Oilers’ Questionable Coaching Decisions Were Costly Against the Avalanche

Now that the dust has settled, I can acknowledge that head coach Jay Woodcroft turned the Edmonton Oilers’ season around when he took over the bench on Feb. 11. The Oilers were outside of a playoff spot when he took over, and the team went 26-9-3 the rest of the regular season, and he guided them to the Western Conference Final. He was tremendous, and he should be one of the team’s biggest off-season re-signings.

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In the first two rounds of the postseason versus the Los Angeles Kings and the Calgary Flames, he outcoached his rival bench bosses. One was his former mentor Todd McLellan, and the other was the most recent Jack Adams Award winner, Darryl Sutter. Whether it was winning two elimination games in a row in the first series against the Kings or winning four straight against the Flames, Woodcroft adjusted to any given situation either by specific player deployment at the right time, switching to his 11 forward and seven defensemen system or regrouping his team and rebounding after a loss.

That said, for most of the decisions he made throughout the playoffs, I said, “that’s brilliant.” However, when it was time to face the Colorado Avalanche, some puzzling coaching decisions were made. They weren’t the difference between winning and losing the series, but they contributed to Edmonton’s exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Why Weren’t Nurse’s Minutes Reduced if He Was Battling Injury?

After Game 2 against the Avalanche, Woodcroft was asked his assessment of Darnell Nurse’s play in the postgame interview, and he responded by saying, “He’s giving it everything he has.” There were rumours the Oilers’ soon-to-be $9.25 million AAV defenseman was battling an injury, and after they were ousted last Monday, Nurse himself confirmed he was suffering from a torn hip flexor.

Jay Woodcroft Edmonton Oilers
Jay Woodcroft, Edmonton Oilers head coach (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Nurse was on the ice for 27 of the Oilers’ 59 goals against in the playoffs. Against the Avalanche, he was on for 12 of the Avalanche’s 22 goals. He showed signs that his injury was affecting his mobility early in the series. Late in the first period in Game 1, Nathan Mackinnon waltzed around the usually quick-footed Nurse — and put the puck past goaltender Mike Smith. The Oilers’ defender, who finished with a minus-6 in four games, struggled the rest of the series.

On that note, it was clear that Nurse was struggling, and the question is, why weren’t his minutes reduced? For most of the series, he led the Oilers’ defenders in time on ice — I understand he was giving it his all — but he was also a liability out there. Woodcroft, who’s had previous success running his 11 forwards and seven defensemen system, didn’t deploy that tactic until the Oilers were behind in the series by two, which would’ve automatically reduced Nurse’s ice time.

Also, why didn’t Brett Kulak receive Nurse’s minutes? Aside from Nurse when he’s 100%, Kulak was the Oilers’ best skating defenseman and was praised for his ability to break up the cycle and his excellent gap control. The veteran, who played in the Stanley Cup Final with the Montreal Canadiens last season, logged a whole 43 minutes less than Nurse this postseason. He’s not a first-pairing defender, but he was the best defenseman the Oilers had at their disposal to keep up with the speedy opposition that includes Mackinnon and Cale Makar.

Woodcroft Used His 4th Line at the Wrong Moment in Game 2

The Oilers and Avalanche were tied heading into the second period of Game 2, which wasn’t bad, considering Game 1 saw 14 goals scored between the two teams. Around the 16-minute mark of the middle frame, Nurse gave away the puck in his own end that ended up on Nazem Kadri’s stick. The Avalanche forward shot the puck, and it was tipped home by Arturri Lehkonen. At the time, the Oilers’ second line of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Leon Draisaitl, and Kailer Yamamoto was on the ice.

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Woodcroft’s deployment of players after that first goal was very questionable. In that situation, he needed a bounce-back shift to turn the tide because, at the time, Colorado’s arena was rocking, and their crowd was creating energy for the home team. The reasonable decision to sway momentum away from Colorado was to send out the line of Connor McDavid, Evander Kane, and Zach Hyman on the very next shift. Instead, Woodcroft sent out the fourth line of Josh Archibald, Zack Kassian, and Derek Ryan.

The puck was dropped and immediately dumped into the Oilers’ zone. Nurse flubbed a pass behind the net, and Ryan lost a board battle. The puck ended up on Kadri’s stick, who passed it to Josh Manson, and he hammered the puck home to make it 2-0 in less than 20 seconds after the first goal.

Again, why toss out the fourth line, which was mostly ineffective in the series, when you have the world’s best player at your disposal to change the momentum? That second goal was deflating and left the Oilers in disarray. The Avalanche scored their third goal of the game only two minutes later. However, that second goal, after a good first period from the Oilers, took the wind out of their sail, and they weren’t able to recover, losing the game 4-0.

The deployment of Archibald, Kassian, and Ryan after the second goal was puzzling. It may or may not have been a difference-maker in the outcome of the game, but it was questionable to put them on the ice in such a pivotal moment, especially since Archibald (4:07), Kassian (6:43), and Ryan (6:46) played the least amount of any Oiler until that point, and eventually, on the night.

Was Brad Malone the Right Player to Take the Faceoff in Overtime?

Right before the series-winning overtime goal in Game 4, colour commentator Craig Simpson said on the CBC broadcast, “Every faceoff is a critical one as both these coaches look and say ‘o.k, where’s the draw going to be?’ It’s on the right side, so you try and to get someone on the strong side, and for Edmonton here, it’s Malone to try to win one on his strong side, defensively.” It was foreshadowing at its finest because seconds later, the Oilers lost the draw and Artturri Lehkonen scored the series winner.

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The question I have here is, was Brad Malone the right player to take this important faceoff? I understand his role as a two-way, defensively sound, bottom-six player, but the captain of the Bakersfield Condors isn’t a regular in the NHL.

McDavid and Draisaitl’s line was on for the first minute of overtime, and the “All Ryan” line of Nugent-Hopkins, Ryan McLeod, and (Derek) Ryan took the next shift for all of 14 seconds before the play was stopped in the Oilers’ zone. Now, instead of leaving the “All Ryan” line of all-natural centermen, the Oilers’ decided to switch the forward group for the fourth line of Kassian, Warren Foegele, and Malone. Remember, in that situation, the Oilers had the last change, being at home. They would’ve seen Makar — who might be the front runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy — on the ice. Woodcroft should have known that if the Oilers lose the faceoff, Makar will have free reign to dance around their fourth-line players.

McDavid and Draisaitl were still resting from their previous shift, so they weren’t a solid choice to take the draw, but it’s questionable to send your American Hockey League (AHL) player for what turned out to be the most important faceoff of the Oilers’ season. I understand Malone had won four of seven faceoffs in the series, but there were better candidates to take that draw.

The faceoff was on the left side of Mike Smith, so Ryan, being a right-handed shot, wasn’t on his strong side. Nugent-Hopkins wasn’t good in the circle for most of the series (only winning 39% of the draws), but McLeod, who took 498 more faceoffs than Malone in the regular season (winning 48% of them) at the NHL level, should have been the player to take that draw. Instead, Malone lost the faceoff, the puck ended up on Makar’s stick, he shot it, Lehkonen batted it down and put the puck past Smith to end the Oilers’ season.

Related: 4 Questions Oilers Will Immediately Need to Answer After Playoff Sweep

Even if Woodcroft felt confident in Malone to take the draw, why wouldn’t he load the line with another centerman, like McLeod, in case Malone got kicked out of the circle? Again, despite all the brilliant decisions he made throughout the playoffs, this one alone was a head-scratcher.

It’s hard to pick apart the decisions made by a man who completely changed the outlook of the Oilers’ season. Maybe it’s because he made such amazing decisions before then that his puzzling and rather costly decisions stood out so much. Nonetheless, general manager Ken Holland stated in their end-of-season interviews that he’d like to have Woodcroft back, and they’ll meet next week to discuss his future. Admittedly, he moved the needle forward for the organization, and it would be beneficial for the Oilers if they can sign him long-term.

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