The Oilers enter the playoffs feeling very good about themselves. And for good reason.
Call it the Jay Woodcroft effect.
Only two teams, the Presidents’ Trophy winners Panthers and the Pacific Division champions Flames, have a better point percentage than the Oilers’ .724 clip (26-9-3) since Woodcroft was promoted on Feb. 10. . It’s not by chance, either.
Woodcroft, with the help of right-hand man Dave Manson and the rest of the coaching staff, has transformed the Oilers from a below-average five-on-five team to the point where it’s a strength.
It comes down to detail and structure, two of Woodcroft’s calling cards.
“He talks about it every day. He preaches them,” goaltender Mike Smith said. “It’s the little things that matter so much in the games he’s all about.”
“That’s what he put in place in our game,” winger Derek Ryan said. “That’s also what our game lacked at the start of the year.”
Noticeable improvements were made almost immediately. Woodcroft initially focused on knocking down the “leading domino,” which was really two things — harder backchecking and having defenders slow or stop blue-line rushes.
The Oilers were able to improve their game from there – in the offensive, neutral and defensive zones.
“It was pretty gradual,” defenseman Tyson Barrie said. “He came in and he didn’t try to present too much right away. He would work on one thing. Then, as soon as he thought we understood that, he introduced something else.
“Even until this week, we are still working on different things that we haven’t done before. He tries to add to our game and build blocks. We’ve done a good job capturing what he’s trying to say. We’ve gotten to the present time the way we like to play and we’re sticking to the schedule.
While there’s always more to work with to make the Oilers a finished product, it’s the best they’ve seen anywhere on the ice.
Deep down, the Oilers have never been too concerned with their ability to score five-on-five goals. It’s easy to have that kind of confidence when you employ two of the most talented and prolific offensive players in the NHL, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
Before the change of coach, however, Edmonton did not have the results to show for this shooting talent. They were scoring at a five-for-five 2.44-for-60 rate, which fell short of expectations by closer to 2.60-for-60. This expected goal generation was just above average and a low percentage of shots underlined it.
That’s not to say the coaching staff hasn’t made an adjustment or two to change more than just the team’s shooting luck.
The main focus has been to have better spacing in the attacking zone, which means not all forwards are as close to the goalkeeper. This allows for better access to rebounds and pass outlets.
Only four teams have scored more than the Oilers’ 93 5-for-5 goals since Feb. 10. There has also been a marked improvement in their offensive generation.
The change was less about shot volume and much more about quality. There’s a lot more emphasis on skaters driving to that area in front of the net. This propelled their expected goal creation to 2.98 for 60. Thanks to their finishing talent, they slightly top that with 3.09 goals for 60 at what seems like a fairly sustainable pace; while their shooting percentage has rebounded, it’s not very high or raising any red flags.
But it’s not always offensive when the puck is in the opposing team’s zone. Oilers forwards made more concerted efforts to retreat when they lost possession of the puck and their rivals started the ice.
“One thing that Woody talked about early on when he came in was getting good positions and making sure our forwards get out of there quicker and realize the danger quicker,” Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. “It gives our D-men a chance to stand in the neutral zone and not allow any easy entry into our zone.”
To say the Oilers weren’t a good five-on-five defensive team before the coaching change would be showing charity. They were sixth in the NHL in goals against per game in that situation when Dave Tippett and Jim Playfair were fired.
The team left their goalkeepers more exposed and their goalkeepers were do not responding to that workload, which saw them concede 2.77 of 60. Between Smith, Mikko Koskinen and Stuart Skinner, the Oilers allowed about 14 more goals than expected based on the quality of shots past them.
They are the eighth best team in this category since then. Now they have allowed 2.41 of 60 goals conceded, thanks to both improved play between the posts and in front of the blue paint.
The philosophy has been that the defense does not start inside the blue line.
The biggest difference is one of those facets that Woodcroft focused on early on – back control. It is designed to have a two-pronged outcome. Not only is the intention to provide more support for defenders and ideally to quell an odd man rush, but having a forward or two backs increases the likelihood of creating a turnover and counter attacking.
Think of Pavel Datsyuk from his heyday with the Red Wings, which is fitting since Woodcroft’s first gig in the NHL was as the team’s video coach. Woodcroft used to teach at the Datsyuk summer hockey school in Russia.
The main goal is to rush to come back strong, ideally get the puck back and get back on the offense.
Failing that, the first attacker on the back lane is responsible for steering the puck carrier into the boards to snuff out the rush.
“If you’re very detailed, it’s a tough league to score. At this time of year, everyone is tight,” Zach Hyman said. “We want to be tough to face, tough to score, defend our paint.”
One of the glaring weaknesses of the first half of the season for the Oilers was the way they defended themselves on the run.
Defenders were abandoning the blue line, sometimes retreating into the top of the face-off circle or even into the hash marks. Whether it was directly from entries the team couldn’t defend, or as a result of being blocked in their own zone after that initial entry, the Oilers found themselves 15th in shot attempt rate at high risk they conceded before the coaching change.
They have since improved to ninth place.
“We just try to play our game a little differently. That’s how we did it in Bakersfield,” said Manson, a longtime former NHL defenseman who manages defensemen. “That’s what we tried to do. You want defenders to defend. This is how we would like it to happen. »
There was a slight increase in their entry defense, along with improvements to their denial rate. Now, when the opponent manages to gain possession of the puck inside the Edmonton zone, the Oilers want to spend as little time as possible defending.
Defender Cody Ceci said Manson asked the group to play harder in front of the blue paint. The Oilers did a much better job limiting shots from the most critical scoring area on the ice. As shown in the HockeyViz heatmap on the right in blue, there is better shot suppression in the middle of the ice in front of the crease. It improved their expected goal ratio to 2.50 for 60. And what improves their results is that their goalkeepers are responding well to that workload now.
Another key is getting crosses to penetrate deeper into the area to help defend and provide passing options for defenders. Anyone who has listened to Woodcroft speak over the past few weeks knows it starts with McDavid, someone who made great strides in this area last season but has now reached another level.
When their best player and captain leads by example in this way, other players follow, Woodcroft has said on several occasions.
On the way to the playoffs
Woodcroft has said for weeks that he doesn’t believe the Oilers are the best they can be. There’s a lot to love about how they finished the regular season, he said, but he maintains they’re still not at their peak.
This growth potential is a positive element.
“I don’t think we’re a finished product,” he said. “We haven’t played to our full potential yet and our goal going into the playoffs is to play to our full potential. There have been a lot of great times here over the past two and a half months.
“I appreciate the efforts of our players. We are not here, days away from hosting a first-round playoff, without the efforts and executions of all of our players. We know we have to take a step and there is a long way to go. It is our goal is to play to our full potential.
The approach worked quite well, but nothing is set in stone. If the Kings start to figure out some of the Oilers tendencies, expect Woodcroft to change the course.
“That’s Woody’s job and Woody was very good at it,” Ryan said. “We were looking for that earlier in the year where things weren’t going our way and we felt like we were being told to work harder or just be better, and we were looking for more answers. Woody has done a good job providing these answers.
“The playoffs are about adapting, being able to change when the other team changes. Jay will be really good at that because he’s shown it so far since he’s been here.
Data via NaturalStatTrick and HockeyViz
(Photo: Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)