign that he remains the right coach for the team going forward. This message was echoed by McDavid and Draisaitl, who vouched for the coach with praise of their own.
The core of the Oilers lays a strong foundation
GM, coach, and players all expressed the opinion that the Oilers have a team capable of winning the Stanley Cup, and that is precisely why this was such a tough loss. A lot of credit was given to the Vegas Golden Knights, the Western Conference’s top seed and a strong program in their own right. From the Oilers organisation to the last corners of Oil Country there is a sense of disappointment, if not devastation, something that all parties were adamant in addressing.
Holland made reference to his cup winning teams in Detroit, stating that even though their Cup window was open for over 15 seasons they still only managed four Cups. The playoffs are a tough tournament to win, and even the best teams can be sunk by the smallest of circumstances. Though there will be shortcomings on every team, having enough talent to compete each and every year allows for the best opportunity at victory. Holland was clear in his belief that the main structure of the Oilers is strong enough to stand by.
Woodcroft, as well as all the players, reiterated this sentiment as well. There is a clear understanding and acknowledgment that the Oilers have a strong foundation going forward. Change is inevitable, but we should expect the Oilers’ overall skeleton to remain intact.
Team defence needs to improve
From a historical perspective, one of, if not the main criticism of the Oilers team over the McDavid era is their defensive performance. Over the course of this season we began to see the transformation of a middling defensive group into something stronger. This is a real development, one that was earned over the course of the season. Of course, adding a player of Mattias Ekholm’s defensive quality is sure to have an effect in legitimising and repeating these results.
That being said the Oilers defensive performance was still not enough, especially considering their situation in net with a tandem capable of playing well behind a strong defensive team, as opposed to a perennial Vezina candidate expected to steal games and cover up large amounts of lapses.
When asked about improving his team’s defence, Holland was sure to point out that each and every player can be a contributor in this aspect of the game, provided they exhibit the willingness to do so. Ekholm spoke on this matter as well, saying that the Oilers need to get more comfortable with low scoring games.
Perhaps most detailed in his explanation on team defence was Woodcroft. While he too agreed that the Oilers must raise their level here, the coach offered a more concrete approach to a solution. Woodcroft mentioned training camp as a crucial part of greater success, instilling defensive habits into the very fabric of the Oilers reforged identity in 2023–24.
The Oilers did well in showing their ability to play strong defensively this season, but a lapse of just 89 seconds made a huge difference in the Oilers’ Game 5 loss to the Golden Knights. To become a championship level defensive team, the Oilers will have to prioritise focus and consistency from the first practices of training camp.
What can the team do about goaltending?
A more consistent defensive effort will be instrumental in getting more from the tandem of Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner next season. It was a fantastic rookie season for Skinner, but the playoffs proved that the Calder Trophy candidate is far from invincible.
More concerning might be the play and contract of Campbell, as the first year of his deal in Edmonton did not go according to plan. Campbell had clear struggles from the outset of the season, and it wasn’t long before he lost the starter’s role to Skinner. That being said, Campbell had a strong record during the regular season, and played quite well in relief of Skinner in the playoffs. In the end, the right call might have been to give Campbell some starts in the playoffs, either to ride the hot hand or to afford Skinner some time to rest and reset after being pulled.
Still, Holland was asked to assess the Campbell signing in his exit presser, where he stood by the player. Holland cited increased pressure that Campbell was likely putting on himself to live up to the deal, by far the highest of his career, as a contributor in some of the struggles. Under this premise, Holland stated a belief that Campbell will bounce back next season, likely referring to Phillip Grubauer as a goalie who underwent a similar situation a season prior.
In any case, with a 61.8 win percentage in the regular season, a 1.19 goals against average and 0.957 save percentage in the playoffs (albeit only across parts of three games), there are a lot of positives one could take from Campbell’s season. Should the cap finally return to rising season to season, Campbell’s $5M cap hit becomes more and more appropriate for a tandem starter. Combined with Skinner’s reasonable cap hit, the Oilers will continue to have an effective and cost efficient situation in net going forward.
Skinner seems to be blazing a trail towards being a legitimate starting goalie, if not a potential option for a best on best team Canada, but still should not be expected to have career seasons every year. Some turbulence along his ascending flight path are quite likely.
The secret will be in embracing their work as a tandem, as they can help keep each other rested and bring the best out in each other. Even league wide tandems are continuing to become more common, as three of the final four playoff teams have seen multiple goalies start in the playoffs already. In short, the Broth Brothers will need each other, as well as a strong team in front of them, to deliver a championship to Oil Country, something that their GM, coach, and teammates believe that they can do.
Oil as fuel
The path forward will be a tough one to navigate. As McDavid pointed out in his exit presser, even to make it back to the playoffs is a long road. It can be daunting, even off putting to think only of the destination while not appreciating the steps it takes to make it there, even for fans.
Narratives such as “the regular season doesn’t matter” are not productive, even from a fan’s perspective. In truth, each season a team’s identity needs to be reforged, earned anew. The Oilers won’t have a chance to do so as a group until next fall, but already the journey has started for them as individuals.
Though Holland, McDavid, and Draisaitl spoke about devastation, Woodcroft spoke at length about “repurposing disappointment” and using it as “motivational fuel”. The competitive fire was visibly present in all those who spoke to the media, and clearly Woodcroft won’t need to stoke the fires of many in his group.
Skinner doubled down with a fairly clear example of his coach’s message. After being pulled against the Los Angeles Kings early in Game 4, Skinner broke his stick in anger. He kept the stick as a reminder that he will face adversity, but can always overcome it. This is a tangible illustration of repurposed disappointment, as motivational fuel.
With all of the Oilers made available echoing this sentiment, it is clear that the group is on the same page. We should expect a focused group headed into next season.
Heading into the off-season
Even after the season has ended, injuries to players can be difficult to detail. Naturally, after any NHL team is eliminated from the playoffs there is a list of publicly undocumented injuries that are revealed, at least in part. The Oilers were no different this season with Evander Kane, Zach Hyman, and Warren Foegele all playing through injuries in the playoffs.
Draisaitl appears adamant on making his way to join team Germany at the World Championships. As the best player from his country, he is a big part of their national program.
With the salary cap on the rise, potentially even more that the current $1M projected increase, the Oilers will have even more room to work with thanks to the residual cap hits of Milan Lucic and Andrej Sekera coming off of the books. Even before considering any cap dump trades the Oilers should have some options open for improvements.
In all, the Oilers are in good shape despite their untimely exit from the playoffs. There are many questions ahead, and many things to get to before next season starts, but as the group disbands for the summer they do so with a collective desire, a unified sense of purpose that will propel them to another strong performance next season.
Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire