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Game Notes Islanders @ Oilers: Woodcroft and Manson

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Jason Gregor
9 months ago
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins arrived at the rink today to say hello to his ninth head coach in his 11 NHL seasons. It has been quite the rotation of head coaches since 2011/2012. Granted, four of them coached fewer than 62 games (three were Interim coaches), but if RNH ever wanted to become a coach when he retires he will have lots of different viewpoints and strategies to use.
Jay Woodcroft is the 17th different man to carry the title of head coach of the Edmonton Oilers, and he takes over with an equal combination of pressure and opportunity.
— Woodcroft inherits the pressure of ensuring the Oilers are a playoff team. They currently sit fifth in the Pacific Division and 10th in the Western Conference with 49 points. They have three games in hand on LA, who is third in the Pacific with 55 points, and four games in hand on Anaheim who sits fourth in the division and eighth in the conference with 55 points. It isn’t Woodcroft’s fault the Oilers are in fifth spot, but it becomes his problem. With the pressure, however, comes opportunity to succeed, have the Oilers play better and make the playoffs. He was promoted with the interim tag beside his name, but a successful 38 games should guarantee that tag is removed at the end of the season.
— Woodcroft wisely brought assistant coach Dave Manson with him to Edmonton and Manson will run the defence. He is a very good teacher going back to his time as associate coach of the Prince Albert Raiders. Outside of being a good coach, he’s also had the luxury of having many big, tall D-men in the American Hockey League. All you need to do is look at the average size, weight and skill level of the four conference finalists last season — Tampa Bay, Montreal, New York Islanders and Vegasto see the importance of size on the backend. They also had experience.
Tampa Bay’s defence averaged 507 NHL games played and were 6’3″ and 223 pounds.
New York averaged 453 games, 6’2″ and 205 pounds.
Montreal averaged 443 games, 6’2″ and 211 pounds.
Vegas averaged 422 games, 6’3″ and 212 pounds.
— Manson has worked with @Evan Bouchard (6’3″, 195), Philip Broberg (6’3″, 199), Marcus Niemelainen (6’5″, 205), @William Lagesson (6’2″, 207), Dmitri Samorukov (6’3″, 197), Filip Berglund (6’3″, 209), Phil Kemp (6’3″, 211), Michael Kesselring (6’5″, 215) and Vincent Desharnais (6’7″, 229). They range in age from 22-26. According to many in the organization, and some opposing AHL coaches I’ve spoke with, Manson has done a very good job teaching them how to defend while using their size and reach. The jump from the AHL to the NHL is quite significant, and I don’t expect all of them to play regularly in the NHL, but the next crop of Oilers blueliners will have much more size, and Manson’s tutelage should help them. Three of Bouchard, Broberg, Niemelainen and Lagesson will be in the lineup tonight. There will be some learning curves in the coming weeks with such a young group, but Manson knows their games intimately and that could help their transition as well as Manson’s.
— It has been almost 20 years (April 14th, 2002) since Manson’s last NHL game. He was an assistant coach in Prince Alberta from 2003-2008, and then an associate coach from 2013-2018. Twelve years in the WHL, with a four-year absence in the middle, and the past 3.5 years in Bakersfield. He has put in the time and to get behind an NHL bench after retiring 20 years ago will be very satisfying. Manson was a hard-nosed player and he will demand the Oilers blueliners be more engaged in front of the net. I’m not saying Jim Playfair wasn’t, but a new voice with a different message should benefit the Oilers as they desperately need to improve their defensive zone coverage.
— Woodcroft and Manson’s biggest challenge will be to lower the goals against at 5×5. It has been an organization weakness for most of Connor McDavid’s tenure in Edmonton.
2016: 2.07 GA/GP
2017: 1.70
2018: 2.14
2019: 2.18
2020: 2.16
2021: 2.07
This season: 2.27
They need to reduce that number significantly over the final 38 games. More consistent goaltending will help, but on Wednesday the Blackhawks had far too many high danger chances.
— A coaching change will get the player’s attention. This team has underachieved through 44 games, so they should be very attentive and open to whatever changes Woodcroft and Manson want to implement. I’m not sure we will see them tonight, but tomorrow, and likely Sunday morning, Woodcroft will outline a few differences in practice of how he expects them to play in all three zones. We’ve spoke at length about their penchant to leak chances off the rush. That, along with defensive zone coverage around the goal, should be at the top of the list of areas to improve.
The injury to Duncan Keith isn’t great timing for Manson. He’d love another steady veteran in the lineup, but one clear advantage Woodcroft has entering tonight is there is a very good chance his best players will be more productive in the next two months than they have the previous two months. Since December 2nd:
Draisaitl 23 points in 23 GP. (1.00PPG)
McDavid 21 in 22 GP (0.95)
In the previous 3 years and first 21 games this year:
McDavid 358 in 219 (1.68)
Draisaitl 340 in 230 (1.48)
Draisaitl and McDavid’s production has been well below their usual lofty offensive totals for two months. I’d be surprised if it continues. To put their production dip into perspective: Since the start of the 2017-18 season they sit first and second in total points with 487 (McDavid) and 433 (Draisaitl). Nathan MacKinnon is third with 397 points.
But since December 2nd Draisaitl is 43rd in points while McDavid is 58th. They are 70th and 115th respectively in 5×5 points. McDavid’s on-ice SH% at 5×5 is only 4.98, while Draisaitl’s is 6.73. They rank 13th and 19th among Oilers skaters who have played at least five games. It would be surprising if they keep producing at low levels like this. Will a coaching change jolt them out of their offensive slumber, or will they get a few more bounces?
Whatever ignites their offensive production, it will help their new coach. And even with McDavid, by his standards, having low point totals he still isn’t getting outscored 5×5.
— Will Jay Woodcroft start @Mike Smith or @Stuart Skinner tonight? I thought Skinner would start Wednesday, and I was wrong, so remember that when I write I think Woodcroft goes with Smith. After Wednesday’s game Smith said, “Obviously I don’t like the final result, but on a personal level, way better tonight than last game. The start (last game) everything seemed like it was going 1,000 miles an hour, but as the game went on I felt better and better and in the third I felt more comfortable. Tonight I started like I finished last night. I felt good right from the start, but saying that…letting in too many goals. Obviously that is frustrating. The last two games wasn’t good enough.”
“It was nice to get in some rhythm. I wasn’t basing the whole season on these two games, obviously there are a lot of games left and I feel I have a lot to give still. Tonight was a good stepping stone in the right direction, as far as how I feel, and the results will come,” Smith continued.
— I understand those fans who say Skinner should start as he has the best Sv% of the goalies this season at .908. Fair comment, however, in his last seven starts he has a .885sv%. In Smith’s eight starts this season he is at .890. The reason I think Woodcroft goes with Smith is that the Oilers could be dressing three rookie defenders in Broberg, Niemelainen and Bouchard. (I know Bouchard isn’t listed as a rookie by NHL rules, but the rules are flawed as he’d only played 21 games prior to this season, but I digress.) To start a rookie in goal would be tough in Woodcroft’s first NHL game. He might do it, but I think Smith goes tonight and then Skinner and Smith split the back-to-back games next Monday and Tuesday in San Jose and Los Angeles.
Who do you think starts?
— The Islanders are 6-4 in their last 10 games. They’ve struggled overall (17-17-6) and are probably the most disappointing team in the NHL when you consider what the expectations were coming into this season. They are 11th in the Eastern conference and 15 points behind Boston for the final wildcard berth. The Islanders do have five games in hand, so they still believe they have a chance. They had a 5-0 lead in Vancouver on Wednesday only 16 minutes into the game. Edmonton can’t feel their way into tonight’s game.
— Ilya Sorokin stopped 34 of 37 shots in Wednesday’s victory and enters tonight with a .924Sv% on the season. The Islanders play tomorrow in Calgary. Will they go with their starter tonight and Semyon Varlamov in Calgary tomorrow, or vice versa? Vegas started their backup, Laurent Brossoit, on Wednesday v. the Oilers and he posted a shutout. Regardless of who plays in goal for New York, the Oilers’ offence needs more urgency after only scoring one goal in their last two games.

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