After the Winnipeg Jets swept the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s time to start questioning if Dave Tippett should be the man at the helm of the Oilers. His team has been eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs twice in a row, and his decisions during those games show his indecisiveness.
For those wondering, the Oilers wouldn’t be the first to fire their coach during or after a good season — the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs, the 2019-20 Vegas Golden Knights, the 2015-16 (Stanley Cup-winning) Pittsburgh Penguins, and many more. A coaching reset wouldn’t be out of the ordinary, especially with the Oilers needing to make the most of their core group’s prime years. Let’s take a look at some of Tippett’s mistakes during his tenure and who could potentially replace him.
2020 NHL Qualifying Round
Coming into the 2020 NHL bubble, the Oilers were looking good. They had one of the best lines in the league, a plethora of two-way defenders, and had just added Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Ennis and Mike Green at the deadline. They had finished fourth in the Western Conference (fifth in points percentage) and were set for a matchup with the mediocre No. 12 seed Chicago Blackhawks. But for some reason, Tippett decided to mess around with his lines, creating new forward combinations instead of going with those that got him to the postseason.
The DRY line (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Leon Draisaitl, Kailer Yamamoto) was split up after carrying the Oilers, while Connor McDavid battled injuries and a suspension. The speedy Athanasiou moved down to the third line after posting two points in his only game on the captain’s wing.
Caleb Jones, who had a breakout 2019-20 campaign, at times in the top four (in Oscar Klefbom’s absence), was scratched for three of the four games, replaced by Kris Russell, who was shaky with the puck the entire series. Tippett decided to play yet another shutdown defenseman, all the while having Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse, and Matthew Benning — who can all hold their own in the defensive zone — in the lineup as well.
Although Tippett made many roster mistakes in the qualifying round, he was still seen as the Oilers’ surefire head coach, as he had a terrific regular season with them and helped them create an actual lockdown, defensive system, which they could employ very effectively when they had the lead late in a game.
2021 NHL Regular Season
The 2020-21 shortened NHL regular season was really where Tippett struggled, in my opinion. Even though he could carry an extra six players on his “taxi squad,” he did not use his limited call-ups effectively, as many times during the season, he would call up players just to play a game or two and then send them back down.
Many times during the season, he severely mishandled players. A prime example of this is Evan Bouchard, one of, if not the top Oilers’ prospect. After a fantastic debut AHL season in which he proved that he was NHL ready, Bouchard set his sights on the big club. He was placed on the taxi squad and rarely played all season, recording a mere 14 games, and it wasn’t like he was playing poorly. He played exceptionally well on the third pairing, recording over two shots a game while making numerous sneaky yet effective plays to either step up in the offensive zone, create a better shooting angle or break out of the defensive zone. For a team that struggles to get out of their end of the ice, Bouchard could’ve helped them with that…if he had played.
The next player that was mishandled is defenseman Caleb Jones, who played 33 games but spent most of the game on the bench, evidenced by his 12:59 average time on ice. He plays a similar game to Bouchard but gives less offence to the team. Kris Russell should’ve never played over him. Although Jones did have a shaky start, he seemed to find a new home alongside Larsson, combining a two-way defender and a shutdown defenseman. Despite how good this pair looked together, Tippett refused to place them together once they acquired Dmitry Kulikov, who could’ve allowed Tyson Barrie, the last player on my list, to entirely focus on maximizing his offensive play.
After putting Barrie with Darnell Nurse, many people thought that pairing would be one of the best in the NHL. Unfortunately, they were wrong. Having two defensemen who are having the best seasons of their careers paired together was not the right idea. They did not find chemistry, as both wanted to be the catalyst in the offensive end, leaving no one to play defence.
After finishing the season with Nurse, Barrie’s offensive totals were good enough to lead the league, partly thanks to being the quarterback on the team’s power play. However, Barrie’s underlying numbers were very concerning, as he had a terrible takeaway to giveaway ratio of 16 to 43. It doesn’t end there, as his expected goals for (xGF) — a measure of how many chances a player creates and gives up — was minus-0.3. For a standard, Nurse’s xGF was at 7.8, and Larsson’s was at 1.3.
Barrie and Nurse also fired meaningless shots at the net many times per game, therefore giving away possession. They combined to shoot 358 low-danger shot attempts, which is measured by MoneyPuck. Most of these problems could’ve been fixed if Barrie had been put with a more reliable partner, such as Kulikov, allowing him to fully attack in the offensive zone and create high-danger chances without worrying about covering for his partner.
2021 NHL Playoffs
Coming into their first-round matchup with the Jets, the Oilers seemed very confident, and for a good reason. They had beaten the Jets seven times in the regular season, had home-ice advantage, and Winnipeg was without Nikolaj Ehlers and Pierre-Luc Dubois for the opening game. The Oilers lost for several reasons, with Connor Hellebuyck’s dominance at the top, to terrible roster/line management from Tippett, to just straight up being unlucky. Let’s take a look at how Tippett incorrectly mismanaged the lines.
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It started in Game 1 when he inserted Zack Kassian and Slater Koekkoek in the lineup. Kassian had been out for over a month and never proved that he should’ve been given a chance to play in the postseason. His severely disappointing performance seems like an intro of what was to come, as he had not picked up his game since then. Koekkoek had just played one game since his collarbone injury on Feb. 22 before his insertion into the Oilers lineup. Although he had played relatively well on the bottom pair prior to his injury, it takes a while for anyone (except McDavid) to return from something as gruesome as that, and Koekkoek clearly needed more time to re-adjust.
Tippett’s second mishap was his variety of benchings during every single game, starting in Game 1, where Ryan McLeod (you’re going to see him a lot here) played a measly 7:58, despite having a pretty compelling game. In Game 2, McLeod and Dominik Kahun were the ones who took the blame, as they both played under 10 minutes. On a side note, McLeod is a pretty good faceoff man, so if Tippett really wanted to bench him, why not just have him take faceoffs, then come off? In Game 3, Tyler Ennis and Yamamoto were under Tippett’s wrath, as they played under 13 minutes. Ennis had two takeaways in that game and played with a lot of energy and creativity. If you need scoring, why not give them more playing time?
Finally, in Game 4, which may have been Tippett’s worst showing, McLeod, Ethan Bear, Koekkoek and Alex Chiasson all played under 15 minutes…in a 106-minute game! At least give them a shift or two in overtime. They would definitely have more jump and tenacity than a tired player, so why not play them? I understand Bear’s benching, but he got one shift combined in all three overtimes. How about benching him for one overtime, then playing him and Koekkoek every fourth or fifth shift? Even former NHLer and Sportsnet analyst Kevin Bieksa said he thinks those players should get a shift or two. Winnipeg was playing their bottom line/pairing guys, and look what happened when their top player is a little more rested than the Oilers’ top player. McDavid turned the puck over, Kyle Connor received the pass, and game over, series over, Oilers’ season over.
When it comes to making the final call, it’ll be general manager Ken Holland making the decision. Although it’s unlikely due to his loyalty to coaches “in the long run,” if he does fire Tippett, coaches like Gerard Gallant, Bruce Boudreau, Todd Nelson (remember him?) and even Mike Babcock will surely get at least an interview. I’d even be OK with hiring someone from within the organization, such as Glen Gulutzan, or even Jay Woodcroft, who has done a fantastic job developing current Oiler players (Jesse Puljujarvi, Bear, Jones, McLeod, Yamamoto, Bouchard and William Lagesson).
Tippett has made too many mistakes, and his time is running out. With McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, and Nurse all in their primes, and with new players likely coming in, it may be the perfect time to implement a new coaching system into the Oilers.
Hey guys, I’m Luke. I love to watch and write about hockey, specifically the Oilers. Writer for THW. Follow me on Twitter @Lukester551