What the Maple Leafs can learn from the Edmonton Oilers

Photo credit:Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 month ago
I’m going to start off by saying there isn’t too much the Leafs can learn from the Oilers. Have Connor McDavid in your lineup so you can cover-up a multitude of mistakes. That’s a good learning. Maybe in a couple of years the Leafs can revisit that.
For now, the learning the Leafs might want to consider is the benefit of the coaching change bump.
I’m going to start off by saying this is absolutely meant to undermine the work that Kris Knoblauch has done with the Oilers since his arrival. Paul Coffey too. In a world of goldfish brains it’s important to remember that the Oilers aren’t that far removed from Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson being the heroes who save the Oilers season and improved their defence. Neither of them were the long term answers for what ails the Oilers and their current regime isn’t either, but there is a benefit in a new voice calling the shots and there is a benefit to good kick in the ass for the players via their coach departing.
The Oilers started this season with a 3-9-1 record with a .269 points percentage, they have gone 20-6-0 since that point for a .769 points percentage and they are now back in a playoff spot as a result of that. Now given that Jay Woodcroft had a .665 points percentage with a nearly identical version of the Oilers last season, save for the late season addition of Mattias Ekholm, not only has Knoblauch a huge bump this season, he’s provided them a bump that would have the Oilers as the top team in the NHL if it had started at the beginning of the year.
One example doesn’t necessarily make it worth doing, so let’s look at the hiring of Jay Woodcroft as it is an example that much more closely mirrors the situation the Leafs are in. At the time of his firing Dave Tippett had the Oilers at a 23-18-3 record through 44 games and they had 49 points. Really not that far off where Sheldon Keefe is with the Leafs today. Tippett was struggling with a tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith and that duo might as well be Ilya Samsonov and Martin Jones. Tippett was canned and Woodcroft hired. The result was a 26-9-3 run (.723 points percentage) that moved the Oilers up to second place in their division and the team went on a run to the Conference Finals.
Now some of this comes down to how players are going to respond to their coach being fired. And clearly Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl take the firing as a reflection on them. We’ve seen Connor McDavid respond strongly this year and Leon Draisaitl has gone strong as well. Both players also have a tendency to elevate themselves a great deal come playoff time in a way we haven’t seen from the Leafs core group, so whether the Leafs core will respond the same way remains to be seen. I guess we could look back to when the last time the Leafs dealt with a coach firing and how they responded.
The Leafs had a 9-10-4 record (.478 points percentage) under Mike Babcock at the time of his firing. Sheldon Keefe came in and went on a 27-15-5 run for the rest of the season (.627 points percentage). The Leafs ended up laying an egg against Columbus in the playoffs but it was certainly a noticeable bump and the first 10 games under Keefe (6-4-0) showed the immediate impact.
It goes without saying that the coach change bump doesn’t occur every time and we’re seeing that in places like Ottawa, Minnesota, and St. Louis right now. It’s also fair to say that with the exception of Minnesota, no one was expecting much of those teams this year and there seem to be some largely organizational issues at play with the Wild as well. Still firing the coach isn’t a silver bullet or something to be done on a whim and there needs to be a reason for it. Middling success of a strong performing team certainly seems like the start of a reason but there is a bizarre desire from NHL GMs to see their team hit rock bottom before making the call.
With the number of areas of concern that it looks like the Leafs will need to address heading into the trade deadline it seems like an opportunity to look at someone who is central to all of those issues as the person to replace. If the team responds in meaningful ways to a new coach the trade deadline can be about loading up a talented roster rather than putting out fires on one.
As for Sheldon Keefe, the Leafs have provided him with the cushion of that oddly timed contract extension that will soften the blow to the team moving on. And with a willing GM in Kyle Dubas just a few hours to the south ready to offer him work at some point it’s just a matter of the coaching carousel continuing to spin. Keefe had a .674 points percentage coming into this season with the Leafs and while .610 is something most NHL coaches would be happy with, it’s still a step back and based on numbers inflated by overtime and shootout results. Toronto’s 13 wins in regulation are the 8th worst in the league and when you consider that playoff games are 5 aside the whole way through, it becomes a more concerning number for a team with playoff aspirations.
The Leafs should learn from the Oilers and make this change, the same way the Oilers should have learned from the Leafs and not signed Jack Campbell or realized that Cody Ceci in your top four equals a bad time. I guess nobody is perfect.

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