EDMONTON — In an organization that has spit out vintage names like Tom Renney, Todd McLellan, Dave Tippett and Ken Hitchcock, Jay Woodcroft arrives as Bakersfield beaujolais. A fresh new tannin for a tired, thirsty palate.
A career that began as Mike Babcock’s video coach in Detroit hitched its wagon to McLellan’s San Jose and Edmonton years, arriving this week for his first head coaching job in the National Hockey League as a well-cellared minor league coach. Woodcroft is “humbled and privileged,” and more than prepared for his first job.
Those are the two sides of the Edmonton Oilers latest head coach.
On one hand, he appears ready to do the job. On the other, he has never done it before. Not at this level.
“Well, when I made the decision to go down to Bakersfield a few years ago, I did it with the intent of one day becoming an NHL head coach,” began Woodcroft, 45. “And in my time in Bakersfield, I've learned that the biggest difference between being an assistant coach and a head coach is the difference between having an opinion and being the one who makes the decision.
“It's a huge responsibility and not one that I'll take lightly.”
Woodcroft steps into a team that has some issues, but should be better than it has played over its last 25 games. A team that finds itself at the point where it is time to win, but simply cannot unlock the key to a style that can both get them to the playoffs and win once they get there.
Leon Draisaitl said on Friday that his Oilers do not leave the dressing room with a plan to play 5-4 hockey, while Ryan Nugent-Hopkins offered that their propensity to give up the game’s first goal (or two) creates a game where, in the end, they need four or five goals to win.
Despite the offensive talent here, with questionable goaltending and a track record of loose defensive play, there is absolutely no question that building a more stout defensive posture is priority No. 1 for Woodcroft.
“We might have different definitions of exactly what checking is,” he said. “I believe checking begins in the offensive zone. I believe checking is hanging on to the puck in wearing teams out in the offensive zone. It is working into positions to set yourself up to come back into your own zone. So, checking might have a little bit different definition there but certainly an area that we will address as we move forward on a daily basis with our group.”
So, here’s the million-dollar question: Can a rookie NHL coach walk in the door and give a different shape to Connor McDavid’s game? To Leon Draisaitl’s game?
Those two lead the league in ice time and shift length among forwards. What if Woodcroft decides that shaving a few seconds off every shift, or a couple of minutes out of every game is the path to winning?
Is McDavid open to those kinds of changes?
“Very open,” the Oilers captain said. “Obviously, something needs to change, and he’s going to come in and put his touch on the team. As players ... that’s what we want.”
We wrote Thursday that the leaders on this team have to embrace better defensive play. That if the Oilers are ever going to become harder to play against — be a team that makes you earn a Grade-A chance, rather than hemorrhaging them — that the best players will have to lead them in that direction. It’s not all on them, but like everything else in Edmonton, it starts with them.
McDavid made it clear: Whatever it takes, he’s all in.
“We’re all in this together,” he said. “I’m not sure why, (but) sometimes I think people forget that we’re here to win. We come in each and every day and we want to win. We haven’t found the formula yet, and that’s all we want to do. Whatever system Woody puts into place, we're happy to play.”
What does Woodcroft think of the opportunity to help McDavid, Draisaitl and a thus far underachieving roster get to the next level?
“In my experience, and I think I'm in my 17th or 18th year of professional coaching at different levels in different job titles,” qualified Woodcroft, “my experience tells me that the best players in the world want to be led, and that's what I'm here to do. To try and help push these players forward.”
So, Oilers fan, here is your latest head coach. Correction, an interim head coach through the end of this season.
He’s not a household name, like so many of his predecessors. But he’s got some interesting ideas, and he’s fresh.
What Woodcroft will have to decide is, will he be coaching to sign a new deal this summer? Or will be unafraid to break a few eggs, while creating the omelette this team has been waiting for all these years?
“I’m not going to be anybody but myself,” he promised. “I’m in this position today by being myself.”
Then we’ll wish him good luck, because it’s a tough gig here in Edmonton.
Tougher than any of his predecessors thought it would be.