Woodcroft has Oilers one win from WCF: 'Unbelievable job to turn our season around'
Jay Woodcroft was slicing tape for a team packed with future Hall of Famers.
As he went about his work as the Detroit Red Wings' video coach, a job secured at 28 years old ahead of the 2005-06 season, the Toronto native soaked up all the information available.
One of the many things that stuck with Woodcroft was how athletes at their peak — Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg among them back then — both required and craved guidance to navigate the razor-thin margins of NHL life.
"They just wanted to make sure that the information coming their way was good information," he said. "That's what I learned about the best players at that time."
Now interim head coach of the Edmonton Oilers, a team also loaded with talent led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on the cusp of making its first Western Conference final since 2006, the messages and how they're delivered have changed as the game's evolved.
The demand for knowledge has not.
"The best players in the world still want to be led — they want good information," Woodcroft added. "I just want to make sure that we're communicating good things, and that the information that we're giving our players is exactly what they need.
"And nothing they don't."
Woodcroft has pretty much pulled all the right strings over the last 3 1/2 months in Alberta's capital.
Promoted to the top job from the club's American Hockey League affiliate in Bakersfield, Calif., on Feb. 10 after Edmonton fired Dave Tippett with the Oilers sitting six points out of a playoff spot, the 45-year-old went 26-9-3 to close out the regular-season schedule.
Woodcroft's detail-oriented, positive approach has resonated with a roster that, despite its top-end skill, has stumbled badly in past big moments as it searched for the right mix and balance.
McDavid, whose Oilers lead the Flames 3-1 in their second-round series and can close things out in Game 5 on Thursday in Calgary, said the message delivered by his rookie bench boss resonated from the moment he walked into Rogers Place.
"A little bit of a younger voice," said the 25-year-old superstar, the playoff scoring leader with an outrageous 25 points in 11 games. "He's brought a lot of energy and a lot of passion to the job. We fed off that. The message he preaches is something that I think we all agree with.
"Something that we all can buy into."
Veteran goaltender Mike Smith praised Woodcroft's ability to communicate concisely.
"Woody has done an unbelievable job," he said. "A details coach who gets his message across and is very clear what the objective is.
"Everybody knows their job."
Standing at the podium in the Oilers Hall of Fame Room adjacent to Edmonton's 104 Avenue where rabid fans can watch media availabilities in what has the feel of a zoo exhibit after playoff games, Woodcroft will parrot his own messages about getting something positive out of each day with an eye toward being a little better than the last.
"Our team has a very clear understanding of what it takes for us to be successful," he said. "We have a clear understanding of what our team identity is.
"But I don't think we're anywhere near playing towards our full potential."
Woodcroft's journey to within a victory of claiming the first playoff battle of Alberta in 31 years included three seasons cutting tape in Detroit — a job that also included working alongside Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman in his final NHL season.
"There were guys on that team that were 10 and 12 years older than I was," he said.
Mike Babcock was head coach, while Todd McLellan and Paul MacLean were assistants as part of a group that would hoist the Stanley Cup in 2008.
"That coaching staff did a lot of really, really good things," Woodcroft said. "It was cutting edge for its time. I think a lot of the way the game is played today is based on things that happened in that coaching room.
"And for me, I was at the entry-level position, so my ears were open."
Woodcroft would follow McLellan to the San Jose Sharks and serve seven seasons, including some with deep playoff runs, as an assistant before following his mentor to Edmonton in 2015.
He would shift gears to become the head coach in Bakersfield for three successful campaigns — including a division title in 2020-21 — before eventually replacing Tippett in February.
Woodcroft said his experience at different levels within Edmonton's organization over the last seven years means he's had a front-row seat to the maturation of players in both the minors and the NHL.
"I've seen all of those young men grow," he said. "They're growing into their bodies and in their skill sets, but (also) intellectually and emotionally and mentally in their approach to the game.
"I've seen not only growth from my first experience with each player … I've seen growth in the last three months."
Woodcroft, who played six professional seasons before turning to coaching, said he and assistant Dave Manson — a veteran of more than 1,100 NHL games as a hard-nosed defenceman — found a group in Edmonton open and willing to try a new approach.
"We've slowly built our game," Woodcroft said.
The Oilers beat McLellan in the first round when Edmonton topped the Los Angeles Kings in seven games, and now have two-time Cup winner Darryl Sutter's Flames on the ropes.
"What's going on here is not about me," Woodcroft said. "It's about us trying to play towards our full potential. It's about our team doing what it needs to do in order to take a step.
"That's where our focus is."
Smith said Woodcroft deserves a lot more credit than the coach is willing to accept.
"He's done an unbelievable job to turn our season around and put us in a position to be successful," he said.
"It's now about the players going out there and doing it."
It's a formula that has Oilers fans dreaming big after decades of heartache.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2022.
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