Since taking over behind the Edmonton Oilers bench from Dave Tippett, Jay Woodcroft has managed to push the right buttons far more often than not over these last four months. However, since the start of the Stanly Cup Playoffs, he has made a handful of head scratching decisions and last night’s gut-wrenching loss to the Colorado Avalanche featured a few more to add to the pile.
Despite finally coming to his senses and removing Josh Archibald from the Oilers starting lineup, it was his player deployment that took centre stage on this night. Be it the befuddling decision to use Zack Kassian on his top line, an unwillingness to give Brett Kulak greater responsibility with Darnell Nurse clearly hurting or leaving his lines intact until the third period in what was a must-win situation.
It was arguably one of the roughest night’s Woodcroft has had since becoming this team’s head coach and it could not have come at a worse moment. No matter what kind of spark he was after, using Kassian alongside Evander Kane and Connor McDavid was a terrible idea from the outset and it played out in that very fashion on the ice.
Typically, when Kassian had been used in a similar spot it was to add a physical dimension to the Oilers first line. Well, with Kane already in the equation, there was no need to double down and all it accomplished was to hamper McDavid, by giving him an ineffective linemate. Using your two best players on separate lines is all well and good but in his current state, Leon Draisaitl needs help.
Instead of going back to what’s working, Woodcroft decided to overthink things and it blew up in his face. McDavid was still created opportunities, as he always does, but their sustained attack was almost non-existent. To make matter s worse, the Draisaitl, Zach Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins trio were even less effective and yet bot units essentially remained intact until final twenty minutes.
The move to make was obvious but instead of sliding Jesse Puljujarvi onto the second line earlier in the game, we saw the likes of Derek Ryan taking turns inside the top six and it got Edmonton nowhere. When everything is clicking, a coach can play whatever hunch he likes but when it’s not, betting on your skill to figure things out is the best option and using Kassian in the way he did reeked of desperation.
The same could be said about the Oilers backend, where a lightening of the load on Nurse was badly needed. With the addition of Kris Russell into the lineup and running seven defencemen, one would think part of that would naturally occur due to the numbers. Surprisingly enough, Nurse actually played more in Game Three than he did in either of the first previous two games.
By no means is that to suggest he should’ve seen his ice-time drastically reduced but from a match-up stand point, using Kulak and Cody Ceci a little more often seemed like an option worth exploring. Though this was easily his best game of the series, the soon-to-be $9M man still had his problems, including an ill-timed delay of game penalty and re-directing the Avs opening goal past his netmider.
Point being, he has options at his disposal and using them to his advantage to help create wins for the collective, has been one of Woodcroft’s calling cards during his brief tenure. His willingness to think outside of the box or revert back to something that had worked previously was a refreshing change of pace. At certain points in these playoffs, that mindset has taken a back seat, which is disappointing.
Dylan Holloway is a perfect example of this. Yes, the youngster has exactly zero NHL experience but his skill-set is exactly what the Oilers need more of in this series and he has yet to get a sniff. His speed, physicality and size would be a welcome addition to this lineup, never mind the energy that comes with making your NHL debut. Again, betting on skill is never a bad idea.
When your other options revolve around Derrick Brassard, Brad Malone and Devin Shore, giving Holloway a look-see is a no-brainer. Instead, he continued down the Archibald path and decided on Malone for his physicality and penalty killing abilities. Fair enough but in the end, is adding more of the same what this team really needs? The results suggest not but here we are.
Don’t get me wrong, the Oilers are playing some monster games for the first time in ages and Woodcroft is well aware of how good this Avalanche team is. Just like his players, he is gaining experience from this run and both will be better off for it. Lessons learned are important and can be discussed at great length down the line. All that matters in the here and now is finding a way to win the next four games.