EDMONTON — As serial coaches John Tortorella, Pete DeBoer, Paul Maurice and even Bruce Cassidy played musical chairs across the National Hockey League, the Edmonton Oilers cemented their 45-year-old, first-timer behind the bench for the next three years at least.
Here’s the simple reason: “Jay delivered,” said Oilers general manager Ken Holland on Wednesday.
There isn’t a functional NHL organization that doesn’t bring Woodcroft back after the work he did in 2021-22, posting the second-best winning percentage (.724) in the NHL since the day he was hired, Feb. 11, through season’s end. He delivered two playoff rounds, on a macro level, and on a micro level pressed the personnel buttons that showed he is in touch with his players and can effectively run a bench.
Woodcroft paired a 22-year-old Evan Bouchard, whose first-half game was up and down, with a future Hall of Famer in Duncan Keith and the young Bouchard thrived. Then he — and the as-yet unsigned Dave Manson — made a shutdown pairing of Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci that performed better than anyone would have thought it could.
In Round 1, facing elimination in Game 6, Woodcroft tweaked his forward alignment and freed up Connor McDavid, winning the matchups on the road against the Los Angeles Kings. Then he put together a game plan that walked through the favoured Calgary Flames in a quick five games.
“When I got the opportunity in February,” Woodcroft began on Wednesday, “Ken gave me that direction of, get us into the playoffs, win games and see what happens once we get there. For me at the time, that was really freeing.”
So he tried some stuff, and almost all of it worked.
Partly due to his time as the Oilers' AHL coach in Bakersfield, Woodcroft was great for young players like Ryan McLeod, Kailer Yamamoto and Bouchard. He also stuck with a struggling Jesse Puljujarvi longer than many coaches would have.
That skill now shifts to the next crop of young players on cheap contracts — Stuart Skinner, Philip Broberg, Dylan Holloway, perhaps Markus Niemelainen — who will have to contribute to a winning team in the salary-cap era.
It's a three-year contract that reportedly pays Woodcroft $2 million per season. He made no promises on assistant coaches Manson, Glen Gulutzan, Brian Wiseman and Dustin Schwartz, but will spend the next few days sorting that out. Manson’s a lock to be back.
When Woodcroft returns in September it will not be as a last second replacement in the midst of a failing season, but as a full-time head coach with time to install his plans for the team.
“You have the time to not only think about the things that are occurring at the highest levels in the NHL, the trends in the game, the tactics that are being used, and you have the time to digest how best to implement or teach those things,” he said. “I think what's important is to have a finger on the pulse of what's having success in the NHL today and where the NHL is going.”
As a coach known for preparedness and details, having a full summer to execute his coaching plan should make the Oilers a somewhat more prepared team come fall. Because they were exactly that after only two months in Edmonton this past winter.
Two moments that stood out to me occurred with 10 days of each other, the first on April 13, after a crushing 5-1 loss in Minnesota had left Edmonton with a 12-3-2 record in its past 17 games. Tyson Barrie gave us a look into the team’s psyche, with the playoffs less than three weeks away.
“You look at the hockey we’ve played over the last two months, it’s been really solid,” Barrie said. “So, you know, you lose a game like that and you just have to recover. If it was flipped — if we were 3-12-2 — you'd be having some issues. But we’re a confident team, we know the type of hockey we can play, and when we’re playing it how we feel.”
The following night the Oilers walked through Nashville 4-0, dominating the game from the opening puck drop to the final buzzer.
Just over a week later, the cerebral Derek Ryan weighed in on the alterations that had occurred, with Woodcroft having spent two full months on the job.
“Structured. Detailed. Not getting rattled by giving up leads,” began Ryan. “The detail in our D-zone exits, our D-zone coverage, our neutral-zone forecheck. Our O-zone forecheck … Just every little facet of the game.”
Woodcroft sweats the details and lets his players in on why and what he is doing — something today’s player welcomes.
“We’ve put a heavier emphasis on faceoffs, how we’re executing offensive-zone faceoffs, how we’re trying to get out of our own zone defensively, on D-zone faceoffs,” gushed Ryan. “Just every little detail in the game (is) especially huge as you come down the stretch and play in the playoffs.
“Those details can win or lose your games, and I think that our team has gotten immeasurably better in all those little areas.”
And they got better at winning games. In the end, that’s how an interim coach becomes a full-time coach.
In the NHL, it always starts with a W.