"We didn't want to wait around any longer" — Ken Holland on Oilers' decision to change coaches

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In February of 2022, Ken Holland hosted a press conference at Rogers Place stating that for the first time in his quarter century as an NHL General Manager, he felt obliged to make an in-season coaching change. On the way out were his chosen coach for the Edmonton Oilers, Dave Tippett, along with defensive assistant Jim Playfair. In their place he introduced Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson as his choices tasked with changing the teams fortunes. Despite the grim nature of the task and the  team’s standings position 6 points below the last wild card spot, there was an air of optimism in the proceedings that proved to be well-founded. The team did indeed turn the corner immediately thereafter, quickly rose up the standings, finished a strong second in the Pacific Division and then rolled to the conference finals.

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In November of 2023, there was Ken Holland again, confirming that for a second time in just 21 months he was taking the step of changing out his chosen head coach and defensive assistant. Once again the GM’s talented roster sits well outside a playoff position, already 8 points below the last wild card spot even as five months remain on the calendar. Just like that, it’s out with Woodcroft and Manson, in with Kris Knoblauch and Paul Coffey.

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This time around, optimism seemed to be in precious short supply. The four persons at the podium — Holland, Knoblauch, Coffey, and Oilers CEO of Hockey Ops Jeff Jackson — produced the grand total of zero smiles until the obligatory photo shoot at the end (screen-grabbed above), where two of the four were able to look cheerful for at least a moment.

Make no mistake, this was grim business, with both Holland and especially Jackson appearing glum about the current state of affairs. Meanwhile both Knoblauch and Coffey maintained serious expressions throughout as they addressed the magnitude of the task facing them to the assembled media and those paying subscribers watching on OilersPlus.

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Management’s viewpoint

Holland was the main spokesperson, even as he and Jackson ultimately agreed it was a mutual decision between them, apparently made sometime in advance of the puck being dropped at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle on Saturday night. That game, a 4-1 victory that represented Edmonton’s most complete game of the season, turned out to be the swan song of Woodcroft’s all-too-brief but largely successful tenure as Oilers’ bench boss.

“It was a difficult decision, in the business where we have to win games. I’ve been In touch with Jeff Jackson on a daily basis, more than daily.”

Jackson confirmed there had been dialogue all season. “We agreed on a lot of things, including the fact we’ve been really inconsistent. We’ve had 8 or 9 really good periods in 13 games. Consistency is not where it needs to be. We came to this decision together.”

Pressed on whether a poor 12 game run was sufficient to warrant the firing, Holland stated “Certainly we’ve played at a high level, second best record in NHL under Woodcroft in last 120 games [through end of last season]. You can debate, is 12, 13 games enough? Anmother 10 games might be too late. Jeff & I felt it was something that needed to be done…. It’s a hard league and we didn’t want to wait around any longer.”

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Jackson added: “I came in three months ago with the long term view to get some structure and strategy. Our focus is we have a team that we believe can win the Stanley Cup. I’m a long term strategy type but I also believe we have a team than can win this year. Kris doesn’t have experience [as a head coach] in the NHL but he’s been a head coach for 12 years. He has a very good feel for the players, everyone has a role, and there is accountability.”

Accountability was a recurring theme in questions asked by the media. When asked about Woodcroft’s ability to enforce it, Holland did take ownership of one key aspect: “It gets to be a little more difficult when when you have a 21-man roster than a 23-man roster. You can only dress the players that are healthy. When you have a 23 man roster, 14-7-2, you can healthy-scratch some forwards or a defenceman. We haven’t had that at our disposal because of the salary cap and some decisions that I made in the off-season. So that was one tool that wasn’t at Jay’s fingertips.”

When asked directly if the players’ leadership group had been consulted in advance of the move, Holland replied “I have talked over this past week with some of the veterans on our team”, before deferring to Jackson who demurred: “We didn’t consult with the players on this decision. Never spoke with Connor or Leon or Nuge or Nursey or any of the other leadership group. These guys are here to play hockey. They don’t like being involved in these types of decisions. That’s my experience. So the fact that Kris was Connor’s coach in Erie in 2014-15, it only has something to do with this because I think Kris is a very good coach. Connor didn’t have anything to do with this decision, and neither did [the rest of] the leadership group.”

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No details were revealed as to the timing of negotiations, though Holland claimed that the conversation between him and Jackson cementing the decision took place on Saturday afternoon, even as rumours were flying well before then. One such was this from Michael Hebert of the Oilers Live Podcast and the Heavy Hockey Network on Friday evening:

OilersLive tweet

Be that as it may, Holland finally delivered the news in person to the two outgoing coaches on Sunday morning. It was made doubly difficult in the case of Manson, who suffered a major personal loss when his wife Lane died of melanoma just 3 months ago. Holland is an empathetic sort, and it was clear this landed hard..

Kris Knoblauch

Knoblauch commented: “Coming in mid-season you can only do so much in changing systems and lines. Players need stability. I really want to get involved, I just met the coaching staff a few minutes ago. also want to reach out to the players, veterans, young players. I see a talented team, underperforming obviously, that’s why I’m here… I want everybody to take a breath, relax and play the way they can. Right now there’s too much pressure on them and they’re I see a team that’s trying hard but ultimately right now are very frustrated. There’s too much pressure on them and they’re feeling it… Sometimes you get a new head coach, it’s like a new regular season. Everybody’s got zeroes, no goals, no assists, it’s a reset. Let’s get back to basics. I feel there’s a very strong group in there. ”

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On accountability: “The most difficult thing with coaching is holding guys accountable. You don’t want players playing in fear. You want your players feeling empowered that they can make a play and contribute to the team [but face] accountability for lazy and/or repeated mistakes. Ice time is the currency that a coach has.”

On his preferred style of play: “If you’re going to have success in this league you have to have success defensively. Last year, 15 of the top 17 teams (for goals against) made the playoffs, the prior year 16 of 19. Players want to have success individually but it feels better winning as a team. I try to empower my players to commit to playing defence without sacrificing offence… I feel much more comfortable with a zone structure. With the personnel we have here it’s going to be very similar, where the defencemen stay in their quadrants around the net and the low forwards move around more… we need to play fast, get the puck up the ice as quickly as possible into the forwards’ hands to make plays.”

Paul Coffey

In his words, “I wasn’t lobbying for this job. I told my wife 6:30 last [Saturday] night. I had no plans to coach, but will do anything I can to help.”

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On his new charges: “I’ve liked everything about our blueline, but they haven’t been consistent enough.”

As for style of play: “Play the odds, know where you are on the ice at all times, stay off your backhand. You need to know what your partner is doing before he does.”

My take

Knoblauch arrives in Edmonton with a significantly greater challenge than did Woodcroft, who had the tremendous advantage of having worked with the Oilers leadership group early in their respective careers when he was Todd McLellan’s assistant in Edmonton; with the next generation of supporting players as head coach in Bakersfield; and with most of the others at training camp/s. He’d also developed a tight working relationship with Manson, his chosen right-hand man, in Bako.

It was this background as a (doubly) home-grown coach that made Woodcroft uniquely suited for the task. It saddens this observer that such an ideal recipe went sideways so quickly, moreover that his rope was so extraordinarily short despite significant success.

The new bench boss has no such connections, give or take coaching the Connors, McDavid and Brown, at Erie a decade ago. Most of the team he will meet for the first time between now and Monday night’s home game against the NY Islanders.

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As to who made the ultimate decision, the simple fact is that Woodcroft was Holland’s choice as coach, whereas Jackson inherited him. It seems exceedingly likely that it was the new man in the larger office who precipitated the change, and who by extension is now firmly in charge. Oil fans everywhere can only hope he got it right.

The new coach himself made a strong first impression as a thoughtful man with a solid coaching background, even as none of it has come as an NHL head coach. Like Woodcroft he brings a mixture of experience as an NHL assistant and AHL head coach, but also compiled a lengthy and successful résumé at the junior level. He’s no stranger to commanding the bench, and his past connection with McDavid should help cement his status with the Oilers’ leadership group.

But the pressure is on, right away. And it’s on more than just the new coach, but ripples through the organization from the top of Hockey Ops to the bottom of the roster. The bad start has to be yesterday’s news; the recovery from its consequences, tomorrow’s.

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