In hockey, like out in the business world, there’s something to be said for fit and familiarity as they pertain to the people you work with. It’s no surprise, then, those factors come into play with most NHL coaching staffs. All things being equal, most people prefer to work alongside those they know, trust and are philosophically aligned with. It’s human nature.
It’s no surprise that when Todd McLellan arrived in town to take over as head coach of the Edmonton Oilers after parting ways with the San Jose Sharks in April 2015, Jay Woodcroft and Jimmy Johnson, his assistant coaches with the Sharks, arrived shortly after and filled the same roles on McLellan’s staff here. Woodcroft had been with McLellan since 2008-09. Johnson joined McLellan in San Jose for the 2012-13 season. Fit. Familiarity. Friendship.
They essentially arrived in Edmonton as a package deal. If the Oilers miss the playoffs this season after making the post-season with 103 points in 2016-17, it’s not a stretch to think they could end up leaving town the same way. I don’t think that’s McLellan’s fault – I’m not of the mind that he’s lost the room, as some people have suggested during a 17-19-3 start, or that he’s regressed as a bench boss since last season – but it is his problem.
Woodcroft and Johnson are his guys. They are also in charge of special teams that, to understate, haven’t been nearly good enough this season. Woodcroft is primarily responsible for the power play, which goes into tonight’s game vs. the Los Angeles Kings ranked 22nd at 17.0 per cent after finishing fifth last season at 22.9 per cent. Johnson runs the penalty kill, which is dead-last by a $5 cab ride at 71. 8 per cent overall and is sub-60 per cent at home after finishing last season a middling 17th.
“The penalty kill and power play are important parts of the game and not just from a statistical basis, but from a confidence perspective,” said McLellan, who saw his Oilers waxed 5-0 by the Winnipeg Jets on the last day of 2017. “Your team gains a lot of energy from a goal for and loses a lot from a goal against and we’ve been on the short-end of that for a long while,”
The troubling thing about that quote is McLellan said that way back on Oct. 27 and nothing has changed since then. The penalty killing has actually been worse lately than it had been, as Jason Gregor touched on today. We’re 39 games into the season. It’s not jumping the gun, far from it, to ask when we might expect to see some improvement on that front.
The coaches don’t play the game, the players do, so I’m never on the front lines of those prone to yelling “fire the coach” (or the coaches) the moment things go sideways. I’m not going to start now. That said, from where I sit this mess looks like equal parts failure to execute and failure to draw it up right – having the right players in the right places. Everybody, coaches and players, get some on them when it’s this bad.
I’m sure that’s a conversation McLellan has had with Woodcroft and Johnson more than once already. He knows them. He trusts them. There’s a lot of history there and they have enjoyed some success in the past together. I get it. Right now, though, what McLellan, Woodcroft and Johnson are doing with special teams isn’t close to good enough and whatever they accomplished last season is becoming a speck on the horizon in the rear-view mirror pretty quickly.
In the business that is the NHL, results trump all, including familiarity, fit and friendship. Miss the playoffs? We’ll see how that plays out soon enough.
WHILE I’M AT IT
I just want to give a shout out to Kerry McGowan of Trilogy Oilfield Ltd. McGowan, who has a long history of supporting charitable causes around the city, donated four loge seats to tonight’s game against Los Angeles at Rogers Place to aid in fund-raising for the Hockey Helps The Homeless event that’ll be played May 11.