The Edmonton Oilers are about to enter unfamiliar territory. After years of being a team that little was expected from, the assumption is for this group to become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender starting with the upcoming 2022-23 campaign. The pressure that comes with being a so-called favourite is a real thing and it’ll be up to Jay Woodcroft to ensure he keeps the collective focused on the ultimate prize.
Since taking over behind the bench, it has essentially been smooth sailing for the Toronto native. After being brought in to replace Dave Tippett as the Oilers head coach midway through the 2021-22 season, Woodcroft helped orchestrate an impressive turnaround. Edmonton posted a ridiculous 26-9-3 record after his arrival and went all the way to the Western Conference Final in the playoffs.
It was an impressive run but one that has to be kept in context. During their final 38 games of last season, the Oilers collected points at an eye-popping rate. The top two teams in the league were the Florida Panthers (.744), Colorado Avalanche (.726) and under Woodcroft guidance, Edmonton produced at a 724% clip. In other words, almost everything broke their way.
The chances of that occurring over the course of entire 82-game schedule isn’t likely and while the Oilers roster is improved, there are questions that still need to be answered. To expect a year without ups and down is unrealistic but the advantage this group has is they now believe they can win games. It’s all well and good for players and coaches to say it but until it actually happens, they are just words.
That belief and a renewed confidence will serve this group well but Woodcroft and his staff will play a key role in helping them get where they want to go. While many facets of the Oilers game improved under his and Dave Manson’s direction, the two things that stood out most were player deployment and the players’ willingness to commit to a more discipline system.
Be it due to Tippett’s tenure having run its course, his replacement’s approach, the players having had enough of all the losing or a combination of the three, the results speak for themselves. Everything started to click and the Oilers became one of the best teams in the league. Understandably, most of the so-called experts didn’t immediately buy-in but that changed after Edmonton’s playoff success.
With a roster that includes Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zach Hyman, Evander Kane, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Darnell Nurse, goaltender Jack Campbell now in the mix and a bunch of useful complementary pieces to surround the core, the expectation should be to win the Stanley Cup. It’s not a perfect roster by any means but no roster is and the Oilers have enough high-end skill to close the gap.
The last time Edmonton was viewed as a team that was ready to take the “next step” they crashed and burned following a solid 2016-17 regular season and first-round playoff series victory. The hype surrounding that team is very similar to what we hearing around this group but there are two big differences. This roster is better and their best players are in the prime years of their career.
Remember, despite the decision to fire Tippett when they did, we are talking about an Oilers team that has gone 121-71-17 over the last three NHL seasons. This collection of players is at the point where they will win their share of regular season games. Where the previous head coach was unable to figure things out come playoff time, this new staff exorcised those demons in their first kick at the can.
As we all know, coaches have a shelf life and that’s a card Woodcroft has up his sleeve, as he’s nowhere near that point. He’s just getting started and after last season, these players are fully on board. That buy-in alone gives him a massive edge and it will be imperative for him to use it to his advantage. If he can manage that, these Oilers might just morph into the Stanley Cup contender many think they are.