Jay Woodcroft: One Year Later
Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
By Jason Gregor9 months ago
Today is the one-year anniversary of Jay Woodcroft becoming the 17th different man to be the head coach of the Edmonton Oilers in the NHL. He’s coached 90 games, which is 10th all-time in franchise history ahead of Bryan Watson (18), George Burnett (35), Ralph Krueger (48), Todd Nelson (51), Ken Hitchcock (62), Kevin Lowe (82) and Pat Quinn (82).
He will pass Dallas Eakins (113) later this year and then move ahead of John Muckler (160), Tom Renney (164), Dave Tippett (171), and Ted Green (188) next season.
Woodcroft has had the most success of any head coach in Oilers franchise history through their first 90 games. The Oilers are 55-27-8 with Woodcroft. That is the most wins and best points% (.656) since the Oilers entered the NHL in 1979-80.
Woodcroft’s .656P% is best all-time followed by Glen Sather (.616 in 842 games) and Dave Tippett’s (.596 in 171 games).
It isn’t just his historical standing in the franchise that has been good. Woodcroft and the Oilers have the fourth most wins and fourth best P% since he’s been hired.
The Oilers have the most wins and best P% in the Western Conference in the last calendar year. The Oilers have flourished under Woodcroft, and now look to get even better in the regular season and go deeper in the playoffs.
Every coach will tell you they are only as good as their players. Coaching Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl was a wonderful opportunity for Woodcroft. The rest of the Oilers roster is more talented than we’ve seen in many years, but there is no doubt Woodcroft has put his stamp on this team.
Last year when he arrived, he, along with Dave Manson, made some systemic changes to their forecheck and neutral zone coverage, but they also changed player deployment. They gave Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci a heavy dose of tough competition, and slotted Evan Bouchard lower in the lineup. It has worked well, and while the Oilers didn’t have a great start to this season, through 90 games it is clear they are thriving under Woodcroft. As Bruce Curlock outlined two days ago at Oilersnation, Woodcroft continues to alter his system.
Woodcroft put in his time to earn his first NHL head coaching gig. He was hired as a video coach by Mike Babcock in 2005-06 with Detroit. After three years with the Wings, he moved to San Jose to be Todd McLellan’s assistant coach. They spent seven years in San Jose before the Sharks let them go at the end of the 2015 season. They weren’t out of work long as McLellan got the Oilers head coaching job and Woodcroft was on his staff for the next three years.
After 13 seasons as an NHL video coach and assistant coach, Woodcroft wanted an opportunity to run his own bench. He was named head coach of the Oilers AHL affiliate in Bakersfield, and he honed his head coaching skills there for three-and-a-half seasons before being named Oilers interim head coach on February 10th, 2022. Woodcroft has spoken often about how valuable his time in the AHL was.
“It was a great place for me to develop as a coach,” he said. “I learned how to run a bench, but also I was able to experiment with different practice ideas and in-game strategies.” Woodcroft used 11 forwards and seven D-men regularly in the AHL and that rotation has worked well in Edmonton.
Ken Hitchcock has the fourth most coaching wins in NHL history with 849. He was in the Oilers organization when Woodcroft was in Bakersfield and saw Woodcroft’s evolution as a coach.
“The best move he ever made was going to Bakersfield,” said Hitchcock via the phone this morning. “That gave him the ability to deal with stress and pressure and make decisions under fire that was probably missing from his resume because he’d been an assistant for so long. Going there really solidified him as a coach and allowed him to show what he was capable of.”
I asked Hitchcock what impressed him about watching Woodcroft run his own bench in Bakersfield.
“Jay has a great ability to gauge the accident before the collision. In other words, I felt he could really read the game, and he sees things happening on the ice and sees trends before they became issues. I felt nothing would get ahead of him, so he wouldn’t crash and burn. He had such a good feel for when it was going well and when it wasn’t going well and what needed to be done. He could make adjustments ahead of time. He has a really unique quality because of that.”
Woodcroft will be the first to say he’s been blessed to have his first NHL head coaching gig come with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. That is true, every successful coach I’ve interviewed over the years always mentioned the benefit of having great players. A coach can’t take a “D” player and make him an “A” player, but the best coaches can take a “B” player and help them become a “B+” player.
One year in, the fit for Woodcroft and the Oilers has gone as well as anyone could have imagined. They’ve improved. They’ve won two playoff rounds. Now the challenge is: Can they finish higher in the standings and go deeper in the playoffs?
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