The Jay Woodcroft era is off to a good start.
The Oilers beat the New York Islanders by a score of 3-1 on Friday night, snapping the two-game skid they had coming out of the All-Star break.
We saw Woodcroft made a bit of a bold decision ahead of his debut running an NHL bench, opting to roll with 11 forwards and seven defenders. He split up Edmonton’s big three centres, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, something we didn’t see all too often under Dave Tippett. Woodcroft also dispersed ice-time more evenly than Tippett did, as Tyler Benson played for the first time since January 22, Evan Bouchard was quarterbacking the power-play, and Ryan McLeod saw time on the penalty-kill.
The result was a strong, 60-minute effort from the Oilers in which the whole team top to bottom appeared to be engaged in the game. It isn’t anything new to see a team fired up to play for a new coach, but Woodcroft has been praised as a leader who can get a lot out of his players, so it’ll be interesting to see what he does the rest of the way.
That brings us to this week’s What Would You Do Wednesday SATURDAY EDITION question. Both in terms of strategy and deployment, what changes would you like to see Jay Woodcroft make now that he’s taken over Edmonton’s bench from Dave Tippett?
Using seven defencemen
As I mentioned above, Woodcroft opted to roll with seven defenders in his first game as an NHL coach, as Devin Shore was a late scratch and Philip Broberg was added to the lineup. This is something he did often when coaching the Bakersfield Condors, though a lot of that came down to the fact that the organization had more impact defence prospects than forward prospects in the AHL. Might it be a tactic he brings to the Oilers?
This makes a lot of sense for the Oilers right now as they’re going to miss Duncan Keith due to injury for the foreseeable future. It’s unreasonable for a young defender like Markus Niemelainen, Philip Broberg, or William Lagesson to take on the difficult minutes that Keith plays, so filling that hole by committee is a sensible move.
It also represents an opportunity to get more young defenders in the mix to work in-game with Dave Manson, which, big-picture, is a good thing for their development. Such deployment allows for defenders to have more of a breather and to focus on more specific aspects of their game.
Faith in young players
Speaking of developing young talent, this is one of the things that’s most exciting about Woodcroft taking over behind the bench. Tippett always seemed to favour veterans, which isn’t uncommon among old-school coaches, but Woodcroft will surely put more faith into Edmonton’s youth considering he’s familiar with a lot of them from Bakersfield.
On Friday, we saw Tyler Benson get into a game for the first time since January 22 and he was noticeable each time he was on the ice. Ryan McLeod and Niemelainen both saw time on the penalty-kill, and Evan Bouchard was the power-play quarterback despite Tyson Barrie also being in the lineup.
Niemelainen had likely the best game of his young NHL career thus far. He appeared more confident than he’s looked in the past, opting to step up and play a physical game rather than waiting back and playing conservatively. Goaltender Mike Smith noticed Niemelainen’s efforts and praised the rookie defender after the game…
“He definitely brings an element of surprise out there,” goalie Mike Smith said of Niemelainen. “I don’t think a lot of people know what kind of player he is yet. Playing the way he is, he’ll make a name for himself pretty fast.
“It’s good to see a young guy come up and not be afraid to muck it up a little bit and bring a physical aspect. … He’s a kid who’s not afraid to throw his weight around, and that’s what we need back there a little bit.”
At some point, I hope we see the Benson, McLeod, Cooper Marody trio that has been so effective for the Condors in the past. Marody has been buried in the AHL despite good results and it wouldn’t be surprising at all if Woodcroft finally gave him a chance.
Don’t sit back
The Oilers carried a 2-1 lead into the third period after the Islanders got on the board with a power-play goal late in the second. Under Tippett, the Oilers usually would have sat back and played a defensive shell, but that wasn’t the case on Friday as the team controlled play for the majority of the third frame.
“It was by design,” Woodcroft said. “When we got to the third period and I saw it was 2-1, we let our team know we weren’t sitting back. “I thought those players that played a lot in the third period had a lot in the tank and had more to give, and they gave it.”
This is again a situation that was made possible through Woodcroft rolling the lines more evenly earlier in the game. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl played around nine minutes each in the third period and they weren’t completely gassed because they played around 12 minutes in the first two periods.
Pushing forward and continuing to try to score rather than sitting back and defending a one-goal lead in the third period is certainly a breath of fresh air. Too many times we’ve seen the Oilers become lifeless after they go ahead and the opposing team uses that to get the momentum back on their side.
What say you, Nation? What did you like about Jay Woodcroft’s first game behind the bench? What do you hope to see from him the rest of the way? Let us know!
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