The Todd McLellan era, like any recent Edmonton Oilers head coach’s tenure, is considered in Oil Country as an unfulfilled promise. While McLellan guided the Oilers to their only postseason series victory of the last 15 years, they also missed the playoffs in two of his three full seasons behind the bench.
McLellan’s tenure ended 20 games into the 2018-19 schedule when he was fired and replaced by Ken Hitchcock. The Oilers had changed coaches six times in less than 10 years before his dismissal. They’ve done it twice more since, and there hasn’t been much in the way of carryover from one coach to the next. Effectively, the Oilers are left to start from scratch, time and again.
But McLellan’s case, a seed had been planted that he left to grow, and from it has sprouted the newest head coach of the Oilers, Jay Woodcroft. McLellan’s longtime protégé was introduced on Feb. 10 as taking over from Dave Tippett, who was shown the door following a dreadful 10-week stretch during which Edmonton won just seven times in 23 games.
The Oilers have won Woodcroft’s first two games, 3-1 against the New York Islanders on Friday (Feb. 11) and 3-0 over the San Jose Sharks on Monday (Feb. 14). Now Woodcroft is looking to make it three-for-three when the Oilers take on the Los Angeles Kings at Crypto.com Arena on Tuesday. The Kings, of course, are coached by Woodcroft’s mentor, McLellan.
Woodcroft Follows McLellan from Detroit to San Jose
McLellan and Woodcroft first worked together with the Detroit Red Wings in 2005-06. McLellan was in his first season as an assistant to Wings head coach Mike Babcock, while Woodcroft had just retired as a player and taken the job of video coach in Detroit. After the Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2008, McLellan was hired for his first NHL head coaching gig by the San Jose Sharks. One of his earliest moves was hiring Woodcroft as an assistant coach.
Woodcroft helped McLellan guide San Jose to the NHL’s best record in 2008-09. That was followed by back-to-back appearances in the Western Conference Final in 2010 and 2011. The Sharks advanced to the postseason in each of their first six seasons under McLellan before finishing outside the postseason in 2014-15. Following that season, McLellan mutually agreed to part ways with the Sharks, who in turn fired all their assistant coaches, including Woodcroft.
Close-Knit Coaches Take Oilers Back to the Playoffs
In McLellan and Woodcroft’s first season in Edmonton, Connor McDavid’s rookie campaign, the Oilers finished with just 70 points, fewer than every other Western Conference team in 2015-16. The team made a huge leap in 2016-17, finishing second in the Pacific Division to clinch a postseason berth for the first time since 2006.
In the opening round of the 2017 Playoffs, the Oilers knocked off their coaches’ former club, San Jose, 4-2. They then pushed the veteran Anaheim Ducks to the limit before bowing out in seven games of the second-round series. The future appeared bright before the Oilers came crashing back to earth in 2017-18, finishing near the bottom of the standings, a disappointing 17 points back of a playoff spot.
Woodcroft Shifts to the American Hockey League
On April 27, 2018, Woodcroft was tapped for head coach of the Oilers’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Bakersfield Condors. From the time of their respective starts in the NHL with the Wings, McLellan and Woodcroft were attached at the hip. When McLellan coached Canada to gold at the 2015 IIHF World Championship, Woodcroft was there as an assistant. After he was named head coach of Team North America for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, McLellan brought Woodcroft on board as part of his staff. Now they would be apart for the first time since meeting in Detroit 13 years earlier.
“It’s a really great opportunity for him as an individual. Even more importantly, I think it’s a great thing for our organization,” McLellan said in an NHL.com article. “He can take our system, our program, our words, our language, and the pace that we want to play at in practice and drills. Everything you can think about and implement in Bakersfield for those young players.”
“I talked with Bob Stauffer of Oilers NOW and mentioned that I received a Ph.D. at Todd McLellan University,” Woodcroft told NHL.com. “He’s taught me about things like leadership, empathy, humility, all that type of stuff and been the example for when you do it right you give yourself a chance to succeed. I’m excited to still work closely with him, just in a different manner, and I’m very thankful to the opportunity that the organization has given me.”
McLellan & Woodcroft Take Separate Paths Back to NHL
McLellan’s stay in Edmonton lasted just one-quarter of a season without Woodcroft. He was relieved of his duties on Nov. 20, 2018, after the Oilers lost for the sixth time in seven games to fall to 9-10-1. Los Angeles hired McLellan as head coach before the 2019-20 season. Meanwhile, Woodcroft has blossomed in Bakersfield, where he posted a 105-71-21 record, including 18-9-7 this season. Under his stewardship, the Condors finished the 2018-19 season with the Pacific Division’s best record and captured the Pacific Division playoff championship last spring.
Thirteen Condors players have made their NHL debuts over the past three seasons, including current Oilers Ryan McLeod, Stuart Skinner, Tyler Benson, Evan Bouchard and William Lagesson.
Woodcroft Leading Turnaround in Edmonton
Woodcroft is everything Tippett was not, and subsequently, the Oilers look like an entirely different team during his first two games in charge.
Where Tippett was known for putting his forward lines and defensive pairings in a blender, Woodcroft has stuck with the same combinations. He’s also using an 11-7 forward/defense lineup, something rarely seen under the previous regime.
There is a noticeable increase in energy and confidence among the Oilers players. After giving up at least two goals in 28 games before Woodcroft, the Oilers have now allowed one goal in their last two outings. They have also scored the opening goal in their new coach’s first two games, something the Oilers had done just 12 times in their first 43 contests.
From Motor City to The Bay to the City of Champions, McLellan and Woodcroft’s journey could almost be made into a movie, which is why it’s only fitting that they will meet for the first time as opposing NHL coaches in Hollywood. That the Oilers (53 points in 46 games) and Kings (55 in 47) are separated by just one game and two points in the race for the Western Conference’s final playoff spots only makes this story that much better.
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.