Woodcroft takes the fall for Oilers subpar goaltending
Here is how quickly things can turn in the National Hockey League: A few months ago, Edmonton Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft had the fourth-shortest odds of winning the 2023-24 Jack Adams Trophy after an impressive first 120 games behind the bench. On Sunday, just 13 games into the season, he was relieved of his duties.
It goes without saying that when you start a regular season — one with Stanley Cup aspirations — with a 3-9-1 record and -17 goal differential, the organization is going to do a thorough review. And there has been no shortage of disappointments across the Oilers organization over the first six weeks of the year.
But Woodcroft seems little more than a fall guy at this juncture considering the circumstances, independent of whether you are a believer in replacement Kris Knoblauch, a hired gun signed away from the Hartford Wolf Pack who coached Connor McDavid for three years in junior.
In the case of Woodcroft, we are talking about a head coach who took the Oilers to a 50-23-9 record (+65 goal differential) in his first season – a team that exemplified extraordinary offensive firepower and finished two points shy of the Stanley Cup-champion Vegas Golden Knights in the Pacific Division.
It would seem this year’s slow start burned off all of that equity, and then some. But looking at Edmonton’s play and assessing where the pressure has mounted, it’s hard to see where Woodcroft dropped the ball.
Neither end of the ice has looked impressive this year, speaking plainly. But offensively, the Oilers continue to look primed for an offensive breakout — the shooting percentages just haven’t manifested quite yet, but this is still a lineup generating plenty of scoring opportunities, and it would seem to reason the dam is ready to break when looking at real versus expected scoring:
It's rare for any team to see such sizable divergence between real and expected scoring, let alone an Oilers team that grades near the top of the league in shooting percentages in the McDavid era. Over a handful of games, though, this type of volatility – you’ve probably heard it called “puck luck” – is expected.
At the end of the day, quality teams continue to create scoring chances through sustained offensive zone pressure, and the dam invariably breaks. It seems likely that Knoblauch will benefit from some inevitable positive regression, assuming the team stays healthy.
(Side note: there are, truly, innumerable examples of this type of regression being realized when escaping such small sample sizes. My favourite were the six-week concerns over Toronto superstar forward Auston Matthews’ slow scoring start during the 2021-22 regular season; that did not last.)
If it’s a waiting game of sorts offensively, it’s a different story defensively. Even if your remained bullish on a looming offensive breakout, Edmonton’s defensive numbers were of much more concern.
The Oilers’ aggressive, up-tempo style is going to remain for as long as McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are keying the lineup, and to that end, you need a blueline that can transition the puck with pace, erase counterattacking opportunities, and, most notably, lean on goaltending as required.
The trends in the defensive numbers are much less encouraging, and, to the extent Woodcroft has earned some blame, his inability to slow down the opposition’s attack likely came into focus:
While it’s true the year-over-year numbers are relatively poor, it’s not as if Woodcroft’s lineup has been materially more accommodating in the defensive zone. The team had a similar rough stretch at the tail end of the 2021-22 regular season, and the start of the 2022-23 regular season, both under Woodcroft’s tenure.
What has also been true over the course of Woodcroft’s coaching stint, and quite frankly true for years prior, is that the Oilers goaltending has been a wreck. The woes of Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner this season have been well documented; before them, there was Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen. And while Woodcroft is far from the first head coach fired for ineffective goaltending, it’s curious how much the Oilers front office has escaped criticism from its inability to shore up the position.
For four of the five seasons under his watch, general manager Ken Holland’s goaltenders have been net-negatives relative to expectations. Save for Smith’s swan song season in 2021-22, it’s been a rough watch. Campbell’s struggles early this season – the goalie Holland chose to bet on by way of a five-year deal – earned him a spot on the waiver wire just last week. And, with a further emphasis on this season: if you have a goaltending duo that is 11 goals worse than expectations in just 13 games, you are going to struggle to win – whether it’s Woodcroft or Scotty Bowman behind the bench.
Woodcroft, right or wrong, is being held accountable for the team’s rough start. Whether you believe he was at fault or not, the buck has to stop somewhere. Frequently that starts with the coaching staff.
But this is a team yearning for strategy and direction from a front office that has — at least so far — failed to round out a lineup behind its superstars, and, most troublingly, continue to make bad goaltending bets that remain an organizational headwind.
That issue has not changed. I expect the Oilers to rebound in the standings, by way of their offence waking up. The question is how do you solve this goaltending mess, especially with how little cap flexibility the team has?
Holland must get to work once more.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference