Like many Oilers fans, I was surprised on Sunday morning when I found out that head coach Jay Woodcraft and defensive coach Dave Manson had been relieved of their duties. This surprise initially turned into confusion when I learned that the Hartford Wolfpack’s head coach, Kris Knoblauch, was immediately named as the new head coach. Admittedly, I had never heard of him until Sunday, making me wonder what made him a good choice to replace Woodcroft.
Now that a few days have passed, I can take a step back and look at everything with less emotion than on Sunday. Jay Woodcroft is a young head coach with great potential, which is what made the firing a little befuddling. On top of that, he has led the Oilers to the Western Conference final in 2022 and to the Western Conference semi-final this past season. At the time of his departure, he had the highest win percentage of any coach in Oilers history with at least 82 games (one season) coached. He won 64.3% of his games. In and of itself, these would be reasons to give him an opportunity to dig himself out of this cold streak that they were on. But there’s more: the team’s stats appear to be unsustainably bad this season. Their shooting percentage dropped from a league-leading 11.8% last year (meaning that they scored on 11.8% of their shots) to a measly 7.7% this season. The team’s save percentage dropped from .903, meaning that 90.3% of shots were saved last year, to .874 this year, a large drop-off. The powerplay, which the team relies heavily on, hasn’t matched their all-time record of 32.4% from last season. To make all of this worse, stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have been uncharacteristically quiet. It appears that the players were still behind him as well. On Monday, McDavid adamantly said in a pre-game media scrum that, “ he [Jay Woodcroft] never lost the room.” Initially, these good points made the series of events confusing.
Jay Woodcroft is certainly not absolved of any blame. With the team struggling this season, there has been an apparent lack of accountability, especially towards certain players. The best way that a coach can get a message across to the team that their standards aren’t high enough is to have underperforming players sit on the bench for a few shifts or even an entire period. Woodcroft could do this with certain high-level players, like Leon Draisaitl, who were underperforming, but he didn’t. Woodcroft also implemented a new defensive system this season. It was a similar system used by the historically good Boston Bruins last year and the Stanley Cup champions, Las Vegas Golden Knights. Last season, the Oilers allowed, on average, 3.12 goals per game; this season, that number is 3.67 (that includes the first two games of the Knoblauch era, where the team has allowed four goals in two games). This suggests that the new scheme was relatively ineffective, although it could have used more time to develop. It goes back to the saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” A third reason why this firing makes some sense is that the Oilers can’t afford to be bad right now. The McDavid and Draisaitl contract negotiations are around the corner, and the organization needs to give the team the best chance to win to keep them. For me, it was still too early this season to pull the trigger and fire Woodcroft; with his track record he deserves the chance to make things right, but there were certainly reasons to do it.
I have seen many Oilers fans highly critical of the move to hire Kris Knoblauch and fire Jay Woodcroft, and there are valid reasons. The firing seemed premature, and Knoblauch has little experience as an NHL head coach, so the organization is taking a risk. That being said, what’s done is done. Jay Woodcroft provided many great moments as the Oilers’ head coach, but he will not walk through that door and return. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for many, including myself, but our job, as Oilers fans, is to fully support Kris Knoblauch as he takes the reins here in Edmonton.