32 Thoughts: Teetering on the abyss, Oilers turn to another new coach

Gene Principe and Elliotte Friedman discuss the Oilers firing of Dave Tippett, the team's poor performance since the break, the reasons for promoting Jay Woodcroft from the AHL, and the impact the move could have on Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

• Why Martin St. Louis was the choice as interim head coach in Montreal
• Vegas' options to navigate the cap when Jack Eichel returns
• What teams want in trade for UFA defencemen

Ken Holland fought -- internally and externally -- against making panic moves during Edmonton’s 2-11-2 December/January swoon.

He wasn’t willing to give up second- or third-round picks (or, potentially both in the latter’s case) for Martin Jones or Joonas Korpisalo. He didn’t want to make another coaching change -- which would mean seven for the Oilers in 10 years. He took a risk on Evander Kane.

Holland also believed the Oilers were better than they showed, and the expected goals for and against supported some belief. A 5-0-1 spurt into All-Star gave him hope those instincts were right.

But, in a season where missing the playoffs is not an option, two impotent performances out of the break brought the walls crashing down. Holland woke up Thursday, called owner Daryl Katz and replaced Dave Tippett with Jay Woodcroft.

“We’ve been up and down like a toilet seat,” he said later in the afternoon. “Chasing the game for two months.”

It’s the most mind-numbing stat of the 2021-22 season. Edmonton’s opened the scoring just 12 times in 44 games. That’s the worst in the NHL. With Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, you’d think at least 20 first goals would happen by accident. (The Oilers are shooting 7.3 per cent at five-on-five with McDavid on the ice, by far the lowest number since his arrival. You have to believe that will improve, but it’s another reason they’re struggling.)

The math was good for Edmonton. They had five games in hand on Los Angeles and six on Anaheim. All of the COVID cancellations meant a jam-packed schedule, but the Oilers controlled their fate. Two losses dropped their winning percentage to .557, lower than both the Kings (.585) and the Ducks (.573). Those are the clubs they must catch.

We’re at DEFCON 1.

Woodcroft, 45, looks young, but as a video and assistant coach was in the NHL for 1,000 games before taking the head job at AHL Bakersfield. The Condors won the Pacific Division playoffs last year and had a .632 winning percentage this season. One thing I do remember: as an assistant for Team North America at the 2016 World Cup, some players were struck by how much responsibility he had on an experienced staff.

There’s already talk about how much he’ll lean on some of the players he knows, but the biggest challenge will be fixing two of the Oilers’ major maladies: allowing chances against the rush and in the slot, where they rank among the worst in the NHL. Mike Smith got a Bronx cheer for allowing two early goals on Wednesday night, but both came on cleanly-completed cross-ice passes that left him little chance.

Whatever systemic changes Woodcroft considers, the Oilers’ schedule doesn’t allow for much practice time. They’ve got six games in the next 10 days. But those things are more than just x’s-and-o’s, it’s about energy, will and edge. Edmonton looked listless much of the last two games.

Twelve-hundred kilometres southwest, Vancouver got a Bruce Boudreau bounce when he took over. Teetering on the abyss, Edmonton hopes for the same.

32 THOUGHTS

1. Best line about Martin St. Louis’s hiring came from one of his former coaches: “I can’t wait for the first time one of his players grabs a stat sheet, angrily pointing at his ice-time and saying, ‘You didn’t play me enough!’” St. Louis apparently was famous for that.

There were jokes about St. Louis being a PeeWee coach and he referenced it himself at his media conference, but he’s always used those kinds of doubts as red meat on his Hall-of-Fame journey. “I'm not coming here to be a substitute teacher,” he said. “I have every intention of being here a long time.” John Tortorella (not the source of the previous quote) tried to get St. Louis to commit full-time to Columbus, and there were times Montreal executive VP Jeff Gorton wanted him more involved with the Rangers. But it was always going to be on St. Louis’ schedule, when he was no longer going to be coaching his sons. GM Kent Hughes and St. Louis grew close when their children played together, and people who know both weren’t anywhere near as surprised as the rest of us.

2. Why now, and not after the season? A couple of reasons. First, you can’t allow your young players to think too many efforts like this week’s 7-1 loss to New Jersey are acceptable. “It’s time for our team right now to start showing…that we’re not going to roll over,” Hughes said. “We understand that we’re not going to make the playoffs, but we’re not going to roll over.” The Canadiens had too many lifeless performances. Second, Gorton/Hughes are about to make franchise-altering personnel decisions. They wanted St. Louis to collect information up-close and in-place. See who is part of the problem and who is part of the solution. They trust his input and want that intel.

3. St. Louis appeared one year ago on the Hockey IQ podcast with Greg Revak and Dan Dukart. He said that as the kids he coached got older, he’d send them clips with a request that they let him know what he’s looking for. “I’d like them to search for the answer instead of me giving them the answer.” Other philosophical highlights: “The most important guys on the ice are the guys without the puck, not the guy with the puck…While the puck carrier is doing that, everybody else has to cover ice and get between the coverage,” and “Every game you’re going to have three, four, five plays that you want back…I definitely don’t want them to think they’ve got to play a perfect game…I’d rather you make a bad read than no read at all.”

4. There was a rumour Tortorella might join St. Louis as an assistant. He said no with a laugh: “I’d be the worst assistant coach ever.”

5. There were rumblings Dallas considered a coaching change. I think they’ve decided to stay with Rick Bowness -- behind the bench as the Stars beat Nashville 4-3 on Wednesday night -- but they looked into some options.

6. There’s a reason Vegas has been so tight-lipped with timelines -- there’s no guarantee everyone stays healthy. According to the @ManGamesLostNHL Twitter account, the Golden Knights entered the All-Star break fifth in injury-related absences behind Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Philadelphia and Vancouver. Mark Stone didn’t play Wednesday night in Calgary, with a back problem that’s forced him to miss 20 of the team’s 48 games.

With Jack Eichel’s return appearing closer and closer, sometimes decisions are made for you. Eichel is now doing team drills and system work, “Fully integrated,” as GM Kelly McCrimmon said Tuesday. “That’s the important next step for us. It’s not impossible that he looks more ready to play than he is. His fitness? Exceptional. The next step is physical contact.”

As if Vegas/Colorado next Wednesday wasn’t enough of a spicy meatball, imagine Eichel’s debut as part of it. Love my Penn & Teller at the Rio, but not missing that game to try and figure out how Teller climbs out of the box to start their show. Vince McMahon would do it, but McCrimmon was non-committal. There’s an obvious reason why. “We’ve anticipated for some time, the realities that we need to make corresponding moves,” he said. “I don’t know that I need to say more than that.”

7. Putting Stone on long-term injury for the rest of the season will create howls of protest, but after Chicago in 2015 and Tampa Bay last season, the horse is so far out of the barn that it might as well be on Mars. (The league is moving more aggressively on checking these things, but an injury is an injury.) At the very least, they could put him on it now, activate Eichel (and possibly Alec Martinez) thereby punting any further decisions closer to the deadline.

8. The whole situation’s led to some uncomfortable guessing games. Extension talks currently are quiet with Reilly Smith, but an agent reminded that Martinez re-signed last summer on July 28, the day free-agency opened. So they’re not afraid to wait before re-kindling a romance. Original Knight Brayden McNabb did get re-signed, which raised some eyebrows. Not because McNabb isn’t deserving -- he sure is -- but, if they wanted to move him, they easily could have done so. There certainly would have been interest. If a trade does become a necessity, one exec guessed McCrimmon is going to try it from another angle: “You want a good player who can help you for less than market value? We’re willing to do that. It won’t cost you as much as other teams will ask.”

9. Mentioned on Jeff Marek’s show about teams believing in Tyler Toffoli and Calgary. A few others reached out to say they wonder if Los Angeles considers a reunion. The Kings are looking for scoring.

10. There are some Western Conference teams considering Christian Dvorak. It's been a nightmare season, but they know he’s much better than this.

11. This could all be moot because he’s not inclined to move, but Jaroslav Halak has not yet reached his $1.25M games-played bonus, because it’s for 10 starts -- not 10 appearances. There’s been a lot of debate about whether or not this or his “other” bonus ($250,000 for a .905 save percentage or better) can be shared between teams. According to several capologists, there can be no sharing. One team has to pay all of it, but, as part of a trade, the acquiring team could agree to accept it if worthwhile. But, again, this may all be moot if Halak declines to move.

12. If the Canucks didn’t move on Cammi Granato, at least one other team indicated they were going to ask Seattle for permission to talk about a promotion. Mentioned Gina Kingsbury last week. Another candidate to keep an eye on: Theresa Feaster.

13. In a potentially significant development, San Jose acting GM Joe Will told local reporters that conversations with Tomas Hertl and agent Craig Oster have both sides believing the player wants to stay. “So now it’s about finding a way to have that happen,” Will said. “He’s a player that we want as part of our team and we’re going to do everything we can to make that happen.” Will also wouldn’t commit to what could happen if Hertl reaches the deadline unsigned.

14. The more I watch Rasmus Sandin, the more I’d be surprised if Toronto traded him.

15. There’s obviously interest in Ottawa’s Nick Paul. In the past several seasons, the Senators let some complicated negotiations get closer -- if not right to the deadline -- before trading the player (Matt Duchene, Mark Stone). Paul is going to get a deserving payday, but one hopeful team was pessimistic about acquiring him “because that’s a contract that makes too much sense” for Ottawa.

16. Also wonder if it makes more sense for Ottawa to offer to retain salary on Michael Del Zotto (18 points in 13 games at AHL Belleville) rather than buy him out. Wild stat: he’s 25th in AHL defencemen scoring.

17. For unrestricted defencemen, teams are asking for what Columbus received last season for David Savard. That was a first- and a third-round pick. We will see if that changes.

18. There’s interest in New Jersey’s Pavel Zacha, but what I didn’t realize is how much less he’s used on faceoffs this season. The Devils also have Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes on the left side. Hischier is very good (54 per cent) and Hughes has to learn the skill (30 per cent). Zacha’s previous full-season low for face-offs was 457. He’s at 171 so far this year.

19. There are teams doing their due diligence on Vitali Kravtsov, making sure the forward will return to the NHL next season. The answer is yes.

20. Another “newer” name interviewed as part of Anaheim’s recently-completed GM search: Dallas assistant GM Scott White.

21. Chicago’s known GM candidate list -- Peter Chiarelli, Mathieu Darche, incumbent Kyle Davidson, Cubs assistant GM Jeff Greenberg, Scott Mellanby and Eric Tulsky -- has to be the widest spectrum of candidates ever assembled. It’s like a Canadian election debate. You’ve got the conservative, the liberal, the new democrat, the green, the rhino, the bloc quebecois, you pick who is who. It’s led to speculation that the Blackhawks might be trying to hire more than one of them, which might not work because current teams could choose to block what wouldn’t be seen as a promotion. It’s also possible the team is trying to collect ideas of others’ best practices they can use themselves. It’s going to be interesting to see how the Blackhawks proceed in narrowing down the candidates, because it appears that some of the people doing the interviewing value things differently. That also might explain the eclectic mix.

22. Arizona got its deal done with Arizona State. The revenue split looks as follows: ASU keeps arena naming rights and sponsorship revenue. The Coyotes keep the gate, their merchandising sales and a piece of concessions. Still no official word on seating. I’ve previously mentioned rumours of 3,200. My guess is somewhere between there and 4,000. But no certainty. What also isn’t known yet is average ticket price. I’ve heard there’s been a couple of different models with a higher average, but again, no certainty.

23. I thought people were supposed to come back relaxed from the All-Star break. Instead, two major hearings after the second night of games. When Milan Lucic ran over Ryan Miller in 2011, then-Buffalo GM Darcy Regier passionately argued at the next meeting that goalies had to be protected at all costs. Thirty-five years ago Brad Marchand’s shots at Tristan Jarry would have led to a 30-minute brawl with 620 minutes in penalties. Those days are gone, but his peers agreed with Regier there couldn’t be open season on netminders. The moment Marchand took shots at a goalie, he was in big trouble.

24. Marcus Foligno was fortunate he didn’t get an in-person hearing like Jason Spezza did.

25. One interesting point of view about both incidents: do linesmen have to become more aggressive? Not sure anyone’s crazy about the visuals of an official “working over” a player, but Marchand in particular should have been prevented from getting to Jarry a second time.

26. Loved dealing with Tuukka Rask over the years. It may not have mattered in the long run, but he was robbed by the lost AHL starts this year due to COVID. That really disrupted his opportunity. Favourite memory: when Boston eliminated Buffalo in the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, I asked Rask post-game if it meant anything more to him that he outduelled Ryan Miller -- then at the height of his powers. He gave the standard cliche answer. One teammate overhead and rolled his eyes. “Of course you did,” he laughed.

27. Don’t know if I’ve ever received more texts and comments about peoples’ kids enjoying the skills competition. That’s the audience that matters.

28. Very glad to hear that the NHL will start work with Sheldon Kennedy’s Respect Group, in March.

29. In early January, Ottawa did ask the NHL about moving home games to the United States. It was around the same time Winnipeg considered the same with Saskatoon. But it didn’t go far. Logistics too much of a challenge. But they did ask.

30. As the NHL opens to different ideas and perspectives, keep an eye on Olli Jokinen. He wants to coach here and is behind the bench for Jukurit in Finland’s Liiga. They’ve missed the playoffs the past five years, but he’s got them in second place in this, his debut season. NYI draftee Aatu Raty was traded there. He has 25 points in 26 games.

31. Unsolicited advice for Shane Wright: almost every Canadian junior phenom has their game picked apart. It happened to Jason Spezza, it happened to John Tavares. Eyes on the prize. Unfortunate he’s lost so many games.

32. Take the time and listen to Darryl Sydor’s story on Corey Hirsch’s Blindsided podcast.

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