Weekend NHL rankings: Oilers fire Jay Woodcroft, good times in Vancouver and more

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The Edmonton Oilers snapped their losing streak on Saturday, dominating the Seattle Kraken early on their way to an impressive 4-0 win that may save the job of head coach Jay Woodcroft — whoops, nope, there he goes.

That was weird, right?

When news first broke on Sunday morning that Edmonton was making a change despite the win, my first thought was “Well, they’ve obviously got a big name in their back pocket and they don’t want to risk waiting.” But nope, the new coach is Kris Knoblauch, a guy who’s had a lot of success in junior and not as much in the AHL.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s dig through it.

Bonus Five: Thoughts on the Oilers coaching change

5. It’s a surprise, but maybe not as much as you think — This move settles all those “first coach fired” bets for the year, and Woodcroft was a medium-range longshot according to oddsmakers, listed well behind guys like Craig Berube and D.J. Smith but not in the “no chance” group by any stretch. None of us had him as our pick, but in our prediction contest, Woodcroft was listed as a definitely safe coach by only 328 of you. That ranked 10th in the league and well behind guys like Jared Bednar, Rod Brind’Amour and Jon Cooper, who were all over 1,000. So you kind of saw this coming, or at least sniffed out the possibility.

4. It’s another reminder that no coach can overcome lousy goaltending — It’s not that the Oilers’ problems are just goaltending. It’s never just goaltending. But also, sometimes it’s just goaltending, and prime Scotty Bowman couldn’t win with .860 goaltending in a .905 league. The Oilers desperately need a save, and maybe a solid showing by Stuart Skinner on Saturday is the start of it.

3. The optics here put a lot of pressure on Connor McDavid — Knoblauch has done a bunch of winning, and his name has been out there as a future NHL coach for a while. But he also coached McDavid in junior, and people are going to notice that. McDavid now has his former agent as team president and his former coach behind the bench. This is clearly his team, more so than a typical franchise player. He’s got connections to everyone in charge. Well, except for …

2. Ken Holland’s seat has to be searingly hot — I get that he’s a Hall of Famer with a fistful of Cup rings, and he didn’t just forget everything he knows about building winning teams. But with all that said, it’s starting to feel all but impossible to imagine Holland having a future in Edmonton unless this season turns around. And not in a “they squeaked into the playoffs after all” sort of way, but in a legitimate Cup run.

Is there any chance Holland can make it through the year? Maybe, because …

1. Hockey gods help me, I still think the Oilers will be OK — Woodcroft was a good coach, but it’s very possible that this change has the desired effect of shocking the Oilers out of their extended slump. McDavid’s looked mortal, and maybe hurt, and that can’t last. Leon Draisaitl has another gear. Their underlying numbers have mostly been better than you’d think. And while none of that will matter if the goaltending doesn’t improve … I mean, it has to improve, doesn’t it? One way or another, they’re not going .860 all year.

Whenever a team starts badly, we hear all about the pace they have to play at the rest of the way to get to certain point totals. Right now, the Oilers have to play at a 110-point pace to get to 100 points. I’m still not completely convinced that isn’t doable. And I say this knowing how dumb it might make me look in a few months when they’re headed for 12th in the conference and McDavid has a mysterious Raquel Welch poster hanging at the back of his locker.

On to this week’s top five. Spoiler alert, the Oilers aren’t in it.

Road to the Cup

The five teams with the best chances of winning the Stanley Cup.

Hockey is a beautiful game of breathtaking skill.

Keep it up, kid, and you might even make a Top 100 list someday.

5. New York Rangers (11-2-2, +15 true goals differential*) — I’ve seen enough. The Rangers become the eighth team to find their way into the Top Five so far this year. They have just one loss in their last 10, and that was a shootout so it barely counts. I’m still not convinced Peter Laviolette was much more than a backup plan when it came to their coaching search, but he’s got them humming right now, even if they needed a buzzer-beater to survive the Columbus Blue Jackets last night.

4. Colorado Avalanche (8-5-0, -1) — Give them credit: When they lose, they get their money’s worth. They’ve only lost five, but that includes three shutouts and Saturday’s 8-2 loss to the Blues. How bad was it? They even gave up two power-play goals to St. Louis, who had just one all year heading into the game. (Weird stat: The Blues also scored a pair of short-handed goals in that one, meaning they somehow still have more goals at four-on-five than they do at five-on-four.)

3. Boston Bruins (11-1-2, +17) — Losing to the Habs is always tough, especially when you can’t lord that win streak over them anymore. Still, five out of six points makes for a solid week. If you’re a Boston fan and wanted to see them even higher, the Friday guys have you covered.

2. Dallas Stars (10-3-1, +17) — For what it’s worth, The Athletic’s staff agrees with my top two; Our most recent round of Cup picks has the Stars and Knights tied at the top. After watching them flex on the hapless Minnesota Wild last night, I doubt anyone is asking for a recount.

1. Vegas Golden Knights (12-2-1, +23) — We got to find out what happens when the No. 1 team in the Top Five faces the No. 1 team in the Bottom Five. It turns out it’s exactly what you’d think would happen.


*Goals differential without counting shootout decisions like the NHL does for some reason.

Not ranked: Vancouver Canucks — They’re not this good.

Not even close, actually. At 11-3-1, their record says they should be in consideration for the Top Five by now. Twenty years ago, that would have been enough. But not anymore, because we’re smarter than that now. We know how to dig deeper and figure out when teams are legitimately dominating, and when they’re simply playing well enough with the winds of good luck at their back.

Coming into the weekend, the Canucks are clearly in that second group, riding a ridiculous PDO north of 107. They were shooting 16 percent as a team, basically the equivalent of having an entire roster of 2001 Joe Sakic clones. Thatcher Demko was stopping everything, including a ridiculously high percentage of high-danger chances. The power play was humming north of 30 percent. Their expected goals were just a bit above 50 percent, but the actual goals were tilted about 70 percent in their favor, which makes no sense. All those numbers dipped a bit after a loss in Toronto and a close-ish win over Montreal, but it hardly matters. None of this is sustainable. None of it can last. We’ve been over this every few years with some team that gets all the bounces for a month. We know how it ends.

Here’s the twist: A lot of Canucks fans seem to realize this.

It’s honestly pretty great. This is the part in the “hot team vs. analytics” script where it’s supposed to get ugly, with fans getting defensive and pounding their chests and telling us that the things their team does well result in a 106.7 PDO, in their opinion. I’m sure I’m missing some of that — Canucks fans are, uh, not exactly notorious for being an especially chill bunch — but I’m not seeing it much so far.

Instead, I see a fan base that understands this is all very silly, and that it won’t last. When Harman digs into the start and explains why it’s unsustainable, nobody seems to be having a tantrum. They’re just enjoying the ride.

And that’s what they should be doing, because this team is insanely fun to watch right now. The goalie’s hot and everything is going in at the other end. What’s not to love?

The beauty of all this is even if this hot start isn’t “real” in some philosophical sense, it’s very real on the standings page. All these points count. And even if the luck runs out tomorrow, the Canucks have still built themselves a very nice cushion in the Western playoff race. Remember, regression means coming back to earth. It doesn’t mean that there necessarily has to be a cold streak somewhere down the line to balance this out. All these points are in the bank, and at some point that adds up to a playoff spot, even when the luck runs out.

If it ever does. That’s the fun of a run like this — you can talk yourself into anything while it’s going on. You don’t need top-five validation from some Eastern writer who’s never seen your team play, or anyone’s permission to enjoy it while it lasts.

The bottom five

The five teams that are headed toward dead last, and the best lottery odds for Macklin Celebrini.

Scott had a look at the top prospects for this year’s draft. Eyes on the prize, everyone.

5. Calgary Flames (4-8-2, -13) — This is an admittedly dicey pick, and maybe one I’ll regret in a few weeks. We’re supposed to be the rankings that won’t overreact to short-term swings, so a playoff-caliber team having a slump shouldn’t get them all the way into the bottom five. But this isn’t the short term anymore, not with four wins to show for 14 games. And since we’re looking down the road, we can factor in all the signs that say the Flames might be ready to start dismantling, with reports of extension talks paused and some players already lobbying for a trade.

You could make the case for the Predators or Kraken in this spot instead, especially since the Flames beat both of them recently. But those teams are flatlining, while the Flames feel like they may somehow be trending even lower. Again, I reserve the right to feel embarrassed about this pick in December. But yeah, the vibes are not great right now.

4. Montreal Canadiens (7-6-2, -8) — Their record seems a little too good for this spot, but they haven’t won in regulation in 10 games. With nobody else really staking a claim to the bottom five, the Habs can keep their spot for one more week.

3. Chicago Blackhawks (5-8-0, -11) — This is just unfair.

2. Columbus Blue Jackets (4-7-4, -11) — They were agonizingly close last night, but lost their fifth straight and ninth out of ten. It was also a weird week for David Jiricek, which Aaron digs into here.

1. San Jose Sharks (2-12-1, -48) — The Sharks won this week — twice! — so we’re taking a break from the recurring Depressing Sharks Stat. Instead, let’s offer up an alternative that we might not get many opportunities to enjoy: Highlights from a Sharks victory.

We will not be taking questions about how the weekend went.

Not ranked: Nashville Predators — So about that culture change.

The Predators took a bold step a few months ago, replacing the most experienced GM in NHL history with a former head coach who’d never been in a front office. It was a risk, but it made a certain kind of sense — Barry Trotz is a sharp hockey mind who knows the market, and he wouldn’t shy away from tough decisions. Buying out Matt Duchene and basically giving away Ryan Johansen was part of that, as was signing respected veterans Ryan O’Reilly and Luke Schenn, and hiring Andrew Brunette. It wasn’t a rebuild, but rather a reimagining of a team that had fallen just short of the playoffs a season before.

So far, it hasn’t worked — the Predators are just 5-9-0 after Saturday’s loss to Arizona, well back in a Central Division that’s separating into haves and have-nots. A big part of those struggles has been one of the guys Trotz kept, as Juuse Saros has been barely mediocre through the first month. It’s always a little bit too simplistic to point to goaltending as the reason behind a team’s results, but in the Predators’ case, it’s hard to ignore. They’ve given up two goals or less in five games, and won all five; they’ve given up three or more in nine, and lost all nine. You do the math.

Saros is one of the best in the league, a key piece of the team’s outlook both now and into the future, and he’ll almost certainly get back on track. That would give the Predators more breathing room for an offense that’s struggled to produce apart from whoever’s playing with Filip Forsberg. Offseason addition Gustav Nyquist has only one goal so far, so you’d figure he’s not going to shoot 3 percent all year. There’s still time, especially with the Ducks and Blackhawks up next.

But without looking too far ahead, it will be fascinating to see what Trotz does with this group if they’re out of the race at midseason. There are plenty of pieces here that would be attractive to a contender and lots of expiring contracts. Saros will need an extension next summer too, which will be an interesting inflection point with Yaroslav Askarov looming. There are several ways it could all play out, but let’s just say that Trotz doesn’t give off the vibe of a guy who’s OK with underachieving.

That’s for down the road, though. For now, the Predators need to bank a few points, and the schedule is offering them a quick path back to the win column. Let’s see if they can take it.

(Photos of Jay Woodcroft and the Canucks: Walter Tychnowicz, David Kirouac / USA Today)

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