Coaching change, improved goaltending have saved Oilers’ season

Around the halfway point of the 2021-22 season it looked as if the Edmonton Oilers were on the verge of flushing another prime year of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl down the toilet. After being swept out of the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs a year ago, the Oilers were on the playoff bubble, had all of the same flaws that existed for much of the previous five years, and did not seem to have much urgency in fixing any of them.

The team looked stale under former coach Dave Tippett, they were not getting the goaltending they needed, and everything about the team was dependent on McDavid and Draisaitl being to drag it as far as they could.

Then in early February things started to shift.

That was when Jay Woodcroft took over for Tippett and the Oilers immediately started to play the way a team with two megastars should play.

Under Woodcroft the Oilers are 21-8-3 entering Wednesday’s game against the Dallas Stars and are not only a lock to make the playoffs, they are probably going to get home-ice advantage in the First Round against (presumably) the Los Angeles Kings. It is a pretty dramatic turnaround in a short period of time, with only one major in-season change happening to the roster (the signing of Evander Kane).

So what’s changed so much of the Oilers’ outlook?

Let’s start with the simplest one, and the first thing you can almost always look at when a team sees a sudden change in its results: Goaltending.

The Oilers entered the season with the same goalie duo from a year ago in Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen. It was risky, curious, and not exactly ideal given how much goalie talent was available this offseason. And for the first part of the season, it was every bit the problem it was expected to be.

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But over the past couple of weeks Smith has caught fire and is unbeaten in his past six starts with a pair of shutouts. In his past 10 starts he is 8-1-1 with a .940 save percentage. As a team, the Oilers have a .912 all situations save percentage under Woodcroft (fourth best in the NHL) and a .922 mark at 5-on-5 (seventh best in the NHL).

Under Tippett, those numbers were .896 (25th) and .912 (26th) respectively.

That is a pretty significant difference. You are going to win a lot of hockey games with that level of goaltending no matter what your overall talent level is. Add in the McDavid and Draisaitl duo and you really have something to build on.

The swing in goaltending is probably the most impactful change for the Oilers, but it is not the only change.

The other big adjustment under Woodcroft is the way he has balanced out the team’s lines, giving McDavid, Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (when healthy) their own lines. In previous years the Oilers would consistently play McDavid and Draisaitl together, or put Nugent-Hopkins on the wing with one of them. The result was a team that would play at a playoff level when one of the two superstars was on the ice and play like a lottery team when they were not. When McDavid and Draisaitl played together, that was three different lines that were getting crushed on a nightly basis and the goals for and against numbers were dreadful.

That has changed significantly under Woodcroft.

Under Tippett, the Oilers were being outscored by a 30-49 margin when neither McDavid or Draisaitl was off the ice and 54-73 when McDavid was off the ice during 5-on-5 play. Not anywhere near good enough, and among the worst in the league as far as complementary player performance went.

Under Woodcroft, the Oilers’ goal differential without McDavid and Draisaitl has improved to 22-26 (far more manageable) and 46-41 without McDavid (pretty good). The Athletic’s Allan Mitchell dug deeper into this improvement on Wednesday. You can read about that here (subscription required).

The important thing for the Oilers is this: After struggling to make the playoffs, or mostly failing to do anything once they got there, for the first part of the McDavid and Draisaitl era they for the first time look like a team that has a chance to actually do something. Especially with a likely First Round matchup against a Kings team that is badly shorthanded on defense. They get through that, you might be looking at a Battle of Alberta in the Second Round with Calgary where anything could happen.

The Oilers still have some flaws and question marks that will eventually need to be address in the offseason and beyond. The bottom-six and defense leave something to be desired, and there is no guarantee that Smith continues his recent pace. But Woodcroft seems to have found line combinations that work for his superstars, has injected new life into the team structurally and systematically, and with better goaltending they suddenly look like a team to be paying attention to in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That is not something we have said about the Oilers in a long time.