Part 1: Intro and Goaltending
Part 2: Defence
Part 3: Forwards
Part 4: Coaching and Management
In part 4 of this series we are moving away from on ice grades and instead evaluating the Oilers off ice performance, namely the coaching and management of the roster.
For those interested, I wrote an article discussing the performance of these areas at the low point of the Oilers season, mid January, which can be read here. Based on how the season unfolded from that point forward I have to admit that the ideas expressed in that piece were spot on.
At the time things around the team were understandably negative, yet I believe I gave credit to both Holland and Tippett where they deserved it, as well as detailing the areas they had been falling short. Ultimately I suggested that the Oilers hire Woodcroft, getting unconventional in adding a top 6 winger, and adding a defender who could solidify the 3rd defence pairing. If it sounds familiar it is because that is exactly what happened as the Oilers transformed from a dumpster fire burning the primes of McDavid and Draisaitl into the budding contender the Oilers saw themselves as coming into the season.
Granted I did not envision Evander Kane becoming a free agent mid season upon reinstatement from his suspension. Nor did I consider Brett Kulak specifically, and based on his level of play, fit with the team, and his relatively low profile. No doubt that Holland and the pro scouting department deserve full marks for the Kulak move in particular.
In all the grades for coaches and management will be much more favourable than they were tracking in a disastrous December turned February, but as always I will be trying my best to stay true to expressing my thoughts whether they be positive or negative.
Firstly it should be mentioned that Evander Kane was a controversial signing, and as General Manager Ken Holland bears a lot of responsibility for that. Some might find the move distasteful, and though this decision goes beyond Holland up into ownership, Holland does bare a great deal of the situation.
Some might suggest that his signing was a turning point for the Oilers, and that the strange situation that saw Kane become a free agent was a deus ex machina, a bit of serendipitous fortune that might have saved Holland’s job. Regardless, the person making the moves gets the credit, just as sometimes a player scores a goal from a stray shot deflected off of them unknowingly.
As mentioned thousands of words ago, at the beginning of Part 1 of this series, GM Ken Holland had a great deal of flexibility heading into this season. Coming off the closest playoff sweep ever at the hand of the Jets. This past offseason was a critical juncture for the Oilers, equal parts challenge and opportunity.
Although Holland had taken over a team that missed the playoffs and subsequently led the Oilers into back-to-back postseason appearances in COVID obscured seasons, the team’s poor performances in said postseasons left a great deal to be desired. It seemed despite a 2nd round appearance in 2017 the Oilers could not remove themselves from the stink of ineptitude from previous regimes.
Holland had brought the team halfway back to life and now had the cap space to add a bounty of talent to support his stars. Although every fan might’ve had their own dream scenarios on how to spend the money, some of which might have even come true, there were many moves made and not made that drew scrutiny.
It’s important to keep a few landmarks in mind when evaluating the bigger picture, and that’s really what I’m trying to get to here before we get into more details. First is the context of the past, second being the context of the moves as a whole. Verisimilitude, let’s call it.
As a whole Holland has seen the team continue to improve under his watch. Yes, some assets may have been spent unwisely, but it is worth noting that Holland has kept the cupboards stacked, as we see important prospects at each position that lay the infrastructure to keep the Oilers championship window open into McDavid and Draisaitl’s next contracts. As much as the Oilers need to be trying to win this season, the responsibility of building a standard that will convince McDavid and Draisaitl to stay is just as if not more valuable. The window exists because of them.
As much as I was not a fan of some of the individual points in his plan, such as departing with Bear or the cap hit and acquisition cost of Keith, Holland has to be commended for keeping the pipeline strong. Up front Holloway, Lavoie, Bourgault headline a strong group that should see some graduates in the next season or two. On defence Broberg looks to have a chance to make a huge impact in the same time frame, the Oilers best chance at closing the gap with the Avalanche, for example. In net Skinner is continuing to trend towards being a starter.
Of course a roster is a garden that needs a great deal of tending, and there are some obstacles, unavoidable or self-inflicted that Holland has to navigate going forward to keep the Oilers in fighting shape. He won’t be the GM forever, and he most certainly isn’t above reproach, but I would argue that even without agreeing with every move specifically Holland understands the assignment.
Throughout the length of this 4 part series I’ve laid out opinions on players and their contracts, but in particular I will mention that it must be conceded that through his 3 seasons goaltending has not been the issue. Each of the offseasons that preceded were evaluated with pessimism around the league. Yes Smith is among the oldest player in the league, not to mention his unique, perplexing, and paradoxical nature as a gunslinger, a wildcard. 100 foot saucer passes for primary assists on OT winners, unorthodox 10 bell saves, outbursts of emotions akin to an enforcer. Each a splendidly chaotic high to match some of the lows from an extensive blooper reel, or nagging injuries. In all it has been a glorious final chapter for Smith.
Koskinen of course had some lows and could never live up to his contract, but even this season found a way to keep the Oilers afloat through the long stretches Smith was out. Konovalov has returned to Russia on a 3 year deal, he did show some promise, but Skinner is trending quite nicely.
Holland took a lot of heat, a lot of it quite valid, from the outside yet held firm, getting great value from the sports most important position at a very efficient per-cap-dollar rate.
Just as last off season was critical, so too will be this one. Inevitably there will be lots of movement, and whether the next set of moves work out it yet to be seen. In particular, I find the talk of moving on from Puljujarvi somewhat alarming. Sure, every player has a price, and if Puljujarvi is moved to bring in a significant piece, say Chychrun from Arizona, it could be a cost worth paying. Time will tell what lies ahead, but we can only grade Holland and the management team based off of what they’ve done so far.
All this being said there are some clear and obvious negatives, or at least challenges let’s call them, throughout the construction of this roster. There are several questionable contracts that might keep the Oilers from being the best possible version of themselves. Perhaps some of these situations could resolve themselves, retirements or LTIR options for veterans such as Keith might be a tidy solution. Perhaps a trade can be swung involving Barrie, or perhaps with more difficultly, Kassian.
In years past one might have been able to blame other regimes for some of the team’s less-than-ideal cap hits, but no longer. There are several key holes to be filled for next season and not much room to make them. Simply put, Holland is the architect in question for the bins the Oilers seem to be on the precipice of.
Of course, just because there appears to be some tight margins for error ahead does not mean that a solution can’t be found. The nature of the hard cap league is one where teams must be very deliberate in how they spend each dollar. It is important to maximize value in this regard, but it is not the be-all-end-all. There are bound to be mistakes, especially as only 1 team can win it all in a given season, leaving 31 other teams with questions they must find a way to answer.
As much as it is reasonable to fixate on some of the contracts on the team it only serves to underscore the importance of having a strong prospect pool. Getting impact play from entry level deals or younger, less proven, cheaper options is key to every organization with championship aspirations.
Ken Holland: B
Holland called his shot in loading up with veterans and adjusted well after a mid-season collapse. Continuing to build on the success of his program while keeping the future bright with quality prospects is a fine line to walk, yet amid much criticism and several questionable missteps Holland has done so.
Before getting to Woodcroft we should start from the beginning, with Tippett in charge, if not sooner. Over the past decade the Oilers shuffled through a great deal of coaches as the team wallowed in the league’s basement. Since then some have gone on to prove they weren’t effective at the NHL level, like Krueger, while others have rekindled their careers elsewhere, like McLellan.
Tippett oversaw some team success, helping to get the team back into postseason action. Despite the frustrating postseason losses it has to be conceded that Tippett oversaw some relatively stable seasons given the Oilers history.
That said, headed into this season there was a growing chorus of fans who saw more than enough reasons to think that Tippett’s time had run its course. Even after a hot start many thought the success was built on a shaky foundation, trailing in key metrics such as expected goals percentage, and scoring chances for and against, instead relying on Draisaitl’s 82-goal-pace and one of the best stretches of Koskinen’s career. As December spiralled out of control, and Tippett became more pointed towards some of his players through the media, thinking of Koskinen, tensions were growing higher.
More and more onlookers started to see that the team might be better served moving forward. A light January schedule seemed an ideal time to bring in a new coach with ample practice time available, yet Holland stood firm on Tippett. That is until he didn’t.
It was then, in mid February that Tippett was relieved of his duties and Woodcroft was brought up from the AHL.
Despite missing out on the barren schedule of January the changes were evident quite early on, as the team started to win games again and post stronger underlying numbers. The team held their own on a tough Florida, Tampa Bay, Carolina road trip and never looked back.
By the time the calendar turned to June Woodcroft had become something of an icon, posting up on the boards after a huge series win against the Flames. Without a doubt Woodcroft should be back as coach, a prospect that bodes well for those prospects already familiar with the coach from the AHL. Players like Broberg, Lavoie, and Skinner all should have an easier path to earning their coach’s trust, which is fantastic news for the future of the team.
Based on his path as a video coach, the assumption is that Woodcroft is particularly detail oriented. This is a common thing praised by his players, which all but confirms the Oilers are running a tighter ship.
Of course it helps when the fans are on your side, and Woodcroft’s open and honest press conferences are great for helping the fans understand some of what is going on behind the scenes. It should be mentioned that Woodcroft seemed positive and uplifting to his players, passionate about the nuances of each day, and was able to raise the standards of the group as a whole.
There are a ton of coaches on the market and several teams with vacancies, including both Woodcroft and the Oilers, as the coach is without a deal for next season. Perhaps the Oilers would be smart to consider all options, but ultimately there is no doubt that Woodcroft should be the choice
Jay Woodcroft: A+
A sparkling debut, Woodcroft led the Oilers through a fantastic turnaround that may have salvaged many tenures across the organization. He may not be the best coach on the planet, but he is the best coach for this team right now.