Jay Woodcroft is off to a great start as an NHL head coach. The Edmonton Oilers are 17-7-2 in Woodcroft’s 26 games as an NHL head coach. They are tied with Boston for the most points in the NHL since he took over and they have the fourth best points% at .692.
In the summer of 2018, Woodcroft opted to leave the NHL after 10 seasons as an assistant coach and three as a video coach to become the head coach of Bakersfield in the American Hockey League. While some might say the AHL was a step back, for Woodcroft it was the first step to achieving his ultimate goal of becoming a head coach in the National Hockey League.
So far, so good for Woodcroft. The Oilers are winning, and quite regularly. They are third in goals scored/game at 4.04 and they are 13th in goals against/game at 3.04. He’d like to lower the goals against, but only Boston (1.35), Florida (1.27) and Calgary (1.12) have a better GF-GA differential than the Oilers’ 1.00 since Woodcroft took over. The new NHL head coach is far from satisfied, and he and his staff are constantly looking at ways to improve.
Woodcroft joined Jason Strudwick and me on our TSN 1260 radio show on Friday to discuss his first seven weeks as head coach of the Oilers.
Jason Gregor: What’s the difference for Jay Woodcroft the NHL head coach from Jay Woodcroft the AHL head coach? Did you have to go out and get some new suits?
Jay Woodcroft: The biggest difference is my family hasn’t been with me. They stayed in California because I have two kids who are school age. They are finishing their school year. I’m about to see them in a little while though — they will come up for their Easter break. I miss them like crazy. So that for me has been the biggest difference.
In terms of the suits, I’ve had to buy some stuff on the road because I didn’t have enough clothing with me because when everything happened, it happened so fast that I was only able to pack a certain amount of clothes. I’ve had to buy a little bit here and there while we’ve been on the road.
Jason Strudwick: Well the good thing is that you are used to the NHL buffets because it seems to me that when a new coach or trainer joins a team they balloon up because those pre-game meals and on the plane… I mean there is food everywhere.
Woodcroft: Well the NHL is the never-hungry league, right? And they call the AHL the always hungry league (laughs). I think that our organization does a great job of making sure there is quality food around at all times, our players are given the best of everything so that they can focus on what is most important, which is to win games.
Gregor: You were a video coach and an assistant coach in the NHL for 13 years. You did say being an NHL head coach is different as you have to make the final decision, so has there been a moment in the 24 games on the bench where you’re like, ‘Ok, now I’m the head coach.’?
Woodcroft: Not really. For me, it’s very natural. I’m fortunate, I’m different in that my comeuppance was I started in the highest league, and then I made the decision to go back a league so I could get the different experience of being a head coach at that level. So for new coaches in the NHL in their first moment, everything is brand new. Like Jason had mentioned, the food or how to get into the rink or the level play, all of that type of play.
For someone who hasn’t been there before, it is a unique experience to see how the NHL operates. For me, I feel most comfortable and most natural standing behind the bench of hockey players. Obviously, the skill level and the talent of the players in the National Hockey League is the best in the world. But I’ve been around that, as you mentioned, for 13 years. So I was used to that. For me I feel most natural standing behind a bench or running a practice, those type of things, that’s what I worked so hard to put myself in position for.
Strudwick: When you arrived here how did you and your coaching staff decide which areas to attack first?
Woodcroft: Very good question. So, for me, Jason, when I was in California, my focus, my attention, my concentrations were on the Bakersfield Condors because that was the team I was coaching. In the background, you are cheering for your parent club because you feel invested in their success, but I didn’t really, I wasn’t going over video with a fine-toothed comb or anything like that. Then this happened early in February, February 10th or whatever day it was. So it happens, you got to get your life in order very, very quickly. You have to make sure you have what you need while you are getting to the airport, I had many texts to get to, and it’s a unique experience, a very unique experience.
I didn’t sit down and think about things from a hockey perspective until I was…the door shut on the airplane and I knew I had three hours to concentrate on an area of focus that I wanted to give the team.
The message that I awaited to send to our players, the message that I wanted to put in the media, that’s really where I began crafting a vision for how this team could make the playoffs.
All that said, when we arrived, Dave [Manson] and I arrived, it was late at night. I asked the coaching staff to have a meeting. So we had a meeting really late at night when Dave and I arrived. We went through things because these are the people that are on hand. They see things firsthand and they laid out what they thought were some of the things going on with the team. I took it all in, slept on it. Re-worked a few things in my own mind, and then I felt ready and prepared for that first game against the New York Islanders. But most importantly for me was the message that we sent to our players. I wanted them to hear how excited Dave and I were to be there, how we felt we could make a difference, how we believed in this team, and I think it was well received.
Gregor: When you arrived there wasn’t much practice time, so you couldn’t fix the special teams right away, you only had limited time. It seems the major focus point was goals against, five on five, and your neutral zone forecheck. What was the one or two most important things you had to implement right away and why?
Woodcroft: I thought the team I watched in the video was giving up too much off of the rush. And that’s a function of a few different things. It’ not just on D men, it’s not just on forwards, it’s not just on goaltenders. And so we wanted to put an emphasis there and we have a way of doing things, we have a language that we use. We have communication between the positions and that is where we put a lot of our emphasis was on our work back to our own end, our organization at our own blue line.
We wanted to have a mindset to contest lines, not just back in, and make teams earn our end. If they were going to earn our end, it wasn’t going to be clean. Through the first six weeks or so we had some really good results, there’s been moments where we haven’t been as good as we need to be, and those are growth moments, but on the whole we’ve really liked the results that we’re seeing.
Strudwick: I put forth this idea earlier in the show…I called it a “cooler line.” So whether it’s a goal for or a goal against, you have a group of players, all five, and they know that their job is to either break that momentum or start new momentum depending on what happened last shift. Is this something that you think might be reasonable and do you have a line you feel comfortable would be the group?
Woodcroft: Well, I do think that that is reasonable. I think there are situations which occur in games, where you’re at in the game, who just came off of the ice, who might be in the box, all of that stuff factors into it. I think we can do a better job as a team in shifts after goals, either goals we’ve scored or goals that we’ve given up. I think one of the things that we talked about as a staff this morning is we talked about things we had a really good shift with [Warren] Foegele, [Ryan] Nugent-Hopkins, and Derek Ryan halfway through that second period, after things kind of got away on us and their team had a little bit of a push.
We had a really, really good shift in the offensive zone with that Nugent-Hopkins, Foegele, Ryan line. They spent basically their entire shift in the offensive zone, they handed off a good shift to the next line and we had numerous scoring chances off of that. So for us, that is where we would put an emphasis. Here are things that we are looking for, specifically right after we scored a goal. But I like the way that you put it, the cooler, the cooler theory. I’m going to attribute that to you Struds (laughs).
Strudwick: I was the cooler, except in a bad way.
Woodcroft: You were cooler at the casino.
Strudwick: That’s right, I cooled off my own team, when we were too hot they were like ‘Strudwick, get out there. We’ve got to cool down (laughs).’
Gregor: Since you were hired you’ve mentioned many times about having a small focus. Just focus on the task today. Over the last couple of years you have been preparing for this opportunity. You went to the AHL so you could be an NHL head coach. What have you done to improve yourself, or learn is the better word, about coaching the last few years as a head coach that was maybe different than your focus as an assistant?
Woodcroft: That’s a really good question. I would say that when I took the job at the American League level, I called a bunch of NHL head coaches who I respected and wanted to pick their brain about their experiences at the American Hockey League level and that’s something that I try to do every summer. Just to learn from other people’s experiences.
One of the pieces of advice I got early on was from John Hynes who is the head coach in Nashville, he told me about his experience in Wilkes-Barre and how he felt the American League was almost like a laboratory in that you could experiment with different theories, different practices, different drills and you could do it away from the limelight and you had more opportunities to do things while not being in an 82-game schedule where your games are on National TV, where you have to answer to a big media scrum every day, those type of things.
And I took that advice and I tried to refine some things I felt were important, some ideas, ways to handle players, ways to handle different situations within games. Now, that’s the benefit of being in the American League. The other part of being in the American League is that you have divergent, what can appear to be divergent goals. You want to develop young players, which is the most important goal, but at the same time we wanted to do that in a winning environment.
So, we thought that we could marry the two concepts and in doing so you have to deal with challenges that you don’t have to deal with at the NHL level. For example, your roster is in flux a lot of times. You could be getting a player up and running so they are feeling good about their game and then they got plucked to go to the National Hockey League roster. Or there are injuries up top and that affects things.
And so those are challenges at that level, but I think that it makes you better. I really do think that it forces you to think creatively. It forces you to find solutions. And that was something that we talked about a lot in Bakersfield. Our job was to solve problems and develop solutions. I think that if you would have asked me three and a half years ago if I was ready to be a National Hockey league coach I would have said yes. I would have said yes at that time, but I think I am more ready for this opportunity now having gone through my experience as a head coach at the American League level.
Gregor: Can you give us an example of something that you experimented with that you liked or didn’t like and it didn’t pan out?
Woodcroft: Yes. Practice. Practice length, practice time. Different drills, different ways of presenting, introducing themes and all that type of stuff. Now, that sounds very general, but I can tell you, it gets to be very specific at that level. I’m not going to share everything that we did. But there are ways that you have to be creative in connecting with your players. Something we really wanted to do in Bakersfield was to make sure that we put our players first. It was a message we sent to the Oilers when Dave and I came up here in the beginning of February. It is one that we are going to continue with. We are constantly striving to get a little bit better every day, and we will put our players first.
Gregor: Last night against LA it felt a little bit more like a playoff game. It’s not a playoff game until you’re in a playoff game, but in your final 14 games, you face many teams who are in the playoffs or jockeying for it. Can you use these games as a trial period for your team to ensure that come May they’re ready for the importance for every shift and every touch of the puck in the playoffs?
Woodcroft: Yes, I think you can. I think we can understand that we only have so many dress rehearsals left. We understand that we haven’t clinched anything. We still have a job to do. You mentioned about our emphasis on keeping our focus and concentrating on the day’s business. That’s by design. We believe that if you take care of your day’s business that eventually the results will take care of themselves.
Big picture wise, as you mentioned, we only have so many dress rehearsals left. So every rep does count. Every rep in practice does count. Every touch of the puck in the game does count. Now, do we think that we are going to be perfect? Are we trying to coach the perfect game and manage every breath? No. But we want to make sure our focus is where it needs to be and our level of execution is where it is going to need to be, and if there are times when we have to learn from moments, for example, the game in Calgary or giving up a couple of goals in quick succession last night.
Those are learning moments to help us going forwards, because in my experiences in the playoffs very rarely do things go exactly according to plan. You have to be able to draw on different experiences and that’s what these games are for.
Woodcroft has had a phenomenal start to his NHL head coaching career. He, and Dave Manson, have grabbed the attention of the team, and they are playing well. As Woodcroft said, they aren’t perfect. Two bad losses to Calgary (nine GA) and Minnesota (seven GA) make their overall goals against/game look worse than they have been more the majority of the games. In those two games they surrendered 16 goals, while in their other 24 games they allowed 63 goals. They averaged 2.63 GA/game in 24, but add in those two rough nights v. Calgary and Minnesota and it jumps up to 3.04.
If you remove their two best offensive games where they scored seven goals against Detroit and Anaheim the Oilers are still averaging 3.80 GF/game in their other 24, down slightly from the 4.04 in all 26 games. The Oilers are still a work in progress defensively, but they’ve taken major strides under Woodcroft, especially at 5×5.
In 44 games before Woodcroft the Oilers allowed 2.27 GA/game at 5×5.
In 26 games with Woodcroft they are allowing 2.07.
But those two games against Calgary and Minnesota really alter the 5×5 defence.
In the other 24 games they’re averaging 1.63. If you remove the two worst games pre-Woodcroft and the 5×5 GA would be 2.09.
You can’t remove those games from the overall numbers, but it is important to see how two bad performances drastically alter how the team has played in the other 92.3% of their games.
1. Leon Draisaitl is having another spectacular season. Last night he reached the 50-goal mark for the second time in his career and 100 points for the third time. He also joined a very exclusive club of elite scorers. There are 24 players in this club, and Alex Ovechkin is the only other active player with access. Read about Draisaitl’s exclusive club here. Will Connor McDavid join Draisaitl in the future?
2. What a great race for the Rocket Richard trophy. Draisaitl has 12-10-22 in his past 12 games. Auston Matthews has 14-6-20 in his previous 12. Draisaitl has 12 games remaining while Matthews has 13. Matthews is on pace for 62 goals while Draisaitl is on pace for 59. The last time two players scored 59 goals in a season was in 1996 when Penguins teammates Mario Lemieux (69) and Jaromir Jagr (62) did it. Only twice since 1996 has a player scored 60 goals. Ovechkin had 65 in 2008 and Steven Stamkos had 60 in 2012. Both Matthews and Draisaitl have a legit shot to reach 60.
3. Alex Ovechkin needs eight goals in the final 13 games to reach 50 for the ninth time in his career which would tie him with Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy for the most 50-goal seasons. I hope Ovechkin does it, and even more I wish Mike Bossy all the best in his battle against lung cancer. Bossy was one of the best pure shooters the NHL has ever seen.
4. McDavid set a career high with 11 shots on goal Friday v. the Blues. He had five shots last night in Anaheim, and the second shot of the game gave him a new single-season career high in shots. He now has 278 and will surpass 300 for the first time. He also looks poised to set a new high in goals. He’s scored 41 twice, and will surely break that down the stretch. He has 11 goals and 26 points during his current 13-game point streak. He has five goals in his last four games and needs 10 in the final 12 to reach 50 for the first time. The 50-goal plateau is a major accomplishment and McDavid wants to reach it at some point in his career. Considering how he produces more points/game late in the season, I won’t be surprised if he reaches 50.
Recently by Jason Gregor:
- Oilers Chasing Franchise Record
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- Game Notes v. Kings: Playoff Preview?
- GDB 67.0: McDavid Going For 100