As the Edmonton Oilers continue to lose games, the head coaching duties of Dave Tippett seem more and more likely to come to an end. The team has a 2-8-2 record in the past month, and the only two wins came when Tippett was in COVID-protocol and wasn’t coaching the games.
This gave us and hopefully general manager Ken Holland a look at what can happen with a new voice behind the bench. With that said, there will be a lot of names flying around outside of the organization like Mike Babcock, Paul Maurice, Claude Julien, or Rick Tocchet. Rather, the Oilers should look internally for a quick and seamless transition to a new head coach very soon. There are two names that stand out, and it’s the Oilers’ two assistant/associate coaches who took over head coaching responsibilities while Tippett was out: Glen Gulutzan and Jim Playfair.
Both coaches have been behind the Oilers’ bench for a few years now and know the players and systems and execute their jobs well. With Tippett’s job in jeopardy, a change may be coming in the very near future.
Let’s start with Gulutzan, a more offensive-minded coach. He works with the power play and is a big reason why they have been at the top of the NHL for the past three seasons, as well as the talent that the Oilers have on the ice. He has been with the Oilers as an assistant coach for four seasons now, starting in 2018-19.
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Their power play has finished ninth in 2018-19 at 21.2 percent while posting a losing record and first the following three seasons, including in 2020-21. In 2019-20, the power play clicked at 29.5 percent, 4.3 percent better than second place. In 2020-21, their power play was 27.6 percent, two percent higher than second place, and this season they are above 30 percent, converting 30.5 percent of their power plays.
The last time a team’s power play has even been better than the Oilers’ power play in 2019-20 (29.5%) or this season (30.5%) was in 1978-79 by the New York Islanders, when they finished at 31.2 percent. Over the four years as coach of the power play, Gultzan has the Oilers converting 26.5 percent of the time, 2.2 percent higher than the next best teams, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins. And we all know how good they’ve both been.
A good power play can mean the difference in games, especially when the opposing team is more prone to taking penalties. If the Oilers move their feet and play a quick and hard game, this will also draw more penalties (if the referees decide to call it) to put them in the position to score.
Gulutzan has plenty of experience coaching at all levels, and he’s found himself coaching in the NHL since 2011-12, whether it has been as a head coach or an assistant coach. As a head coach, he coached the Dallas Stars for two seasons from 2011-13 with a record of 64-57-9 but missed the playoffs both seasons. He then coached the Vancouver Canucks as an assistant for three seasons before getting his second crack at a head coaching job in the NHL with the Calgary Flames. This time, it saw his team go 82-68-14 and make the playoffs off of a 45 win season before getting eliminated in the first round.
Instead of a strategy that most power plays execute, Gulutzan goes about getting the Oilers’ power play to play a more downhill game, which means more north and south passes rather than east-west and attempting to feed a lot of seam passes through. If his team is in the minority and has been atop the league on the power play, there’s no need to adjust to the norm when the Oilers are the standard.
He has shown what more he can do and has paid his dues once again as an assistant. He should be at the top of the list as a replacement if and what seems like when a coaching change happens in Edmonton.
The second of the internal options behind the bench in Edmonton right now is associate coach Playfair. He has a bit longer résumé but less head coaching experience at the NHL level despite his one showing. In Playfair’s one season as head coach for the Flames in 2006-07, his team went 43-29-10 but lost in the first round of the playoffs. Since then, he has never been given the opportunity to assume the role of head coach at the NHL level.
Before Playfair took over for one year as head coach for the Flames, he was an assistant for three. Then after one season, his role changed to associate coach, a title change that he negotiated on his contract because it looks better. He stayed in that position for the following two seasons, making the playoffs but suffering a first-round exit both seasons.
Playfair then coached the Stockton Heat, the Flames’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, in a head coaching role for two seasons. He went 77-61-22 and made it as far as the second round one year. This was his last time as a head coach, and it was in 2010-11. He has since been an associate coach for six seasons with the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes and the past three with the Oilers.
Playfair discussed on the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast that he wants each defenceman to get at least one shot per period. If that is successful, that means that there were at least 18 shots throughout the game from the point or closer, more than likely with traffic in front of the net and players around to tip, screen, and get rebounds. Add that to the offence the forwards create, and the team will be spending significantly more time in the offensive zone rather than defending. In this case, a good offence means a better defence.
Playfair brings the defensive aspect to the Oilers and preaches the four basic areas to defend. It starts at the offensive blue line, and a big reason why he could be a great fit is that philosophy and his focus on all areas of the ice while thinking about defence. I will go into more detail on that.
Spending time in the offensive zone, supporting the offence, and getting yourself organized at the offensive blue line is where it starts. Were the defencemen aggressive enough to stop the breakout and rush up the ice? If so, then it allows the forwards that bit of extra time to get back and be able to support.
The problem with playing from behind is being more aggressive since the team is always trailing. So forwards are deeper, and defencemen have to be more aggressive in the offensive zone, resulting in odd-man rushes against. Then the system Playfair teaches falls apart. You wonder why the Oilers are 10-0-0 when they score first? Being able to play a more structured game and not always thinking offence has a big part to do with that.
Playfair goes on to say, “from there, you get back inside off the rush and breach the rush and protect inside the dots to get a read.” This happens as the offence is coming through the neutral zone and into their own end. Once arriving in the defensive zone, the next area to defend is to try and get the first 1-on-1 stop and get the puck. If the defence can slow the puck down or stop it and get control, the support coming back is typically on the side where the puck entered the zone. Having said that, the puck shouldn’t always be just rimmed around the boards and up the other side because generally, the winger isn’t there to stop it and get control. Playfair wants to bring the puck out on the same side as it entered more often than not due to the friendly support.
Again we see one of the aspects of defence be a bit focused on offence. The fourth and final area to defend is the breakout. The defencemen have been encouraged to break the puck out through the middle to players like Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins because it creates a faster transition game and drives the team out of the zone.
Playfair has had a lot of time behind the bench to come up with great thinking like the defensive strategy for his team, and it could just find him leading the bench in the near future. Either Gulutzan or Playfair would be solid replacements for the time being, even as an interim head coach until someone Holland has his eye on becomes available or it’s the right time.