A student, his mentor, the playoff-race test: Oilers vs. Kings isn't just another game

Gene Principe and Mark Spector break down the Edmonton Oilers' upcoming game against the Los Angeles Kings, explaining how the team has developed a strong home-ice advantage under head coach Jay Woodcroft.

EDMONTON — Sometimes, it’s simply about timing.

Todd McLellan had the Entry Level Edmonton Oilers, the first head coach that Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse would have as full-time NHL players. Jay Woodcroft was the assistant coach on those teams, and would have to go south to Bakersfield before coming back north as an NHL head coach.

Today, Woodcroft has arrived in McLellan’s old spot behind the Edmonton bench, his former mentor long since fired and installed in Los Angeles just in time to line-match down the playoff stretch against the guy they call “Woody,” with L.A. and Edmonton conveniently slotted as the second and third place clubs in the Pacific.

They’ll meet Wednesday, again in nine days in L.A., and as the playoff picture unfolds, quite likely again in May as first-round opponents.

McLellan got Edmonton to within a win of the Conference Final in 2017, and it was supposed to be a Stanley Cup chase from that moment on. Three coaches later, Woodcroft is hoping to get this team its first official playoff victory since that Anaheim series back in '17.

And if he wants to go past Round 1, he’ll have to beat the man who groomed him, as McLellan took Woodcroft from Detroit, to San Jose, and up here to the Big E.

Is he the same coach as McLellan, just in a different package?

“No. Not in any way,” began Woodcroft on Tuesday. “When I made the decision to go down to Bakersfield and become my own head coach, it was with the intent of being an NHL head coach. I knew right off the bat, the only way you can do that is by being yourself.

“Have I learned from some of my influencers? For sure. My biggest influences were my parents, my brothers, now my wife and kids. But certainly I’ve had the good fortune of being around some really good hockey coaches, Todd being one of them.”

McLellan celebrated game No. 1,000 on Monday in L.A., a sloppy 6-1 loss to Seattle that left the Oilers just two points back of the Kings with a game in hand. He’ll start his second 1,000-game segment trying to outsmart his protégé, a guy who gleaned as much as he could from McLellan before setting out on his own.

“Todd has had a profound impact on me, not only as a young coach but (as) a young person. He taught me a lot of things by the simple eloquence of his example,” said Woodcroft.

McLellan’s coaching career started when he was sitting at home in Saskatchewan, a broken down ex-NHLer of five career games, with a bum shoulder and an equally promising future. He’d grown up in small-town Saskatchewan, the son of an RCMP officer who moved through towns like Goodeve, Melville and Goodsoil before settling in Saskatoon.

“We didn’t have a lot of money,” he recalled in a 2015 interview we did together, “but the one thing we always had, my brother and I and my sister, we always had new skates. In August, you could feel it a little bit, that there wasn’t as much money in the family. But somehow, we always got new skates in the fall.”

McLellan found himself at home one summer, a one-year contract to go back to Holland and coach looking less and less appealing each day that his flight overseas drew closer.

“I opened up the (Saskatoon) StarPhoenix, and there was an ad in the newspaper for a coach in North Battleford in the Saskatchewan Junior League,” he said. “I wasn’t ready. I was 24 at the time, we had players who were almost 21.”

He spent the year in North Battleford, and then six more with Swift Current of the WHL. There were five years as a minor pro head coach, three as a Red Wings assistant, and suddenly, he’ll coach game No. 1,001 Wednesday in Edmonton. Like it was all meant to be.

“What an achievement,” said Woodcroft, who will celebrate his 24th game as an NHL head coach versus the Kings. “Only 31 coaches have ever done that (1,000 games). He’s at the top of his craft and there’s a reason he’s coached that many games.

Woodcroft got his start at age 13, coaching at the Seneca College hockey school in Toronto. That’s not far off McLellan’s story of answering a want ad, really.

“That serves as inspiration to people who have dreams,” he said of McLellan’s route. “I don’t believe in setting limits on anybody’s potential, let alone your own personal potential. That is a great example of somebody who was dedicated, who (put) everything into being the best he could at his profession.”

Today, guys like Nurse and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins hear a buzzword from Woodcroft that McLellan used to drop.

“There are some similarities in some of the drills that we do,” Nurse said. “But for the most part, Jay is his own person, his own coach.”

McLellan had these guys when they were pups, not to mention McDavid, Nugent-Hopkins and Auston Matthews on that fabled Team North America.

“He definitely helped my game, helped my career,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “He kinda hounded on my two-way game for sure, and once I started to play a little more defensively he said to try to be a little more free, open up a little bit more and use my offensive instincts again. He really helped me out in that sense.”

Those lessons have turned Nugent-Hopkins into Woodcroft’s third-line centre, and a valuable part of both special teams.

All of which will do their best to make game No. 1,001 a loss.

Nothing personal, of course.

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