The Woodcroft Way
Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
6 months ago
When it comes to wins and losses and success and failure in the NHL — in any league for that matter — I don’t think there’s any debate the athletes playing the game have far more impact on the outcome than whoever might be standing behind the bench.
In broad terms, I think coaches sometimes get too much credit for success and too much blame for failure. Show me a roster full of top-end talent, veteran leadership and depth, and chances are I’ll be able to show you a coach who is considered top-notch. Likewise, if you saddle a bench boss a bunch of stiffs, the chances are he’ll be DOA no matter how he draws things up on the whiteboard.
Edmonton Oilers’ Jay Woodcroft is another example of that. With Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, he’s got more top-end talent to work with than anybody around here since Glen Sather called the shots during the dynasty days of the 1980s. It’s no coincidence Woodcroft also has a points percentage of .683 on a regular season record of 76-32-12 since taking the bench 120 games ago – that’s eighth all-time and first among coaches with at least 100 games in the books. A short segment, but noteworthy nonetheless.
Nov 7, 2022; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Edmonton Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft (M) talks to his team during a timeout against the Washington Capitals in the third period at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
McDavid and Draisaitl represent a level of talent coaches like Pat Quinn, Tom Renney, Ralph Krueger, and Dallas Eakins didn’t have to work with during the Decade of Darkness, so it’s no surprise not one of them attained .500 in points percentage during their tenures running the bench here. Yes, part of that’s on them and their staff, but most of it’s on the rosters they had to work with when Nikita Nikitin was good enough to make the team.
All that said, there’s no question Woodcroft is a talented coach. His points percentage since being promoted from AHL Bakersfield to take over from Dave Tippett is impressive despite a disappointing second-round exit from the playoffs earlier this month. Equally impressive is what Woodcroft had to say in his availability with the media last week.
Woodcroft, 46, has a better points percentage than the likes of Rod Brind’Amour, Jon Copper, and Bruce Boudreau – you can throw in Scotty Bowman at .657 in his 2,141 games if you really want to get goofy — but he is smart enough to know there’s a lot more work to do to turn a promising start to his NHL coaching career in our town into consistent success and a Stanley Cup celebration. Bowman, by the way, won nine Stanley Cup rings as a coach.
WHAT HE SAID
Mar 27, 2023; Tempe, Arizona, USA; Edmonton Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft reacts in the first period against the Arizona Coyotes at Mullett Arena. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
We know Woodcroft paid his dues climbing the coaching ranks since starting out as Holland’s video coach in Detroit in 2005-06, the season the Oilers upset the Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs. What I like about him is it’s obvious he’s not afraid to put in the work and he isn’t easily satisfied – that’s my read from afar. In that regard, a few snippets from his address to the media stood out for me. Woodcroft’s full interview is here.
“I think anytime you continue to play hockey or coach hockey in the month of May, you’re learning lessons along the way. Last year I think we played until the middle or beginning of June anyways, and this year it’s the middle of May. There’s some good and there are some things that we’re going to use. We’re just like our players.
“What did I learn about myself? I learned how much of an appreciation I have for being the head coach of this team, this organization, and how much respect I have for our players. I can tell you that when we said goodbye to the group at large (May 16), that was the end of 236 days together, working together, grinding together. We all, to a man, felt it was too early.
“I’ve been fortunate to be in my 18 years with three different organizations to be around some really good players and some really good teams. Some that are ones that reached its ultimate goal, but a lot of teams that knocked on the door. I think in situations like us falling short this year and that is what we did, we fell short of what our expectation internally was, that’s never something fun to go through.
“I think (Holland) used the word devastated. I would echo that. I think you go through stages. The first one is feeling that way. The next one is learning how to repurpose that disappointment. The way you do that is by learning some lessons and you use that experience to serve as your motivational fuel . . .”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Add the fuel Woodcroft is talking about to the talent the coaching staff has to work with in McDavid and Draisaitl, plus a supporting cast that includes Evander Kane, Zach Hyman, Mattias Ekholm, Darnell Nurse and a blossoming Evan Bouchard, and I feel like this team can and will contend with a tweak or two on the blueline and better goaltending from Stuart Skinner and Jack Campbell.
A gifted coach who maximizes the personnel at his disposal, puts the right players together and gets the X’s and O’s just right can provide the bump that puts a team like this one over the top. Over to you, Jay.
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