What a difference a month has made for the Edmonton Oilers.
The firing of coach Jay Woodcroft and his right-hand man Dave Manson on Sunday after a dreadful 3-9-1 start signifies a seismic shift for an organization that was expected to be in the top tier of Stanley Cup contenders at the outset of the season.
Now, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, two of the best players in the world and who are both nearing the end of their contracts, are about to play for yet another coach.
But there’s so much more to it than that.
It’s not just that the Oilers canned Woodcroft, one of the most successful bench bosses in franchise history. He had the fifth-most victories in the NHL, an excellent .643 points percentage and three wins in playoff rounds since he was promoted from AHL Bakersfield on Feb. 10, 2022.
It’s also that the people hired to replace the two coaches clearly indicate the changing of guard in the front office.
Hiring Kris Knoblauch and giving Hockey Hall of Fame defenceman Paul Coffey another job as an assistant coach don’t come across as Ken Holland’s moves. Holland remains the general manager, but it’s plain to see the position is his in title only as his five-year contract heads down the home stretch. If the Oilers haven’t been run by Jeff Jackson, who was hired as CEO of hockey operations on Aug. 3, they sure are now.
Holland told assembled media in Edmonton that he’d spoken with some veteran players before the coaching changes were made. Jackson said otherwise.
“We didn’t consult with the players on this decision,” Jackson said. “They are here to play hockey. They don’t like being involved in these types of decisions. Connor (McDavid) and the other leaders had nothing to do with this decision.”
Knoblauch, 45, was seen as a rising star in the coaching ranks when he coached McDavid — and Connor Brown for parts of two seasons, too — with the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters. The former University of Alberta Golden Bears forward guided the Otters to four consecutive 50-win seasons. That last two came after McDavid moved on to the NHL with the final one resulting in a league championship.
Since then, Knoblauch has been a fine pro coach. He was first an assistant for the Philadelphia Flyers and was in his fifth season coaching the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Park. He’s never really been seriously considered for an NHL head coaching job, though.
Typically, teams opt for an opposite when making a coaching change. In this case, moving to a veteran bench boss known for sound defensive tactics would have been the logical choice. Instead, the Oilers go from a first-time NHL coach in Woodcroft to another one in Knoblauch.
As for Coffey, he was someone Holland let go in a player development role shortly after Holland was hired in May 2019.
It wasn’t long before owner Daryl Katz brought him back to be a special adviser. Coffey has never stood behind a pro bench before and has never expressed an interest in doing so — something he reiterated on Sunday. He’s Katz’s eyes and ears, now closer to the action than ever.
All the changes are downright startling, especially given the internal and external expectations on the Oilers heading into the season. It seemed like they were a bottom-six forward and a defenceman away from being true front-runners.
But things have been an absolute trainwreck since that first game in Vancouver on Oct. 11.
The Oilers never quite recovered since that astounding 8-1 shellacking at the hands of the Canucks where they looked confused and disinterested. The low point of the season came Thursday when they lost to the lowly Sharks.
By the next day, veteran defenceman Mattias Ekholm felt like the Oilers were in punting-on-the-season territory. It turns out, the decision to fire Woodcroft was already made by then. He was allowed to finish the road trip, which, oddly enough, was their most complete performance of the season — a 4-1 win in Seattle on Saturday.
Woodcroft bears some responsibility for that horrific start. Manson must, too, as the guy Woodcroft has called his left tackle.
Woodcroft instituted alterations to the team’s neutral and defensive zone structure that the players never fully grasped. The goal was to copy the Boston Bruins and go from allowing 3.5 goals against in the playoffs to becoming one of the better defensive teams in the NHL.
The results couldn’t have been poorer as the Oilers have averaged 3.92 goals allowed over 13 games. They’ve struggled to defend, particularly off the rush. It didn’t help that saves were hard to come by as well.
The penalty kill, Manson’s purview, ranks third from the bottom in the league at 70 percent.
The reality is, however, that systematic tweaks don’t take overnight. There’s just no way anyone would have predicted this team would have seven points through 13 games.
Truly, Woodcroft is out in Edmonton after 133 games — just 20 more than Dallas Eakins — because the Oilers have the league-worst save percentage and the second-worst shooting percentage at five-on-five.
The performances of so many players have been baffling, too.
In net, Jack Campbell is now giving up four goals a game in the minors after being waived earlier this week and Stuart Skinner hasn’t come close to replicating his rookie campaign.
On defence, the big guys have all had various challenges. Ekholm missed all of training camp and the start of the season with a hip flexor/groin injury and is just getting up to speed. Darnell Nurse has had his inconsistencies. Evan Bouchard’s gaffes have so often resulted in goals against.
Offensively, the high-powered first power-play unit hasn’t produced anywhere close to the rate this team needs. That’s a big part of the reason why McDavid and Draisaitl are well below their production levels this season.
McDavid is on pace for 73 points, the lowest output of his NHL career since his 2015-16 rookie campaign when he missed almost half the season due to injury. Members of the bottom six score at the same rate as the Northern Lights appear.
The Oilers have looked nothing like they have in the previous 120 regular-season games plus playoffs under Woodcroft.
As a result, the person McDavid felt was no worse than a top-five NHL coach at the end of the Los Angeles Kings series in April is now out of work. All it took for that to happen was one truly awful month.
Holland said Sunday that he tried to make a trade to improve the roster but couldn’t find anything suitable. Based on what just transpired, it’s apparent there’s more oversight on Holland now.
The result is mega short- and long-term ramifications for the organization. The coaching churn continues in Edmonton. This is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ 13th season with the Oilers. Knoblauch will be the 10th coach for whom he’s played.
“I came in three months ago to this job with a long-term view of getting some structure and strategy,” Jackson said. “That’s still the case. I can’t change what happened in the past with coaching changes over the years. Our focus is that we have a team that we believe should compete for the Stanley Cup.
“I’m a long-term strategy person, but I’m also here to try to win this year.”
The latter can still happen. Pittsburgh changed coaches in-season twice and won it all in 2008-09 and 2015-16. The same thing scenario took place in St. Louis in 2018-19. The Oilers have the team to do it, at least on paper, led by their two superstars.
Time is running out, however, not just for this season but on the contracts of their two best players. McDavid has two years left after this season and Draisaitl has just one.
“We’ve got our entire pro scouting group and analytics group working overtime on scenarios to try to make us better,” Jackson said. “We’re pursuing every avenue to do that.”
Jackson’s fingerprints are all over the Oilers after Sunday’s moves. There’s no turning back now.
(Photo of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid: Bob Frid / USA Today)