Extending Woodcroft’s contract a no-brainer for Oilers: ‘Jay delivered’

EDMONTON — As series coaches John Tortorella, Pete DeBoer, Paul Maurice and even Bruce Cassidy played on musical chairs in the National Hockey League, the Edmonton Oilers cemented their 45-year-old freshman behind the bench for at least the next three years.

Why?

Here’s why, simple: “Jay delivered,” Oilers general manager Ken Holland said Wednesday.

There isn’t a functioning NHL organization that doesn’t bring Woodcroft back after the work he did in 2021-22, posting the second-best win ratio (.724) in the NHL since the day he was hired on Feb. 11. until the end of the season. He delivered two playoff rounds at the macro level and hit the staff buttons at the micro level that showed he is in touch with his players and can bench effectively.

Woodcroft paired a 22-year-old Evan Bouchard, whose game went up and down in the first half, with a future Hall of Famer in Duncan Keith, and young Bouchard thrived. Then he – and unsigned Dave Manson – formed a shutdown pairing of Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci that did better than anyone thought possible.

In Round 1, being eliminated in Game 6, Woodcroft tweaked his forward alignment and freed Connor McDavid, winning the road matchups against the Los Angeles Kings. He then put together a game plan that went through the favored Calgary Flames in a quick five games.

“When I got the opportunity in February,” Woodcroft began Wednesday, “Ken gave me the direction to take us to the playoffs, win games and see what happens when we get there. It was really liberating for me at the time.”

So he tried a few things, and almost everything worked.

Partly due to his stint as Oilers AHL coach at Bakersfield, Woodcroft has been great with young players like Ryan McLeod, Kailer Yamamoto and Bouchard. He also stayed with a struggling Jesse Puljujarvi longer than many coaches would have.

That skill is now shifting to the next generation of young players on cheap contracts – Stuart Skinner, Philip Broberg, Dylan Holloway, maybe Markus Niemelainen – who need to contribute to a successful team in the salary cap era.

It’s a three-year deal that reportedly earns Woodcroft $2 million a season. He hasn’t made any promises to assistant coaches Manson, Glen Gulutzan, Brian Wiseman and Dustin Schwartz but will spend the next few days working that out. Manson is ready to be back.

When Woodcroft returns in September, it will not be as a last-second replacement amid a failed season, but as a full-time head coach who has time to implement his plans for the team.

“You have the time to not just think about the things that are happening at the highest levels of the NHL, the trends in the game, the tactics used, and you have the time to digest how best to implement or teach those things” , he said. “I think it’s important to have your finger on the pulse of what’s successful in the NHL today and where the NHL is going.”

As a coach known for preparedness and detail, a busy summer to execute his coaching plan should make the Oilers a slightly better prepared team come fall. Because that’s exactly what they were after just two months in Edmonton last winter.

Two moments that caught my eye happened ten days in a row, the first on April 13 after a crushing 5-1 loss at Minnesota left Edmonton with a 12-3-2 record in their last 17 games. Tyson Barrie gave us a glimpse into the team’s psyche with the playoffs less than three weeks away.

“Look at the hockey we’ve played the last two months, it’s been really solid,” Barrie said. “You know, you lose a game like this and you just have to recover. If it was reversed – if we were 3-12-2 – you would have some problems. But we’re a confident team, we know the kind of hockey we can play and when we play it, how we feel.”

The following night, the Oilers went 4-0 through Nashville and dominated the game from the first puck drop to the final buzzer.

Just over a week later, intellectual Derek Ryan commented on the changes that had occurred after Woodcroft had spent two full months on the job.

“Structured. Detailed. Don’t let giving up leads freak you out,” Ryan began. “The details in our D-Zone exits, our D-Zone coverage, our neutral zone preview. Our O-Zone pre-check…every little facet of the game.”

Woodcroft sweats out the details and lets his players know why and what he’s doing – something today’s gamer applauds.

“We’ve put more emphasis on faceoffs, how we do faceoffs on offense, how we’re trying to get out of our own zone defensively, on faceoffs in the D-zone,” Ryan enthused. “Every little detail in the game (is) especially big when you come down the track and play in the playoffs.

“These details can win or lose your games and I think in all these small areas our team has gotten immeasurably better.”

And they got better at winning games. In the end, an interim coach becomes a full-time coach.

In the NHL, it always starts with a W.

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