To suggest things have gone well for the Edmonton Oilers to start the Jay Woodcroft – Dave Manson era would be putting it mildly. Five games, five wins, back in a playoff spot, in the mix for the Pacific Division crown and all completed within nine days. An impressive start to be sure but the most intriguing part in of all of this remains the manner in which the duo have decided to deploy their players.
Following months of one head scratching decision after another from Dave Tippett and Jim Playfair, the simplicity and stick-to-itiveness of the Oilers new coaching tandem has been a breath of fresh air. They are not only leaving players together to allow for the potential of chemistry to form but going with a less than traditional set-up of eleven forwards and seven defencemen on a nightly basis.
With the addition of Zach Hyman, Evander Kane and others, this is without question the deepest group of forwards Edmonton has had in decades. Making the decision to run with an additional blueliner easier to do and it was the right move to make. Over course of the past two seasons, the Oilers have had opportunities to give this a whirl but it was never used as a tactical play…until now.
There is no question, Woodcroft and Manson’s familiarity with the Oilers young defencemen and having previously run with seven and eight man rotations in Bakersfield has played in their favour. To their credit, the two have earned the buy-in of the collective roster in short order, as losing a bunch of games tends to make players far more receptive to change and trying new things.
Prior to yesterday’s 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets, no defenceman had received under 10 minutes of ice-time since Woodcroft’s arrival. Philip Broberg broke that streak, playing just over six and half minutes during what was a tough afternoon for the youngster. Darnell Nurse took on most of those extra minutes but if you look at the rest, little changed from the Oilers previous four games.
Nurse and Cody Ceci have been leaned on most, just as they were under Tippett and Playfair. Tyson Barrie and Evan Bouchard are usually next, with the trio of Broberg, William Lagesson and Markus Niemeläinen typically all within a couple of minutes of one another. All seven have been used on one or both of the special teams and have rarely if ever looked to be out of their comfort zone.
Keeping that balancing act afloat in AHL is one thing but to do it at this level is something else altogether. Kudos to Manson for making it work, as it has become painfully obvious just how much more comfortable the defence has looked under him compared to his predecessor. The biggest difference is clear, this coach believes in his guys and they know it.
Despite playing well in limited duty, Lagesson has had a difficult time staying in the lineup. However, since the coaching change, he has been rock solid in what still is a controlled role but one that includes him as a regular piece on the penalty kill. The same can be said for Niemeläinen, whose physical style was on display during an earlier call up but this time his overall game seems less chaotic.
Not surprisingly, the towering Finn has become an instant fan favourite thanks to his want to throw thunderous body checks with great regularity. That aside, he brings an element this defence has been missing all season long and with him being used in multiple situations, you can see his confidence grow and the mistakes are starting to dwindle.
The other piece of the puzzle the seven-man approach has allowed for, is a re-setting of sorts for Bouchard. The talented youngster had been yo-yoed from the top pairing to third pair and had barely gotten a sniff on the man advantage, until just before Tippett was shown the door. Yet, the 22-year old had been seeing regular duty on the penalty kill from Game One on. Confused? That makes two of us.
Much of the inconsistency in Bouchard’s game can be linked back to the previous regime’s unwillingness to work him into the lineup last season. For reasons only known to those inside the organization, the decision was made to use the kid sparingly in 2020-21, instead of allowing him an opportunity to work through some of the growing every player deals with early in their career.
It was the perfect spot and situation for Tippett to employ a seven-man system on the backend. Instead, they decided to sit Bouchard with far too great a frequency and those growing pains are happening now. By limiting his minutes over these past five games, this coaching staff is hoping they will be able to help him eliminate the glaring mistake from his game and allow him to find a better all-around level.
It’s all about situation and for this group, the current approach is the way to go and it should remain in place for the foreseeable future. That includes when Duncan Keith returns to the lineup from concussion protocol. The veteran rearguard isn’t expected back anytime soon but when he does, there is no reason for the seven man approach to be cast aside.
Woodcroft wants this team to play with pace and with the collection of defencemen they have, the only one who can be expected to take on major minutes is Nurse and possibly Ceci. Let’s not forget, when Keith was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks via trade, the narrative was how much better he would look playing under 20 minutes a night. Well, he’s averaged 20:22 a game prior to his injury.
When he is ready to go, Broberg is the one most likely to come out of the lineup. Keith can slide right back into his spot on the second pairing, with Lagesson and Niemeläinen in a support role to help lighten the load for both Nurse and the 38-year old two-Norris Trophy winner. Even if it’s a couple of shifts here and there, that can be the difference between a poor and smart decision being made.
It seems fairly straightforward and with what we have seen to this point from Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson, they may just have this deployment thing figured out. If that is indeed the case and this Edmonton Oilers side keeps winning games on the regular, the decision will take care of itself and the group will be much better off for it