It has been just over a week since Jay Woodcroft made his debut behind the bench for the Edmonton Oilers, after being named the NHL team’s new head coach on Feb. 10 when his predecessor Dave Tippett was fired.
The Oilers won that game, 3-1 over the New York Islanders on Feb. 11, and they’ve since reeled off three more victories as Woodcroft has started his career as an NHL head coach a perfect 4-0. Before the coaching change, Edmonton had won just seven times in 23 games, a slump spanning two months that led to Tippett’s dismissal.
Edmonton is playing like an entirely different team with Woodcroft at the helm, outscoring the opposition by an average of 3.25 goals per game. While it’s not uncommon for a team to find success in the early days of a new head coach before regressing to the mean, this upswing appears sustainable.
Positive Changes Are Evident on Oilers
There appears to be a 180-degree shift in going from Tippett to Woodcroft, noticeable not just by the numbers in the boxscore but the demeanor of the players. And after Edmonton thumped the Anaheim Ducks 7-3 on Thursday (Feb. 17) for its fourth consecutive win, veteran Oilers forward Derek Ryan pulled no punches during the post-game media availability, as he discussed the many positive differences with the team over these last few games.
“I think we’re just so much more detailed than we were earlier in the year,” said Ryan, who signed with the Oilers as a free agent last summer. “I think everyone’s on the same page, we’ve been working on certain things that we struggled on earlier in the year.”
Ryan never mentioned his former coach by name, but he didn’t have to. There’s only one man who was in charge earlier in the year, and that’s Tippett, and by painting a stark contrast between the present and immediate past, Ryan confirmed what many outside observers suspected. If the Oilers’ recent results didn’t already serve as an indictment of Tippett, Ryan’s comments certainly did.
Woodcroft Giving More Opportunity to More Players
Unlike his predecessor, who was known for throwing lines in a blender and leaning heavily on superstar forwards Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, Woodcroft has kept his forward combinations and defensive pairings consistent and distributed minutes throughout the lineup more evenly.
In the first 44 games of the season, before the coaching change, seven Oilers averaged 20-plus minutes per game, led by defenseman Darnell Nurse with a whopping 26:35 per game. Since then, just four Oilers are averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time, topping out with Nurse at 23:02. All 17 skaters that have dressed for each of the four games since Woodcroft’s arrival are averaging at least 11:48, where Tippett had several regulars playing less than that.
The result has been a remarkable surge in depth scoring. Over these last four games, 11 different Oilers have scored, and 10 have at least three points. That’s virtually the same as over Tippett’s final nine games when 10 different Oilers scored, and 11 recorded three or more points.
“I don’t feel like in the game of hockey you can win the Stanley Cup with two guys,” said Ryan, who is now playing on Edmonton’s third line with Warren Foegele and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “That’s the beautiful thing about hockey, is you can’t have just the best player and win, you have to have the best team. I feel like guys have created some confidence, got more opportunity, and (Draisaitl and McDavid) are amazing, you can speak to that all day, but we need to be there to support them. We also need the opportunity to do so.”
Woodcroft’s willingness to give everyone an opportunity is most apparent with the man-advantage, as he has regularly deployed Edmonton’s second power-play unit, a foreign concept under Tippett.
“This is the first team I’ve been on where (using both units regularly) is not a regular occurrence, so I think that’s maybe a good thing to give guys more opportunity,” Ryan said, adding how critical it is to give members of the No. 1 power-play unit like McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins a chance to rest.
“It’s tough when they’re on for two minutes, and then they’re expected to be out again the second shift after,” Ryan said. “It drags on you, so that’s why I think it’s important to have two units that can play and contribute.”
Ryan Rediscovers His Game
Ryan is the poster child for the Oilers, who have found a new lease on life with Woodcroft. In 40 appearances while Tippett was in charge, the veteran winger had just six points (three goals, three assists) and averaged only 10:58 ice time. Since the coaching change, he’s up to playing 14:06 and has recorded four points (one goal, three assists) in four games.
“It was just hard earlier in the year when you’re not playing much, and you sit on the bench, and it’s pretty tough when you’re sitting there for 15-20 minutes, and then you’re expected to go out there and contribute,” said the 35-year-old Ryan, who came into this season averaging 35.4 points per 82 games over his NHL career. “I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, older legs maybe, but those legs get stagnant, and you don’t have the confidence to try to make a play.”
The former Carolina Hurricanes and Calgary Flames forward was asked if he had talked to Woodcroft about what he could bring to the team under his new coach. Ryan’s response to that question spoke volumes.
“I didn’t have that conversation (with Woodcroft), but I think it’s evident in how he ran the bench that he wanted to get the nine, 10, 11, 12 guys in the forward group going more, and I know that’s something that I’ve talked about with guys in the bottom six; we felt like we needed that. So I can’t speak for (Woodcroft), he can speak for it, but I feel like that’s been pretty clear by how he’s run the bench.”
Likewise, Ryan doesn’t have to speak in specifics about his former coach. That a change was needed is pretty clear by Edmonton’s latest results, and the Oilers will look to stay perfect with their new bench boss when they visit the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday (Feb. 19).
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.