EDMONTON — So, let’s talk about a “coaching bump.”
In Edmonton, the “coaching bump” that occurred when Jay Woodcroft replaced Dave Tippett came in the form of inspired defensive play. Players pay acute attention to the new coach, defining a “coaching bump” as that period of time where 23 players are completely invested in the new man’s system.
In Woodcroft’s case, he has stated that he has asked his players to work harder and be more detailed. So, naturally, as players grow more comfortable — and the “coaching bump” begins to wane — what is bound to happen?
This game, a 5-2 dominating win by the Montreal Canadiens. That is what is bound to happen.
“We weren't good enough in a lot of areas tonight,” Woodcroft said.
As a “coaching bump” comes to a close in Edmonton, a team that was working its collective hind end off to play a system reverts to not working as hard. A team that was keen on the details of Woodcroft’s game goes back to being a team that eschews the details – like the one that got Tippett fired.
The Oilers have lost the plot, outplayed, out-defended and outscored in a lopsided loss to the Canadiens that featured two Habs goals called back on offside challenges, and an Oilers goal that inexplicably withstood a goaltender interference challenge.
They were soft. They were not detail oriented. And the goaltending was awful.
The GM will have to deal with the goaltending, but the coach needs to get his team’s attention back.
“I don't see it necessarily that way,” said Woodcroft. “I didn't think we were very good ... I shouldn't say that. I don't think we were good enough to win the game tonight. Are there things that we can do better? Yeah. Are there certain details in our game that we can be better at tonight? Yes, there are.”
The first detail lies in goal, where Mike Smith was horrid.
The 39-year-old is in a race to regain his form during an injury-riddled season, with each two points lost during that quest becoming increasingly important. On the outside of the playoffs looking in this morning, can the Oilers afford to keep coddling a netminder in hopes he’ll catch up?
Or do we look at Smith’s birth certificate and say, we’ve seen far younger players who miss most of a season who never catch up. Or is it time for Plan B, which means calling up Stuart Skinner to share the nets with Mikko Koskinen?
Bad goaltending, and loose, soft defensive play.
Every team has a couple of negative traits that come to the fore when they’re not playing well, negative personality traits that define them when they are not playing well. These are the Oilers’, not to mention a penalty kill that allowed two more goals in four Montreal attempts, and a power play that went 0-for-4.
“Their power play was good and ours wasn’t. That was kind of the difference, for sure,” said Oilers captain Connor McDavid. “We just weren’t good enough. They are a team that has obviously been playing well since their coaching change. They were better than us tonight.”
If this roster is turning back into the team that cost Tippett his job, then Woodcroft is reverting in some ways to the coach that Tippett was at the end as well, underutilizing his depth players and riding the big guys too hard.
McDavid (23:43) and Leon Draisaitl (25:09) dominated the ice time much like they did before Woodcroft’s arrival, while depth forwards Kyle Turris (4:41) and Tyler Benson (7:59) didn’t get enough ice time to contribute in any meaningful way.
And his young defence? Those chickens are coming home to roost too.
“We gifted some opportunities that I haven’t seen much of over the last three weeks. We can be a lot cleaner with the puck,” said Woodcroft. “I’m not the only person who feels we can do better. The 20 players in our locker room are sticking together.”
We know: The Oilers always struggle on the first game home after a long eastern swing. It’s been this way since 1978; it’s real, not some excuse.
But Woodcroft, when the team was playing tight, responsible hockey, spoke of a style “that will help us through tough times.” These are the tough times he was referring to.
Instead however, the Oilers played soft, loose hockey against a Habs team without a care in the world, eliminated since before American Thanksgiving.
They took the night off from playing the kind of hockey Woodcroft had them playing. The kind of hockey this team needs to play to win — which is more of a 3-2 game than a 5-4 game.
They would have needed six to win on Saturday.
Sure, the goaltending was poor. But the team was too.
Cue the new coach. It’s time to win your team back.