What a difference a month has made for the Edmonton Oilers.
The firings of manager Jay Woodcroft and right-hander Dave Manson on Sunday after a horrendous 3-9-1 start would mark a seismic shift for an organization expected to be among the top Stanley Cup contenders in the early going. Season.
Now, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, two of the best players in the world, are nearing the end of their contracts and will be playing for another coach.
But there is much more to it than that.
The Oilers didn’t just bag Woodcroft, one of the most successful bench bosses in franchise history. Since being promoted from Bakersfield of the AHL on Feb. 10, 2022, he has the fifth-most wins in the NHL, a career-best .643 points percentage and three wins in the playoffs.
The hires to replace the two coaches clearly represent a changing of the guard in the front office.
Hiring Kris Knoblauch and giving Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffin another job as an assistant coach won’t come from Ken Holland’s moves. Holland remains general manager, but with his five-year contract running out on the pitch, it’s clear to see that his position is only a title one. If the Oilers weren’t led by Jeff Jackson, who was hired as CEO of hockey operations on Aug. 3, they sure are now.
Holland told the media in Edmonton that he spoke with some of the veteran players before the coaching changes. Jackson said otherwise.
“We did not consult with the players on this decision,” Jackson said. “They came here to play hockey. They don’t like to be involved in such decisions. Connor (McDavid) and the other leaders had nothing to do with that decision.
Knoblauch, 45, emerged as stars in the coaching ranks when he coached McDavid — and Connor Brown for parts of two seasons — with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League. The former University of Alberta Golden Bears coach led the Otters to four consecutive 50-win seasons. Those final two came after McDavid’s transition to the NHL, resulting in his final league championship.
Since then, Knoblach has been a good pro coach. He was originally an assistant with the Philadelphia Flyers and is in his fifth season coaching the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Park. He was never seriously considered for an NHL head coaching job.
Typically, when teams make a coaching change, they choose the opposite. In this case, it was a logical choice to go for a veteran bench boss known for his sound defensive tactics. Instead, the Oilers will go from their first NHL coach in Woodcroft to another in Knoblauch.
As for Coffey, he was the man who brought Holland into the player development role shortly after Holland was hired in May 2019.
It wasn’t long before his owner, Darryl Katz, brought him on as a special consultant. Coffey has never stood behind a pro bench before and has never expressed a desire to do so – he did so again on Sunday. He’s Katz’s eyes and ears, closer to the action now than ever before.
All of the changes are daunting, especially given the internal and external expectations for the Sailors entering the season. They looked defensive, far from being bottom-six forwards and true front-runners.
But after the first game on Oct. 11 in Vancouver, things were an absolute train wreck.
The Oilers haven’t recovered since their stunning 8-1 shellacking at the hands of a seemingly confused and disinterested Canucks. The low point of the season came Thursday when they lost to the lowly Sharks.
The next day, veteran defenseman Matthias Ekholm felt the Oilers were in off-season territory. Turns out, the decision to fire Woodcroft had already been made at that time. He was allowed to complete the road trip, which was surprisingly his most complete performance of the season – a 4-1 win over Seattle on Saturday.
Woodcroft bears some responsibility for that terrible start. So should Manson, as the man Woodcroft calls his left tackle.
Woodcroft made changes to the team’s neutral and defensive zone structure that the players didn’t fully understand. The goal was to copy the Boston Bruins and become one of the best defensive teams in the NHL from allowing 3.5 goals in the playoffs.
The Oilers averaged 3.92 goals allowed over 13 games, and the results couldn’t be worse. They struggled to defend, especially against the rush. It didn’t help that savings were hard to come by either.
Manson’s free throw percentage ranks third in the bottom 70 percent of the league.
The truth is that strategic adjustments do not take place overnight. There is no way anyone could have predicted that this team would have seven points in 13 games.
Indeed, Woodcroft left Edmonton after 133 games — 20 more than Dallas Eakins — because the Oilers had the league’s worst save percentage and second-worst shooting percentage at five-on-five.
The performance of several players was also confusing.
In net, Jack Campbell now has four goals in the minors after being dropped earlier this week and Stuart Skinner looks unlikely to repeat his rookie campaign.
On defense, the big guys all faced different challenges. Ekholm is progressing quickly after missing all of training camp and the start of the season with a hip flexor/groin injury. Darnell Nurse has his inconsistencies. Ivan Bouchard’s gaffes often resulted in goals.
Offensively, a high-powered first power-play unit didn’t come close to the size this team needed. This is a big part of McDavid and Draisaitl’s below par production this season.
McDavid is on pace for a career-low 73 points in the NHL since his rookie campaign in 2015-16, when he missed half the season due to injury. The bottom six members are rated at the same speed as the Northern Lights.
The Oilers have been undefeated in their previous 120 regular season games and playoff appearances under Woodcroft.
As a result, the man 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 a job. It took one hell of a month for that to happen.
Holland said Sunday that he had tried to make a trade to improve the roster but had been unable to find anything suitable. Based on what has just happened, it is clear that there is now more control over Holland.
The result is a mega short- and long-term improvement for the organization. The coaching program continues in Edmonton. This is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ 13th season with the Zeiters. Knoblach will be the 10th coach to play for him.
“I came into this job three months ago with a long-term vision to get some structure and strategy,” Jackson said. “It’s still like that. I can’t change the coaching changes over the years. We have a team that we believe should be competing for the Stanley Cup.
“I’m a long-term strategy guy, but I’m here to try to win this year.”
The latter can still happen. Pittsburgh changed coaches twice during the season and won them all in 2008-09 and 2015-16. The same thing happened in St. Louis in 2018-19. The Oilers, at least on paper, have a team led by their two superstars.
Time is running out, not just 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 have our entire scouting team and analytics team working overtime on situations,” Jackson said. We will follow all means to do this.
After Sunday’s activities, Jackson’s footprints are all over the Oilers. There is no going back now.
(Photo of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid: Bob Fried/USA Today)