The Edmonton Oilers are in a place no one expected them to be a month ago: At the bottom of the standings with a new coach in place 13 games into the season.
To say the Oilers’ start has been catastrophic would be an understatement. In a year where they entered the season as Stanley Cup favorites, the Oilers instead face-planted to a 3-9-1 start. Only one team has been worse and that team beat them last Thursday, ultimately sealing Jay Woodcroft’s fate as head coach.
When a team plays well below expectations there’s usually a lot of blame to go around: he stars aren’t scoring, the goalies can’t save a beach ball, the depth is getting exposed. Everything that could go wrong has and in a no-patience league someone has to fall on the sword.
But was Woodcroft’s dismissal actually “necessary” or was the wrong person sacrificed at the altar of the hockey gods?
It was less than two years ago that the Oilers hired Woodcroft in what felt like a necessary change for a team that was spinning its wheels. The Oilers were on pace for just 91 points and didn’t look the part of a playoff team. At five-on-five, they were middling and though their power play was strong, it was undone by an awful penalty kill.
The Oilers weren’t unlucky, they just weren’t a good team. Woodcroft changed that — quickly.
To close the 2021-22 season, the Oilers became a top 10 team at five-on-five, maintained a strong power play, and cleaned up a messy penalty kill. Some acquisitions certainly helped spark the change, but it’s hard to put the sizeable jump in performance on Evander Kane and Brett Kulak alone. The new coach bump felt real.
The Oilers parlayed that bump into a conference final run that season, and a strong 2022-23 season that ended in a second-round loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champions. The less-than-two-year stint is the best the Oilers have ever looked in the Connor McDavid era. They finally found some sustained playoff success, they were dominating teams at five-on-five, and their power play was historically potent. All that despite what felt like a flawed roster to most. It was a roster that Woodcroft was able to get the most out of.
All that seemed to change this year as the Oilers imploded, but that doesn’t seem to be the fault of Woodcroft.
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Under the hood, there wasn’t much that changed this season. The Oilers were generating a few more chances at five-on-five and conceding the same amount. The penalty kill is right in the middle in chances allowed, just like last season. And while the power play has dipped, that probably has a lot more to do with the best player in the world not being 100 percent.
Does Woodcroft have much control over an offensive juggernaut scoring 1.09 fewer goals than expected per 60 at five-on-five? Probably not.
Does Woodcroft have much control over goalies allowing 0.54 more goals than expected per 60 at five-on-five? Probably not.
Does Woodcroft have much control over a penalty kill allowing 3.43 more goals than expected per 60 at five-on-five? Probably not.
If Woodcroft had control over any of that, some evidence of it would’ve shown up over the past year and a half. While the weak start probably isn’t all luck, the systems in place that led to the Oilers being a top team last year seemed to still be in place — they just haven’t got the results to show for it.
Edmonton’s expected goal differential this season is on pace to be plus-53, a bit below last year’s plus-66 thanks to a weaker power play. Last year, the Oilers had a plus-74 goal differential to go with that. This year they’re on a minus-100 pace, an impossibly unsustainable rate that shouldn’t fall at Woodcroft’s feet.
Those kinds of runs can happen to even the best of teams and for Woodcroft, it’s unfortunate that it happened right at the start of the season. While it’s true teams can make their own luck, it’s difficult to imagine it could be to this degree. Coaches shouldn’t live or die by the fact that their goalie can’t make a save — they’re not the ones with pads on. They aren’t the ones that signed them either.
A lot of ink has been spilled about the goaltending, but there may be an even bigger issue plaguing the team: The play of Connor McDavid.
He’s been playing through injury this year and has looked far from himself as a result. He’s below point-per-game, has one of the worst expected goals rates on the team and has been outscored 8-5 at five-on-five.
For a team built like the Oilers, it’s hard to survive that — but to Woodcroft’s credit, the Oilers have played the best they ever have in non-McDavid minutes. They just weren’t getting rewarded for it. Last season the Oilers had a 53 percent expected goals rate without McDavid on the ice. This year they’re at 58 percent.
Considering how unremarkable the bottom of the lineup looks, that feels like a near miracle.
Why have the Oilers had such a poor start? McDavid ain’t McDavid-ing, the goalies have been putrid, and the rest of the team isn’t scoring as much as they should despite strong play. All of that would be difficult for any team to survive and none of it points to a coach’s fatal flaw.
It does however point to a flaw in how the team was built. Why aren’t the Oilers better insulated from a potential McDavid injury? Why can’t the goalies make a save? Why can’t the rest of the team execute if they’re earning a lot of chances?
Those three things seem to fall squarely on general manager Ken Holland’s shoulders.
Some may say it’s hypocritical to put this start on a GM that built a team that was a projected Stanley Cup favorite to start the season. But the Oilers were projected to get there despite Holland, not because of him.
For starters, they had a massive head-start: The best player in the league and another top-five player — both of whom are on sweetheart contracts that should make team-building an easy process. In that duo, the Oilers had a projected plus-59 Net Rating. The rest of the team was at minus-three. It shouldn’t cost $60 million to build a below-average supporting cast, but Holland found a way.
That’s not exactly far from the norm with other contenders. Outside their top two forwards, the Toronto Maple Leafs were at plus-three, the Dallas Stars were at plus-five, the New Jersey Devils were at plus-eight and the Colorado Avalanche were right there with Edmonton at minus-two. But it’s important to remember what the rest of the lineup looked like before they played for Woodcroft — consistently outplayed. That changed last season and was on track to improve even further this season. By name value, it’s hard to like what Edmonton started the season with compared to those other four star-powered teams depth-wise. But Woodcroft got the requisite results to be not far off contender quality.
He wouldn’t have to if money was more wisely spent either.
Holland inherited two of the best contracts in the world and while he has signed some good deals (Zach Hyman, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins), he’s been much more likely to light money on fire. And it’s worth pointing out Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins have both reached previously unforeseen levels under Woodcroft’s tutelage too.
If Darnell Nurse made $6.25 million instead of $9.25 million how much better could the Oilers be right now?
How about if Cody Ceci and Brett Kulak were closer to $4 million combined, not $6 million? Or if Evander Kane was closer to $4.5 million? Or if the team wasn’t wasting close to $2 million on a James Neal buyout?
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And the true piece de resistance: What if the Oilers didn’t give a shaky, streaky goalie who was propped up by a good defense and had little track record as a proven starter a five-year pact at $5 million per season?
It’s death by a thousand completely avoidable cuts that add up to over $10 million in wasted capital, flexibility lost that could’ve given the Oilers stronger depth and a goalie who might be able to make a save or two. It wasn’t Woodcroft who made those signings. Thank god Holland was at least able to turn Tyson Barrie into Mattias Ekholm or that mess would look much worse. Maybe he can do the same with Jack Campbell somehow.
That the Oilers finally became a somewhat consistent force that belongs at the top of the league was not an inevitability because they had Connor McDavid and Leon Draisiatl. They simply weren’t that before Woodcroft took over behind the bench. He helped cover up a lot of warts of an otherwise flawed team often built out of desperation.
It’s desperation that seems to be at the root of Woodcroft’s dismissal. He’s certainly not without blame for the team’s wretched start. Maybe the new guy, Kris Knoblauch, can earn similar underlying results while enjoying the benefit of incoming regression — but he should be graded on the former, not the latter.
As a relative unknown, it’s hard to know exactly what the Oilers will be getting there and maybe it is indeed an improvement. But they already knew what they were getting with Woodcroft and that was a very strong underlying process relative to the overall talent depth on the team. It feels like the guy who helped pull the Oilers out of mediocrity and still had them vastly out-chancing opponents despite their best player playing through injury deserved more leeway than 13 poor games.
It’s a lot less leeway than Ken Holland has inexplicably received in his fifth season as GM and it feels likely the Oilers got rid of the wrong guy.
Data via Evolving Hockey and CapFriendly
(Top photo of Ken Holland and Kris Knoblauch: Jason Franson / The Canadian Press)