Now that the dust has settled, I can acknowledge that head coach Jay Woodcroft turned the Edmonton Oilers’ season around when he took over the bench on February 11th. The Oilers were out of a playoff spot when he took over and the team went 26-9-3 the rest of the regular season and he led them to the Western Conference Finals. He was great and would be one of the team’s biggest off-season signings.
He passed his rival bench bosses in the first two rounds of the postseason against the Los Angeles Kings and the Calgary Flames. One was his former mentor Todd McLellan and the other was recent Jack Adams Award winner Darryl Sutter. Whether it was winning two straight elimination games in the first series against the Kings or winning four straight games against the Flames, Woodcroft would adapt to any given situation, either using specific players at the right time or using his Changed system with 11 forwards and seven defenders or regroup his team and rebound after a loss.
That said, for most of the decisions he made during the playoffs, I said, “This is brilliant.” However, when it came time to face the Colorado Avalanche, some puzzling coaching decisions were made. They weren’t the difference between winning and losing the series, but they did contribute to Edmonton’s elimination from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Why weren’t the nurse’s minutes reduced when he was fighting an injury?
After Game 2 against the Avalanche, Woodcroft was asked in the postgame interview for his assessment of the game by Darnell Nurse, and he responded by saying, “He’s giving everything he’s got.” There were rumors that the soon-to-be 9.25- The Oilers’ million-dollar AAV defenseman was struggling with an injury and after they were ousted last Monday, Nurse himself confirmed he was suffering from a torn hip flexor.
Nurse was on the ice for 27 of the Oilers’ 59 goals in the playoffs. He came on for 12 of the Avalanche’s 22 goals against the Avalanche. Early in the series, he showed signs that his injury was affecting his mobility. Late in the first half of Game 1, Nathan Mackinnon danced around the normally quick-footed Nurse – and got the puck past goaltender Mike Smith. The Oilers defenseman, who finished minus 6 in four games, struggled through the remainder of the series.
With that in mind, it was clear Nurse was struggling and the question is why weren’t his minutes reduced? For most of the series, he put the Oilers’ defensemen on hold in time — I understand he gave it his all — but he was also a liability out there. Woodcroft, previously successful with his system of 11 forwards and seven defenders, only used the tactic when the Oilers were two behind in the series, which would have automatically shortened Nurse’s ice time.
And why didn’t Brett Kulak get Nurse’s log? Aside from Nurse when he’s 100%, Kulak was the Oilers’ best skating defenseman and was praised for his ability break the cycle and its excellent gap control. The veteran, who played in the Stanley Cup Finals with the Montreal Canadiens last season, clocked a whopping 43 minutes less than Nurse this postseason. He’s not a defender from the start, but he was the best defenseman the Oilers had to keep up with fast-moving competition that also includes Mackinnon and Cale Makar.
Woodcroft used his 4th line at the wrong moment in Game 2
The Oilers and Avalanche went into the second half of Game 2 in a tie, which wasn’t bad considering there were 14 goals scored between the two teams in Game 1. Around the 16 minute mark of midframe, Nurse gifted the puck in his own end, which landed on Nazem Kadri’s racquet. The Avalanche forward shot the puck and Arturri Lehkonen headed it home. At the time, the Oilers’ second line was on the ice with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Leon Draisaitl and Kailer Yamamoto.
Woodcroft’s use of players after that first goal was very questionable. In that situation, he needed a setback to turn the tide because at the time, the Colorado arena was rocking and the crowd was generating energy for the home team. The sensible decision to divert momentum away from Colorado was to send the line of Connor McDavid, Evander Kane and Zach Hyman off on the next shift. Instead, Woodcroft sent out the fourth row of Josh Archibald, Zack Kassian and Derek Ryan.
The puck was dropped and immediately thrown into the Oilers’ zone. Nurse missed a pass behind the net and Ryan lost a board fight. The puck landed on Kadri’s racquet, who passed it to Josh Manson, and he hammered the puck home to make it 2-0 in less than 20 seconds from the first goal.
Again, why throw away the fourth line, which has been largely ineffective throughout the series, when you have the world’s best player available to change the swing? That second goal was disappointing and left the Oilers in disarray. Just two minutes later, the Avalanche scored their third goal of the game. That second goal after a good first half, however, took the wind out of the Oilers’ sails and they couldn’t recover, losing the game 4-0.
The use of Archibald, Kassian and Ryan after the second goal was puzzling. It may or may not have been crucial to the outcome of the game, but putting them on the ice at such a pivotal moment was questionable, especially since Archibald (4:07), Kassian (6:43), and Ryan (6:43) 46) played the least of any oiler up to that point and eventually into the night.
Was Brad Malone the Right Player to Win the Overtime Faceoff?
Just before the series-winning goal in Game 4 overtime, color commentator Craig Simpson said on the CBC show, “Every faceoff is critical as both coaches look and say, ‘Okay, where is the draw going to be?’ It’s on the right, so you’re trying to get someone on the strong side, and for Edmonton here it’s Malone trying to get one on his strong side, defensively. It was foreshadowing at its best as seconds later the Oilers lost the tie and Artturri Lehkonen scored the series winner.
The question I have here is, was Brad Malone the right player to play this important clash? I understand his role as a reciprocal, defensively solid bottom six player, but the Bakersfield Condors captain isn’t a regular in the NHL.
McDavid and Draisaitl’s line was on in the first minute of overtime, and the “All Ryan” line of Nugent-Hopkins, Ryan McLeod and (Derek) Ryan took over the next shift for a full 14 seconds before the Oilers’ game was stopped ‘ zone. Instead of abandoning the “All Ryan” line of all-natural centermen, the Oilers opted to swap out the forward line for fourth-line Kassian, Warren Foegele and Malone. Remember that in this situation, the Oilers had the last change since they were at home. You would have seen Makar – who could perhaps be the front runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy – on the ice. Woodcroft should have known that if the Oilers lose the faceoff, Makar will have free reign to dance their fourth-row players.
McDavid and Draisaitl were still resting from their previous shift so they weren’t good picks to win the tie, but sending your American Hockey League (AHL) player for what turns out to be the premier clash is questionable Oilers turned out ‘ season. As far as I know, Malone had won four out of seven faceoffs in the series, but there were better candidates for that draw.
The faceoff came down Mike Smith’s left, so being a right-hander Ryan wasn’t on his strong side. Nugent-Hopkins wasn’t good at circles for most of the series (winning only 39% of draws), but McLeod, who conceded 498 more faceoffs in the regular season than Malone (winning 48% of them) at the NHL level, would have been the player should be who got this draw. Instead, Malone lost the faceoff, the puck landed on Makar’s bat, he shot it, Lehkonen knocked him down and put the puck past Smith to end the Oilers’ season.
See Also: 4 Questions Oilers Need To Answer Immediately After Playoff Sweep
Even if Woodcroft was confident Malone would win the draw, why not load the line with another centerman like McLeod in case Malone got thrown out of the circle? Despite all the brilliant decisions he made during the playoffs, this one alone was a head scratcher.
It’s hard to discern the choices made by a man who completely changed the outlook for the Oilers’ season. Maybe it’s because he made those Great Decisions before his puzzling and rather costly decisions caught so much attention. Despite this, general manager Ken Holland stated in their end-of-season interviews that he would like it Having Woodcroft back, and they will meet next week to discuss his future. Admittedly, he pushed the needle forward for the organization, and it would be to the Oilers’ advantage if they could sign him long-term.
He is the NHL’s first-ever Ultimate MVP fan, as explained by Upperdeck – He was featured on CBC Radio where he provided hockey analysis for the Edmonton Oilers – He is a freelance writer and Edmonton Oilers sportswriter for the Hockey Writers.