The coach killers strike again.
With Jay Woodcroft past the two-year shelf life of Edmonton Oilers head coaches, the organization did what it always does when there are holes in the roster and the team shifts into neutral — fire the guy behind the bench.
With the 31st-place Oilers on the verge of flushing their season away by the middle of November, management served up yet another excuse for this group, firing Woodcroft and defensive coach Dave Manson and bringing in Connor McDavid’s junior coach Kris Knoblauch and former Oiler Paul Coffey.
Once again, the coach takes the fall for the underachieving team.
“That’s why I said it’s a difficult decision,” said general manager Ken Holland at Sunday’s hastily-called news conference. “We had the second best winning percentage over the last 120 games with Jay but we’re in win-now mode. The time is now to try and win.
“You can get into the debate of whether 12 or 13 games is enough, but I think if you wait another 10 games and things don’t change it’s probably too late. So Jeff (Jackson, CEO of hockey operations) and I felt it was something that needed to be done.”
This makes 11 different head coaches in the last 16 seasons and the fifth coach in eight years and 13 games for the current leadership group — Todd McLellan (266 games), Ken Hitchcock (62 games), Dave Tippett (161 games) and Woodcroft (133 games).
If there is a more damning indictment on an organization and a dressing room, I can’t think of it.
It also begs the question, how do you not take a long, hard look at breaking up the core of this hockey team? With their talent, experience and everything they have to play for this season, if it takes yet another coaching change to get them motivated then you really have to wonder if they will ever have the fortitude to be a champion.
“I believe in the core,” said Holland. “Nobody has played more than five playoff rounds the last two years. We’ve gone to the final four, we’ve gone to the final eight, last year we were top five or six in the league in points.
“I just felt we needed to make a change to jump-start our season. I don’t think it’s on the core. The core has done it over the last two years. We didn’t want to wait around any longer.”
As the Oilers languish at the bottom of the league in their all-too-familiar state of upheaval, and in the wake of Sunday’s blood-letting, the one thing almost everyone can agree on is that it’s not coaching.
Woodcroft went 79-41-13 during his brief time here, which was the sixth-best record in the league over that span. He went 26-9-3 and three rounds deep in the playoffs his first season and 50-23-9 and two rounds deep in the second. They were eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champions each time.
His tragic flaw, though, is that he didn’t take a hard enough line with a team that has never taken puck management and defensive responsibilities seriously.
Playing the bad cop is a risk — get on the wrong side of a leadership group these days and you’re done — but when the team needed to be snapped to attention there was no snap.
Going with 11 forwards and seven defencemen didn’t help either. It just means you don’t have enough good forwards or enough good defencemen to ice a proper lineup. And you never cultivate the fourth-line depth and confidence needed to win in the playoffs.
That’s on him.
But a lukewarm dressing room and a lukewarm management team is more at fault. Holland saddled this team with bad goaltending and that’s a major part of the problem.
Edmonton has a league-worst save percentage of .864. Until that changes, nothing else is going to change. Whether the plan is to do something about it or cross their fingers and hope that Stuart Skinner gets a lot better remains to be seen.
Having a roster that’s so jammed up by the salary cap that it has to go two players short all year, making it extremely difficult to withstand injuries or sit players out to send messages, is also dragging them down. All organizations are tight to the cap, but not all organizations are in the middle of the biggest choke job in franchise history.
When no Edmonton Oilers coach since Craig MacTavish in 2009 has survived more than three and a half seasons, it’s ridiculous to suggest the problem is coaching.
“I don’t think they tuned him out,” Holland said about Woodcroft’s voice in the room. “There are probably some players in there who are disappointed with this decision. I just felt that we needed to make a change. We weren’t playing good enough. I don’t think he lost them, but I couldn’t wait around for another 10-15 to find out.”
They couldn’t wait on Todd McLellan in 2018 and he currently has a Los Angeles team with much less talent than Edmonton sitting way ahead of them in the standings.
Ken Hitchcock? They coouldn’t wait on him in 2019 and he just got inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Dave Tippett? Every team he ever coached was renowned for its determination and structure. Few coaches could extract more from less. In Edmonton, the underachieving continued. Couldn’t wait on him, either.
So now it’s up to former Hartford Wolf Pack head coach Kris Knoblauch to see what he can do with his two years at the helm.
Knoblauch has never been a head coach in the NHL before. He went 119-90 in four seasons in the American Hockey League. He joins an Oilers team that also has Connor McDavid’s former agent as CEO of hockey operations.
EDMONTON OILERS COACHING HISTORY
Kris Knoblauch —
Jay Woodcroft — 2022 (133 games).
Dave Tippett — 2019 (161 games).
Ken Hitchcock — 2018 (62 games).
Todd McLellan — 2015 (266 games).
Todd Nelson — 2014 (51 games).
Craig MacTavish — Two-week interim
Dallas Eakins — 2013 (113 games).
Ralph Krueger — 2012 (48 games).
Tom Renney — 2010 (164 games).
Pat Quinn — 2009 (82 games).
Craig MacTavish — 2000 (656 games)
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