Did a coaching change save the Edmonton Oilers season?

Two months ago, the Oilers’ front office decided to part ways with then-head coach Dave Tippett after an unremarkable start to the 2021-22 regular season.

No team is immune to a regular-season swoon, and Tippett’s teams – which played to a 97-point pace over his tenure – were usually competitive. But the baseline for a club with arguably two of the four best players in the world to clear could not possibly be that of a wild-card team. Moreover, this year’s Oilers team at the time of Tippett’s termination (23-18-3) were anything but assured of a playoff spot.

The Oilers have been a fascinating team on this front for some time. The talent within the organization always seems ahead of the actual wins and losses for years now.

The Oilers have had to get creative with the salary cap – in part because of the big contracts, in part because of poor roster-building decisions of years past – and that’s meant under investment in other parts of the roster, like the goaltending position.

And yet, even recognizing this team isn’t perfect, it’s been difficult to understand why it hasn’t been more dominant in an increasingly weakening Western Conference.

Jay Woodcroft, promoted from the team’s American Hockey League club in Bakersfield to replace Tippett, has seemingly had the magic touch. Looking at standings performance, it’s hard to argue otherwise:

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Only the Montreal Canadiens have made a bigger jump in performance when comparing pre-Feb. 10 splits versus post-Feb. 10 splits, but that’s because they established such a shockingly dismal floor to start the season.

In Edmonton’s case, the Oilers moved from a 91-point pace team to a 116-point pace team, which is the difference between an outside wild-card contender and the type of standings performance you expect from multi-round playoff teams.

But that’s wins and losses. If you are here, it’s because you know that wins and losses can be very fleeting in short windows, and that we must look to underlying numbers to get some confirmation this is real. That is where I think the story opens up for the Oilers organization, particularly on the offensive side of the ice.

Let’s look at the Oilers under a three-year microscope, spanning both Tippett’s and Woodcroft’s run as coach. We’ll focus on the even-strength numbers here, because a lot of Edmonton’s turnaround is the result of Woodcroft unlocking what his forwards can do there:

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This offensive explosion – the one that has seen the Oilers outscored by only the Toronto Maple Leafs (3.5 goals per 60 minutes at even strength) since Woodcroft assumed control of the lineup – has been extraordinary.

It’s important to underline that this isn’t some short-term shooting percentage phenomena where every Oilers attacker is getting the bounces. The team is dangerous on a shift-by-shift basis, generating heavy shot volumes from dangerous areas of the ice in repetition. It’s something we saw far too infrequently, particularly from the Oilers bottom-six forwards, in seasons past. (I’ll note that defensively, there is little change; Oilers goaltenders have been a bit better lately, and that’s about it.)

If we look at forwards playing regularly in both Tippett and Woodcroft’s lineup, you see that the goodness the offensive is realizing isn’t just from the Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl lines, but broadly across the roster. (The bubble size indicates changes in ice time; the larger the bubble, the more usage the player is getting under Woodcroft.)

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Outside of Evander Kane (who played all of five games under Tippett) and Zack Kassian (who is a bona fide fourth liner at this point of his career), most of the Oilers lineup has observed a move to the upside, generating more dangerous chances per 60 minutes of play and scoring more goals as a result. McDavid has gone supernova under Woodcroft, and, amusingly enough, he’s one of a few players seeing less even-strength minutes under his new head coach.

This is an interesting new wrinkle for the Western Conference. What ails this Oilers team from a personnel standpoint hasn’t changed. But Edmonton suddenly possesses the type of lethal offence we have expected for a long time.

The Oilers are one of a few teams who truly can outscore their problems when they are clicking on all cylinders. They may have to come playoff time.

Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey