In what has become an awkward bi-annual ritual here in Edmonton, the Oilers rolled out their leadership group Monday morning to accept their share of responsibility for the latest coaches being fired.
How much of the blame for Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson being let go 13 games into the season should fall on the players, how much should fall on management and how much falls on Woodcroft himself is up for debate, but when it’s a fifth coach in the last eight years and 11th in the last 16, the words ring rather hollow.
Nevertheless, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse took their turns in the media scrums prior to Monday’s game with the New York Islanders to express their sympathy, guilt and optimism for a better tomorrow.
“I was obviously surprised, I didn’t see it coming,” said the Oilers captain. “I loved playing for Woody. I loved playing for Mans. They are two unbelievable coaches. I really think they will be in the league very, very soon. Two great coaches.”
Did Woodcroft’s message start to get lost over time?
“Not at all. Not at all. Not at all. He never lost the room. He never lost the room.”
McDavid went on to say that he and the rest of the players feel most, if not all, of the blame for latest firing.
“Obviously our play hasn’t been good enough, I’m first on the list there,” said McDavid, who was on an eight-game scoring drought when Woodcroft got fired Sunday. “Our play needs to be better. That’s the reason two good guys lost their jobs. As players we have to be better.”
McDavid says he is aware of the theory that he is calling some shots behind the scenes, bringing his former agent in as CEO of hockey operations and now his former junior coach Kris Knoblauch behind the bench, and wants to shoot them down immediately. He says he found out about the coaching change long after the deed was done.
“I woke up to a text like a lot of you guys did,” he said. “I know the narrative out here but it couldn’t be further from the truth.”
“It’s a tough day, these are never fun,” said Draisaitl, who’s been to more of these than he cares to remember. “Two incredible coaches that have really had nothing but success here. It’s unfortunate.
“These days are always tough, they suck, there is a lot of guilt you carry within yourselves but obviously you have to move on.”
Draisaitl reiterated that Woodcroft didn’t lose the room. Instead it was the players who had lost their way.
“There’s no way that he lost anyone. As players we’re the ones on the ice and we’re as prepared as any team in the league. It’s on us to be better.”
Asked what it means when a team is on its fifth coach in five years, Draisaitl rejected any notion that it’s a poor reflection on the core.
“I don’t think it means anything, really. We’ve had a lot of success here, too. We won over 100 games over the last two years, people tend to forget that.”
He did, however, say that in this case, the players need to accept full responsibility for what just happened, as well as what needs to happen going forward.
“This is definitely not the start we wanted and that is on no one but the players. We’re as tight a group as there is, we hold each other accountable in here, but individually we haven’t been playing to our standard collectively as a group.
“There’s not one player in here who can say I’ve been playing really, really good. This is a collective thing that’s been going on for too long and unfortunately the coach is usually the one who has to (pay the price).”
Draisaitl, who has one goal in his last 10 games, closed by saying there is no time for mourning or self-pity.
“I have my own game to worry about right now. I’m certainly not at my level or the expectations I have for myself.”
“I don’t think anyone saw it coming,” said the veteran defenceman. “But when you put together the record and the way we played at the beginning of the year, you put good, smart hockey people in jeopardy and that’s on us.
“It stings, you build relationships with coaches. We’ve been very fortunate to play for some really good people, good hockey minds and it stings when they’re gone.”
On Paul Coffey taking over the defence.
“He had such a great career and so much success in this league for a reason. To be able to pick his kind and get a first-hand look is going to be huge for our group.”
While the situation looks bleak right now, Nurse says the Oilers haven’t lost faith that there is enough time, and enough will, to get this season back on track.
“The start of the season hasn’t gone the way we wanted but for the two or three months before that we were talking about how much we believe in this group and how good of a team we have. The characters and the faces in this room haven’t changed.
“We may hit rough patches and there are going to be shake-ups, but at the end of the day the belief in this group, the belief we have in each other, can’t be shaken by what goes on around us.”
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