EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers are making changes after a sluggish start to the NHL season.
Head coach Jay Woodcroft and assistant coach Dave Manson were fired on Sunday, paying the price for a 3-9-1 start to the season that had the Oilers in 15th place in the 16-team Western Conference standings.
Kris Knoblauch of the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack will assume head coaching duties, the Oilers said in a release. He’ll be joined by assistant coach Paul Coffey.
Knoblauch coached Oilers star Connor McDavid for three seasons with the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters.
The Oilers have called a news conference for Sunday afternoon. Knoblauch and Coffey were scheduled to attend with general manager Ken Holland and Jeff Jackson, the team’s CEO of hockey operations.
Knoblauch becomes the organization’s 10th coach in 15 seasons and the fifth since McDavid joined the team in 2015.
Woodcroft went 79-41-13 over parts of three seasons with the Oilers, helping McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Co. to the Western Conference final in 2022, and the second round of last spring’s playoffs.
The 47-year-old succeeded the fired Dave Tippett in February 2022 and went 26-9-3 over the final 38 regular-season games to finish second in the Pacific Division.
Edmonton beat the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs before topping the rival Calgary Flames in the first post-season Battle of Alberta since 1991, but fell to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.
Woodcroft went 50-23-9 in 2022-23 — his only full season in charge — to set up another first-round matchup with the Kings. After getting past Los Angeles a second time, the Oilers fell to the Vegas Golden Knights, who also went on to hoist hockey’s holy grail.
Edmonton entered this season with Cup aspirations of its own, believing that lessons had been learned over the last two springs.
But the Oilers got blown out in their opener 8-1 in Vancouver by the Canucks and then lost the rematch 4-3 on home ice.
Edmonton picked up a 6-1 victory in Nashville over the Predators to briefly steady things, but four straight directionless losses left the club with a 1-5-1 record heading into the showcase Heritage Classic outdoor game against the Calgary Flames.
The Oilers scored a convincing 5-2 win over the Flames, leaving fans believing the team may have turned a corner but four straight losses followed, including Thursday’s 3-2 defeat to the San Jose Sharks, in a battle of the two worst teams in the NHL.
“I don’t really know what to say,” Draisaitl said Thursday night. “We tend to outshoot other teams consistently, probably out-chance other teams consistently. Not in sync right now.”
A 4-1 road win over the Seattle Kraken on Saturday night wasn’t enough to save Woodcroft’s job.
Woodcroft had a plethora of offensive weapons in Edmonton with McDavid, Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Evander Kane at his disposal. He also had defencemen Darnell Nurse, Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard.
“We can’t really be looking at the standings right now,” said forward Nugent-Hopkins, the organization’s longest-tenured player. “Just because it’s the start of the season it feels a little different. But we’re the same team that we’ve always been. It feels weird right now.”
Even weirder? McDavid — whose 153 points last season were the most of any player since 1995-96 — was held off the scoresheet against the the past two games.
McDavid did miss time last month with an undisclosed upper-body injury but still has 10 points in 11 games, while Draisaitl leads the team with 15.
Still, only six teams have averaged fewer goals than the Oilers’ 2.69.
Keeping the puck out of the Oilers’ net, however, proved to be the biggest challenge.
Jack Campbell was signed to a US$25-million, five-year contract in free agency in July 2022 after a solid stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but never came close to replicating those numbers in the Alberta capital.
Rookie netminder Stuart Skinner took over the crease last season and was named to his first all-star game only to run out of gas in the playoffs.
The hope was that the duo could work in tandem in 2023-24, but both goaltender have struggled. Campbell was waived on Nov. 7 and is now tending goal for the Bakersfield Condors, Edmonton’s American Hockey League affiliate.
Woodcroft was in his fourth season as head coach of the Condors when he got the Oilers’ job.
The Toronto native owned a 105-71-21 regular-season record with the Condors and captured the AHL’s Pacific Division playoff title in 2020-21. The team also won the division title in 2019.
Prior to Bakersfield, Woodcroft was an assistant coach with the Oilers for three seasons, preceded by seven seasons with the San Jose Sharks.
Woodcroft won a Stanley Cup in 2008 as a video coach with the Detroit Red Wings. He also helped guide the Sharks to back-to-back Western Conference final appearances in 2010 and 2011.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2023.
With files from the Associated Press
The Canadian Press