When it was announced early Sunday morning that Edmonton Oilers Head Coach Jay Woodcroft had been fired, Paul Bissonnette aka BizNasty put it best by noting that the Oilers are headline hogs!
Oilers’ goaltending situation
The Oilers have been creating plenty of undesirable headlines lately. After a horrendous start to the season, Jack Campbell was waived by the team on November 7 and sent to Bakersfield to “find his game.” This was only 16 months after signing a huge five-year $5M AAV contract offered by GM Ken Holland. There were plenty of rumours that despite the messaging, the franchise has moved on from Campbell and were actively looking to trade for a goalie.
Plenty of names were floated around including Juuse Saros and Jeremy Swayman, both of which would have required major overpays, and more realistic options in Jake Allen and Jordan Binnington. Elliott’s Friedman would note on his 32 Thoughts podcast that the Oilers were close to making a deal on November 8 but it ultimately fell through.
Campbell would create more headlines by going on to allow four goals in back-to-back games for the Bakersfield Condors. I’ve watched this highlight several times in slow motion and I still have no idea how it went in? That is a goal however, that goes in on a goalie who has lost all confidence in his game.
Time for a coaching change
The same night that goal went in, the Oilers would lose the NHL toilet bowl to the San Jose Sharks, who were one game away from setting an NHL record for futility to start a season prior to playing the Oilers. The Sharks game featured a regular theme in that the Oilers dominated the play and shot clock only to let in an untimely goal and run into a hot goalie. The lasting image from that game would be Woodcroft leaving the ice with Assistant Coach Dave Manson. I’m not the best lip reader but the writing on the wall for Woodcroft seemed to be clear.
A rumor the next day would float around that the Oilers would fire Woodcroft at the end of the road trip they were on. Despite a solid effort from the Oilers in a 4–1 win over the Kraken, the rumour of Woodcroft’s firing would turn out to be true.
What went wrong
It’s funny because during the poor to start the season, there was a loud contingent of fire Woodcroft chatter. There were plenty of rumblings that he had lost the room, the new system was not working, a new voice was needed. A coaching change is the best way to shake things up when a team is slumping. Mark Spector even wrote an article that the 2–9–1 record should cost Woodcroft his job because firing the GM does not shake up the locker room.
There was also a large contingent of fans who would point out that GM Ken Holland was the one who signed Campbell to that contract, assembled this roster, and handcuffed his owns hands by his poor handling of the salary cap.
Woodcroft’s record as Oilers coach would also be used in his defence going 79–41–13, and his .643% win percentage is the best in Oilers coaching history. There are also theories that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have been playing with injuries. This would be an excellent explanation for their respective poor starts, in fact they are now entering their worst stretches of hockey (point wise) for their careers.
The biggest defence for keeping Woodcroft would be the absolute poor goaltending the Oilers got from Stuart Skinner .861 SV% and Campbell .873 SV%. It is incredibly difficult to overcome poor goaltending and even more so when you get the worst in the NHL. There were a few times when the Oilers were playing well, outshooting their opponents, only to see them completely deflated after allowing the first goal of the game. The Oilers team advanced stats (as of writing this article) would confirm their good play by posting the following:
NHL #1 xGF%: 57.82, NHL #2 CF%: 57.91, NHL #1: HDCF% 61.94
There is and was a legitimate case for keeping Woodcroft and that with good goaltending the Oilers would regress back to the mean and start winning games. Woodcroft’s last game versus the Seattle Kraken was an excellent example. They got the early save from Skinner, ended up scoring four goals in the first period, and cruised to an easy win despite not registering a third period shot! Worth noting was the Oilers only allowed 18 shots on net.
Going out with a Bang!
It’s possible word of Woodcroft getting canned got out and the boys “won one for the gipper” as the result would not change Woody’s future. Woodcroft’s post game availability had a couple interesting moments when he gave Spector a one word answer before quickly moving on the next question.
At the 2:57 mark he also answered the question with: “I think it (the win) will settle down some people (Spector) in this scrum.”
Similarities to Tippett
As the poor start to this season continued, it was a tad eerie to see Woodcroft take on some characteristics of former Head Coach Dave Tippett. Most notably loading up the top line with McDavid and Draisaitl. The other would be his preference to use “favourites” Vincent Desharnais over Philip Broberg and refusing to give Dylan Holloway a chance in the top six, especially after it became clear Connor Brown needed more time to get back up to NHL speed.
Oiler fans also questioned sending down Ralphie Lavoie after an impressive training camp. Woodcroft’s usage of Holloway, Broberg, and Lavoie was reminiscent of Tippett’s poor development of Jesse Puljujarvi. Like Tippett favoured Mike Smith over Mikko Koskinen, Woodcroft did coach Skinner in Bakersfield and favoured Skinner in the playoffs even after it appears he hit a wall and Campbell filled in nicely in relief. Could Campbell’s lack of confidence be blamed on Woodcroft?
Both Tippett and Woodcroft also both used the blender often. I don’t think there was a game this year when the lineup stayed the same throughout the game. I could understand a players frustration with lack of chemistry when you constantly have different linemates. Worth noting during the Oilers press conference was that new Head Coach Kris Knoblauch mentioned “players like consistency.”
Lack of accountability
Jason Gregor has been harping on this for a few weeks now and Woodcroft could be blamed for not holding his players accountable for poor decisions that lead to losses. Most notably Evan Bouchard pinching the blue line leading to odd man rushes against. Was the lack of accountability and playing favourites another reason why Woodcroft was let go?
Did Woodcroft lose the room?
It is possible that Woodcroft had lost the room. It’s not the first time a coach has attempted to get this team to play defence first hockey. I could see a scenario in which this roster likes to run and gun, and when the coach tries to implement a defensive system, the team tunes him out and plays a style that will get him fired. It would not be the first time in the NHL that this has happened.
It is quite baffling that the Oilers performed so well with an offence first approach and were an absolute disaster when asked to play a defensive system. It doesn’t add up because switching from a hybrid man-to-man to a box and one zone should not have been as difficult as it was for the Oilers this season. Sometimes you just have to coach the team you have instead of the system you want to play.
During the Oilers press conference, Ken Holland said “he didn’t think Woodcroft had lost the room” but that could be a GM saving face for the outgoing coach and a locker room that possibly quit on yet another coach.
The coaching carousel continues
As is stands Woodcroft and Manson are out and Kris Knoblauch and Paul Coffey are in. Knoblauch will be the 11th head coach since owner Daryl Katz purchased the team 15 years ago in 2008. Knoblauch will be McDavid’s fifth head coach in eight years. The immediate reaction was to note that Knoblauch coached McDavid in junior as well as a few other players who had current Oilers POHO Jeff Jackson as their agent.
Paul Coffey is an Oilers legend and Hall of Famer with little coaching pedigree. Paul Gazzola had some interesting takes on the Coffey hire. Gazzola notes that Coffey is the advisor to owner Daryl Katz and was brought in as a skills coach in 2018 or 2019 only to keep tabs on Todd McLellan and his staff. Then he was brought back in as an advisor two years ago to keep an eye on Holland. When Coffey was brought in, he and Holland did not get along, butted heads and cleared the air after a long meeting and conversation. Last offseason however Gazzola was told that Coffey was running the team until someone else was brought in. So apparently Coffey was running the team until Jackson was brought in and now Coffey is the assistant head coach.
What to expect moving forward
It’s not like the Oilers have had bad 10 to 12 games stretches under Woodcroft, but the timing of having this losing streak at the beginning of the season when the Oilers were favoured to win the Cup was unlucky to say the least. It’s possible that the poor start to the season gave Jackson the excuse to bring in “his guy” as the new head coach.
Knoblauch is well respected around the league and won the WHL Championship in his first year coaching the Kootenay Ice in 2011. He was named OHL coach of the year in 2016 and won the OHL Championship the following year. He then served two years as assistant coach for the Philadelphia Flyers before taking the head coach job for the New York Rangers affiliate Harford Wolf Pack, posting a 119–90–32 record over four seasons. He also won four out of six games as interim coach when the Rangers staff tested positive for COVID-19. It appears he was next in line for the Rangers job so bringing him in instead of a re-tread does make sense. At his press conference Knoblauch said all the right things and stated he preferred a zone defence.
More headlines coming
What an incredible week for the Oilers. The lack of cohesion from Jackson and Holland on the Knoblauch hiring only adds to the drama unfolding before our eyes!
Based on the presser and to many Oiler fans delight, it appears that Holland is now on the hot seat and more then likely will not be back next year as he finishes out his contract. I don’t think it’s far fetched to believe Jackson will want to bring in “his GM”. Like sands through the hour glass, we wait for the Oilers rumour mill to churn out more headlines and oh yeah they play three games this week. Stay tuned.
Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire