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Photo Credit: © Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The five Oilers players that have improved the most under Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson, and the one that still needs to improve

It’s practically undeniable that coaching was previously a concern for the Edmonton Oilers. Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson’s impact on Edmonton’s roster has been significantly positive.

Ever since their hirings, the Edmonton Oilers rank 3rd in the league in points, with a 19-7-3 record, and a points percentage of 70.7%. They did lose in a shootout last night to the Colorado Avalanche, but it’s a loss that’s difficult to be overly mad about. Edmonton went toe-to-toe and out-chanced a top-two team in the league for the second time this season; the effort was clearly present, and it’s an encouraging sign.

I wrote an article a few weeks back about the process behind their immediate impact. Under Woodcroft/Manson, Edmonton has a considerably better defensive and forechecking structure. The team is more aggressive in the offensive zone, and generate more high-quality chances. They’re also standing up the blue-line much more frequently, as their 1-3-1 NZ structure has resulted in fewer odd-man-rushes and chances off the rush. 

In addition, the defencemen are taking fewer low-quality point shots, unlike their prior shooting rates; Jim Playfair had previously instructed each defenceman to take a shot per period. 

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There’s many things to be pleased about regarding Woodcroft and Manson’s system. Since the sample size is much larger, I decided to take a look at individual improvements under Woodcroft from a statistical standpoint. Which Edmonton players have benefitted the most from the coaching change?

*All stats via EvolvingHockey, all microstats via Corey Sznajder

Connor McDavid

Of course, McDavid has always been the best player in the league, even under Tippett, but it’s incredible to see that he’s managed to find yet another gear under Woodcroft. Here’s a breakdown of his numbers.

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McDavid’s production rates have significantly improved. Of course, some of that is due to regression to the mean, as his on-ice shooting% was at a career-low under Tippett this season. Nonetheless, his CF% and xGF% have also improved to considerable extents.

McDavid is currently at a 4.07 xGF/60 with Woodcroft, which would be the highest xGF/60 at EV in a single season in the analytical era, while 2nd place is at 3.72 xGF/60. Impressive.

I think one major factor as to why his on-ice shooting% and xGF have improved is due to Woodcroft’s notable emphasis on shot quality. As stated previously, Edmonton took an excessively high rate of low-quality point shots under Tippett and Manson. This was especially true for Darnell Nurse, who individually took roughly 27.4% of the team’s 5v5 shot attempts when he was on-ice with McDavid.

However, forwards are shooting much more under Manson and Woodcroft, and most shots are considerably superior in regards to quality. That’s likely played a role as to why more pucks are going into the net for McDavid.

McDavid’s defensive metrics (xGA and GA) have additionally improved, and he seems much more reliable and involved defensively, overall. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’ve noticed that the centers in general seem to have more responsibility in their own zone as opposed to before, and provide additional support to the defencemen down low.

Overall, I hope we can see McDavid perform in a full 82 GP season under Woodcroft, as he’s undoubtedly upgraded his two-way play even further. 

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Jesse Puljujarvi

Puljujarvi’s results under Woodcroft have been spectacular. Ever since February 10, at even-strength, Puljujarvi ranks first on the team in: 

  • Goal Differential (90%)
  • Expected Goal Differential (66.9%)
  • Shot Attempt Differential (62.1%)
  • High Danger Chance Differential (68.4%)

With Puljujarvi on ice, Edmonton has out-scored the opposition by an incredible ratio of 18-2 under Woodcroft, which is outstanding. The puck is predominantly in the offensive zone with Puljujarvi on the ice, and seldom in the back of Edmonton’s net.

I think this is a nice time to demonstrate how underappreciated Puljujarvi can be. I recently made statistical visualizations for forwards and defencemen; here’s how Puljujarvi looks.

Puljujarvi is a dominant two-way player who impacts goal differential without always producing points.

Firstly, he’s exceptional defensively. His aggressive forechecking disrupts zone exits from opposing defencemen. This results in sustained possession in the offensive zone, consequently meaning less time and chances against in his defensive zone, but he’s a very reliable in-zone defender as well. He excels at using his stick and long reach to disrupt lanes and intercept passes. In addition, his DZ Retrievals/60 ranks in the 84th percentile.

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Although Puljujarvi evidently needs to improve his finishing and score more goals, he still impacts offence in a variety of ways. He’s an active transition player and generates a lot of shots off the rush, consistently wins puck battles in the OZ, screens goalies, and creates space for teammates. Players don’t always get rewarded point totals for these types of plays, even if they directly impacted the goal for. 

Here’s how each of Edmonton’s top centers performs, with and without Puljujarvi. With Puljujarvi on-ice, each of them considerably improves in regards to goal share, expected goal share, and even simple, traditional Points/60.

This is why I feel Puljujarvi is such a valuable player at both ends of the ice, and the third most important player on Edmonton’s roster. Although he was already an exceptional two-way winger under Tippett, Woodcroft has managed to help him improve his performance even further. 

Derek Ryan

The bottom-six in general has considerably improved under Woodcroft, but the depth forward with the most notable increase in their metrics? Derek Ryan.

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Before the season began, I claimed that Derek Ryan was Edmonton’s best bottom-six player. He posted excellent results in Calgary’s bottom six, and although he was projected to be deployed in a more difficult role in Edmonton, I still felt he would succeed. However, his start to the season was abysmal.

Ryan began the season with a dreadful 16% goal share in his first 15 games, near the bottom of the team and the league. His initial stint as a 3C wasn’t lengthy and frequently rotated between the third and fourth lines.

Ever since? He’s been quite good, relative to a bottom-six forward. 

If you look at each player’s EV Points/60 since Woodcroft’s hiring, it wouldn’t be shocking to see McDavid and Draisaitl atop the list by a considerable margin, as usual. However, Ryan ranks 3rd in that time span, with an EV Points/60 of 3.02, which is a rate of production equivalent to a top-end first-liner (!!).

Is it sustainable? No, of course not. However, his expected goal differential results match his superb production. He ranks 3rd on the team in this aspect, with an xGF% of 59.1%. Additionally, 5v5 Shot attempts are 247-190 with Ryan on-ice.

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However, Ryan has been scratched a few times, which are the only rare instances in which I’ve personally disagreed with Woodcroft’s deployment. Nonetheless, it’s nice to see Ryan currently on the third line with Nugent-Hopkins and Foegele, where he’s posted his best results. That trio scored Edmonton’s lone goal last night.

Cody Ceci

The defenceman that has improved the most under Woodcroft and Manson, in my opinion, is Cody Ceci.

Ceci has primarily been deployed as the 1RD alongside Darnell Nurse, and has played under exceedingly difficult deployment. Here’s how each Oilers defenceman (minimum 10 GP, so I excluded Kulak and Russell) has been deployed under Woodcroft in regards to quality of competition;

In simpler terms, elite competition essentially means top lines and top defensive pairs. Nurse/Ceci has been fed to the wolves under Woodcroft, and besides some shaky moments (e.g. the brutal 9-5 loss to Calgary), they’ve been quite fine, especially Ceci.

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Ceci ranks 2nd on the team in DFF% against elite competition, just behind Broberg in a limited sample size. In this tough role, Ceci has certainly exceeded expectations so far.

Overall, Ceci is at a 59% goal differential, and 56% expected goal differential under Woodcroft/Manson. He’s marginally improved defensively to an extent, but the more significant upgrade in his performance is his offensive play.

Ceci is at 3.0 GF/60 and 3.3 xGF/60 under Woodcroft and Manson. He was at 2.2 GF/60 and 2.2 xGF/60 under Tippett and Playfair. Ceci’s Zone Entries/60 and Shot Assists/60 have also seen improvements.

It’s worth noting that Ceci’s offensive impact on xGF during his tenure under Tippett was merely in the 2nd percentile. His defensive presence has been steady throughout the entire season, but it’s pleasant to see him gradually begin to impact the team from an offensive perspective as well. 

Tyson Barrie

Tyson Barrie has also improved under Woodcroft and Manson, and his results are quite interesting for several reasons.

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First off, his raw on-ice metrics have seen an improvement at first glance. He was at a 45% goal share and 47% expected goal share under Tippett. With Woodcroft and Manson, he’s at 63% GF%, and 52% xGF%

However, he does have a 13.2% on-ice shooting%; he’s improved, but has also experienced some luck in regards to offence. 

Alongside Woodcroft/Manson, I think Brett Kulak has also had a considerable impact on Barrie’s play, as he’s been an excellent addition thus far. The duo of Kulak – Barrie have a 56 xGF% together, and without Kulak, Barrie has a 49% xGF% (under Woodcroft/Manson).

Kulak – Barrie hasn’t experienced difficult deployment in regards to the quality of competition, but nonetheless, they’ve been a quite reliable pair. They were superb in Edmonton’s recent win against Anaheim. 

Excluding Woodcroft, Barrie has played on three different teams and three different coaches, and posted dreadful defensive results under each. It’ll be interesting to see if he could sustain his current results over an entire season under Woodcroft/Manson. Barrie hasn’t been exceptional by any means under Woodcroft (he’s still a marginal negative in relative xGF% under Woodcroft), but I think it’s undeniable that he’s looked better since the coaching change, for his standards. 

Other honorable mentions for most improved players: Leon Draisaitl, Zach Hyman, Kailer Yamamoto, Warren Foegele, Evan Bouchard

The player that still needs to improve his performance? Zack Kassian

The vast majority of Edmonton’s players have improved under Woodcroft, but one of the few players that hasn’t? Zack Kassian. He has a 46% xGF% under Woodcroft, which is exceedingly poor relative to the rest of the team.

In all fairness, Kassian was poor under both Tippett and Woodcroft in the past two seasons. I wouldn’t necessarily place any blame at all on Woodcroft, as I feel Kassian’s poor performance is solely on himself. 

Here’s his player card from the past two seasons.

Kassian obtains quite favourable shift start deployment, but he doesn’t make good use of it, as he’s a below-average possession driver. 

Kassian seldom shoots from high-quality locations, primarily plays a “dump and chase” style of game, doesn’t generate much offence off the rush, and is poor on the cycle. He’s an overall non-factor offensively, and quite poor defensively.

The notable discrepancy between his forechecking and physicality is exceedingly concerning.

My personal take on physicality and hits in hockey is that they can simultaneously be crucial, and useless. Some players utilize their body checking capabilities to play a tenacious play-style and disrupt exits, force turnovers, pressure opposing defenders, etc. Some great examples include Marcus Foligno, Tom Wilson, Ryan Lomberg, Cal Clutterbuck, etc. In Kassian’s case, he seldom does any of this.

He’s credited with quite a lot of hits but doesn’t utilize them to his advantage. Most of his body checks are quite weak, inconsequential ones that have minimal impact on the game’s outcome. At best, he’s very inconsistent in this aspect.

Kassian should not play in the top nine of a contender at this stage of his career, and I’d strongly argue he shouldn’t be a regular in the lineup at all. He’s a streaky 12/13F. 

At his best, Kassian is a tenacious, aggressive forward who compliments skill players, causing turnovers and retrieving pucks. This was primarily why he was effective with McDavid and Draisaitl in the first half of 19-20.

However, ever since his contract extension, it seems like he’s only on his game around once or twice for every twenty. Most of the time, he’s a liability to the line he plays on.

Additionally, I’ve noticed that Kassian is extremely weak along the boards in the past two seasons, and frequently loses puck battles in corners. There’s no publicly available “Puck Battle Wins” metric (only private companies like SportLogIQ and InStat track them), but I’d certainly wager that Kassian would rank poorly in them.

Consequently, if his effort is so inconsistent, he shouldn’t be an NHL regular. I think Woodcroft somewhat agrees, as Kassian is currently on the fourth line, and was even healthy scratched on some occasions.

Final Thoughts

Here’s a cumulative chart showing Edmonton’s goal differential throughout the entire season.

The brutal losses against Calgary and Minnesota drag Edmonton’s overall GF% down, but Woodcroft and Manson have still managed to transform this team into a positive impact one at 5v5. Edmonton’s overall goal differential under Woodcroft is 56.7% (+17). 

It’s indisputable that Dave Tippett and Jim Playfair were issues, as Edmonton was at a goal share of 46.8% (-12) under their direction.

Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson have certainly elevated this team. The vast majority of Edmonton’s players have improved, and although the roster still has several flaws, I feel considerably more confident heading into the playoffs under the current coaching regime.

Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)