I liked Jay Woodcroft’s style from the moment he was introduced to assembled media as Dave Tippett’s replacement as head coach of the Edmonton Oilers. Standing, not sitting, at the podium in a power stance with his hands on his hips. I’m not sure why that image stood out for me, but it did. Here I am. Let’s go.
That said, it wasn’t Woodcroft’s style I worried about when he made the move up from Bakersfield to take the wheel, it was his substance. For all his experience, from working for Oilers’ GM Ken Holland as a video coach in Detroit to stops as an assistant under Todd McLellan in San Jose and Edmonton before moving to the Oilers AHL farm in Bakersfield in 2018-19, Woodcroft took over from Tippett without a single minute as an NHL head coach on his resume.
Well, here we are 32 games later as the Dallas Stars come calling tonight and Woodcroft is 21-8-3 since stepping behind the bench with Dave Manson. That lack of experience being the shot-caller at the NHL level hasn’t mattered a bit. Not only are the Oilers a better team in almost every way you’d care to measure, notably 5-on-5, Woodcroft is telling us, hands on hips in that power stance, that he thinks there’s room for improvement.
After a carousel of mostly older, established coaches since Daryl Katz bought the team in 2008 — Craig MacTavish, Pat Quinn, Tom Renney, Ralph Krueger, Dallas Eakins, Todd Nelson, McLellan, Ken Hitchcock and Tippett – Woodcroft is a welcome change of pace. Maybe the Oilers finally got it right with the 45-year-old from Toronto, who was once the leading scorer with the Markham Waxers of the Metro Junior Hockey League.
Woodcroft’s bottom line speaks for itself. Jason Gregor took an in-depth look at Woodcroft a few weeks ago. What’s impressed me is I don’t recall Woodcroft being in over his head or overmatched since he took over. Win or lose, I don’t see the kind of big swings in his approach that can send mixed messages. There’s a clarity of expectation with him some coaches never master. The message has remained consistent one day at a time and one task at a time.
WHAT HE SAID
“I think it’s a great opportunity. I’m excited about the people that we have in the room,” Woodcroft said February 11. “I’m excited about the people we have around the team.
“I believe there’s a lot of runway in this season, but saying that, I’ve asked our players to keep our picture small, to worry about today, and once you start building things in the right way, I believe that success is built sequentially. We’re going to worry about taking care of today, and once we’ve taken care of today, we’ll move on to tomorrow. It is a challenge, but I’m excited for that challenge.”
So far so good. At 44-26-6 for 94 points with six games to play, starting with Dallas tonight, the message remains the same, but there’s more. “I think I’m trying to model the behavior we’re asking our team to have, which is I think we’re a humble team.” Woodcroft said this week when asked if he’s excited by the results so far. “We’re an in-the-moment team.
“Whether you’ve won a game or lost a game or a few in a row either way, I think it’s important to be even-keeled and stay present. It’s hard to do sometimes, especially if you haven’t won in a while, the noise gets louder and louder. Sometimes when you’ve won a lot the noise gets louder and louder. You have to make sure that you’re grounded in a certain type of way.
“I feel very natural in this position. It’s not like I was just airlifted into it. I put in 17 years of work to be ready should that opportunity ever arise. I can tell you, being the head coach down in Bakersfield, that’s something we talked a lot to our young players about – making sure that they focused on the things they could control so that they were ready when it was their turn to get tapped on the shoulder.
“As coaches in Bakersfield, we tried to do the same thing, making sure we were working at our game, refining our craft. Should the time ever come, we wanted to make sure we were ready for the opportunity.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Woodcroft was asked if he’s happy about where the Oilers are with six games remaining in the regular season and playoffs to come: “I’m pleased to see the work ethic of our players,” he said. “Their willingness to be open to some new ideas.
“For me, I don’t think we’ve played to our full potential just yet. I think we’re trending in the right direction. I think there’s more to go. In terms of our team game, we’re trying to refine different parts of our game down the stretch right here . . . continuing to add a little bit here and there, trying to grow our game each day.
“I think that stays consistent with the messaging that we gave the media and to our fan base, but also to our players, which is that we’re really pushing to improve each and every day.”
Previously by Robin Brownlee
- Off the Top of My Head
- Hyman Makes a Difference
- He Said What?
- In Tandem
- I Wish I Had Jesse’s Game
- Off the Top of My Head