Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland decided to fire Dave Tippet and promote Jay Woodcroft from the American Hockey League to take over head coaching duties for the Oilers, and so far, the move is paying dividends. The club is much improved defensively and went undefeated in the first five games under the new coaching staff.
The Oilers are doing a better job of not giving up the opening goal of the game and playing with a lead. With the wins beginning to pile up, the team is still battling for a playoff spot in the Pacific Division and getting contributions from multiple sources in the lineup. There are several players who are getting seeing increased roles under Woodcroft and the familiarity of coaching multiple players within the organization’s system in the minor leagues is helping make the transition all the more seamless. Players are trying to earn the respect of their new coach and fight for playing time and these upcoming players are benefiting the most from the head coaching change.
Technically speaking, there are already three players benefiting from Woodcroft’s hiring, but because they are all goalies, we will group them together as one. Edmonton’s goaltending is the team’s most controversial position and is the team’s Achilles heel this season because of the inability to get consistent starts from whichever goaltender is in the crease.
Tippet’s dismissal came the day after the Oilers lost back-to-back games with Mike Smith getting the start in both and allowing four goals against in each of those games. Smith remained the Oilers’ goaltender of choice after Woodcroft took over, starting three of the first five games all of which were wins while posting five goals against in total.
Stuart Skinner also got a start on the second night of a back-to-back and posted a shutout against the San Jose Sharks. If any of the Oilers goaltenders is familiar with Woodcroft it is Skinner who flourished under his system during his time in Bakersfield. The trust Woodcroft puts in Skinner surely provided Skinner with confidence to go out on the ice and perform with a similar system implemented on the ice in front of him. The Skinner-Woodcroft relationship will likely continue to grow at the NHL level likely next season if Woodcroft returns as head coach and Skinner takes the next step in his development and becomes a full-time NHL player next season.
Mikko Koskinen became the Oilers whipping boy under Tippett and a new coach surely gave Koskinen a much-needed breathe of fresh air. Koskinen was openly criticized by Tippett at times during the season for his blunders and inconsistency and having a new coach allows Koskinen the opportunity to prove to himself, the fans, and his new coach that he can be a solid option in the crease. He only started three out of the first nine games of Woodcroft’s tenure but is much more sound in the crease sporting a 6-1-1 record in over his last eight games played.
Each goaltender is benefitting in different ways from this coaching change whether it is because of familiarity, confidence, or playing with a chip on their shoulder. Nonetheless, Woodcrofts new defensive-minded systems are the main reason that all of the Oilers’ goaltenders are benefitting from the coaching change. The Oilers improved their goals against per game from 3.32 which ranked 10th highest in the league to 2.78 which is now 21st highest with much better team defense being played in front of the netminders. Having solid defensive play in their own zone gives any goalie the Oilers use in the crease a more relaxed mindset heading into games leading to enhanced play.
The young center is seeing his role increase as time moves along under his newish head coach. Woodcroft is familiar with Ryan McLeod and his skillset after coaching him last season in Bakersfield where McLeod finished with 28 points in 28 games played. Since the coaching change, Mcleod only accumulated four assists in the nine games but the opportunity he is being given in being put into a top six-role is the important takeaway.
In his first game under Woodcroft, he played a total of 7:06 of ice time and saw that grow including playing a career-high 20:04 of ice time against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 23, 2022. Even before injuries began to take a toll on the Oilers lineup he was being given a larger role but with recent injuries to Ryan-Nugent Hopkins and uncertainty of Kailer Yamamoto, he is being depended on more as the third line center.
The familiarity between player and coach is allowing McLeod to be more comfortable with his game and being given a role on the teams’ penalty kill. He is still yet to unlock the scoring upside he showed in the minors at the NHL level but his expanded role is a positive sign that he is a trusted member of the team and coaching staff which should eventually lead to offensive production.
The offensive defenseman went through a rough patch towards the end of Tippett’s tenure going pointless in the nine games prior to his dismissal. Barrie began the season playing with Nurse but was quickly displaced by Evan Bouchard on the top pair and even forfeited time on the top powerplay unit.
Since the coaching change, Barrie is finding his role revert back to the way it was to begin the season, even despite Woodcroft opting to play with seven defensemen most of the time. Barrie is back to playing consistent minutes and being relied on to generate offense from the back end. He reclaimed his spot on the teams’ top power play and he is now up to five points through nine games under Woodcroft compared to the 17 points in the 38 games under Dave Tippett.
He is not producing at the same rate he did a season ago but the improvement as of late is an encouraging sign for a player who struggled over the last few weeks. He is proving to be a reliable option for Woodcroft to turn to and when he is not overused can be very productive at both ends of the rink.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the coaching change is veteran forward Zach Hyman who is one of the hottest members of the team. He was put back onto the teams’ top line with Connor McDavid and is producing much more offensively over the first nine games with Woodcroft at the helm. Hyman was shuffled around the lineup regularly under Tippett despite primarily being brought in to play alongside McDavid. Now that he is being deployed exclusively on the team’s top line and powerplay unit the offensive production is becoming more consistent.
He is up to nine points in as many games and played a season-high 26:39 of ice time on Feb. 27, 2022, against the Carolina Hurricanes. The increased role is part of the injuries the Oilers are facing at the forward position but Hyman appears to be one of Woodcroft’s most reliable forwards who he can deploy in any position. Getting increased opportunity is one thing but being able to seize that opportunity and provide consistent production puts him in the new head coach’s good books moving forward.
Improved Under Woodcroft
The Oilers are much improved under Woodcroft and although it is tough to adjust to a new coach and system midseason the players have done a good job thus far. The implementation of a solid defensive system is proving to be beneficial to the team in preventing goals making the lives of their highly criticized goaltenders much easier. The importance of having a coach at the helm who knows the younger players in the system will also help bring them along and put them into positions to succeed.
I am a graduate of Seneca Colleges Civil Engineering Technology Program and have turned my obsession for sports into a lifestyle. I have been covering the Edmonton Oilers here on The Hockey Writers since 2019. I love fantasy sports, collecting sports memorabilia and listening to classic rock with a cold one or a coffee in my hand.