EDMONTON — It’s a two-step process when you are a coach taking over an NHL team midseason, the way Bruce Boudreau did in Vancouver or Jay Woodcroft has in Edmonton.
The first thing you need to acquire belongs to the players and has several pseudonyms: Respect. Buy-in. Belief.
It’s theirs, and you’ve got to make it yours.
In Edmonton, Woodcroft had a leg up because of the many relationships he had forged as an assistant coach with the Oilers from 2015-18, and with much of the rest of the Oilers roster as the head coach in Bakersfield for the past three-plus seasons.
The second thing you require begets the first: Success.
The changes Woodcroft has asked for has helped his team. Four in a row to be exact.
When it works, they buy in. Period.
“Everybody's contributing. Everybody's on the same page,” said winger Zach Hyman. “I think the forwards are helping the D coming through the middle, and the D are kind of able to hold their line and hold their gap. And I think that, as a forward on the other end, that's frustrating when a team is able to keep you from entering the zone.”
Never mind that Todd McLellan, Ken Hitchcock and Dave Tippett all asked for the same thing: five players connected to each other in every zone; forwards who backcheck hard to help the defencemen; and a spirit of playing for each other, not just with each other.
But because you are the new guy, the players are an open and slightly embarrassed palette, ready to prove that they can deliver the qualities to the new guy that the old guy somehow could not extract.
Look, it’s safe to say that Woodcroft is a little late to get a patent on instructions like, “Let’s make zone entries more difficult.” Or “How about we work a little harder here?”
However, the trust he has earned as that former assistant who helped the McDavids, Draisaitls and Nugent-Hopkins’ become better players still exists upon his return to the Oilers. And all those kids that played for him in Bakersfield — whose reward for listening to and learning from Woodcroft in the AHL was a job in the NHL — their ears are open as well.
So history has helped with the buy-in, and Woodcroft’s ability to decipher exactly what ails this Oilers team has led to a 4-0 start — also known as success.
“The style we’re asking our players to play is a demanding one,” Woodcroft said on Friday, just a few hours before his team boarded a charter to Winnipeg for Saturday afternoon’s game against the Jets. “There are principles in our game that we’re going to continue to hammer on, (but) I think you can positively reinforce some of the good things that are happening in the game.
“And for our players to be playing this style and to have success, I think It’s almost a virtuous loop. Because they're putting the work in and they're getting rewarded for it. They're seeing the link between the work ethic and the results.”
From a Vicious Cycle to a Virtuous Loop.
If this keeps up, that will be the title for the book on the Oilers 2021-22 season.
“I mean, new coaches and new systems and stuff ... ,” began defenceman Cody Ceci. “I think the biggest thing is that guys are just, they're buying in again. They’re really paying attention to detail, working really hard.”
Again, Dave Tippett asked for those qualities. But the fact the players stopped delivering them defines the failure between a coach and his roster.
It ends this way on every team for every coach. Some just last longer than others.
Woodcroft is not naïve to that. Not as a coach whose title does is officially prefaced with the word “interim.” But as a guy who is, nonetheless, not signed to be the Oilers head coach next season and beyond, and will not be if he does not earn that contract over the remainder of this season.
“Well, I think when I began as a head coach, I wanted to make sure I was going to be myself. So, I'm not going to try and be anybody that I’m not,” said the extraordinarily confident rookie bench boss, whose 1,000-plus games as an NHL assistant affords him that quality.
That job — especially when he was McLellan’s assistant here in Edmonton — has set the table for success now.
“One of the best parts about being an assistant coach is the rapport that you create,” he said, “in the little conversations you have during extra work on and off the ice. I was able to create those relationships when I was an assistant coach here, and I don't just turn them off because I’m now in the position that I’m in. There’s history.
“But to me,” he concluded, “the biggest difference between being an assistant coach and a head coach is the difference between having an opinion and being the one who has to make the final decision.”
So far he has made all the right calls, pushed all the right buttons.
Make it last, and he’ll be running training camp here next fall.