Can coaching change get Oilers on right path to playoffs, trade deadline?

Can coaching change get Oilers on right path to playoffs, trade deadline?
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Just about every signal indicated that Ken Holland didn’t want to do this. But increasingly desperate times call for even more desperate measures. So, Dave Tippett’s run as Oilers head coach is over, leaving Jay Woodcroft to step up from the team’s AHL affiliate.

Whether you glance long or short-term, things look awfully grim for the Edmonton Oilers right now.

That said, it’s wise not to panic. Just look at the Oilers’ rivals in Calgary, and you can see how drastically fortunes can rise and fall. It never hurts to remember “Hey, at least we still have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.”

You can also consider the extremes of the Oilers’ season, and … actually, let Ken Holland take that one:

 

Uh, right. Great time to get people thinking about toilets.

So, can Jay Woodcroft, Ken Holland, and the Oilers clean up their messes? Or did Edmonton already flush its future away?

Let’s try to sniff out a situation that really stinks.

Possible impact of Oilers coaching change from Tippett to Woodcroft

Ken Holland is a Hockey Hall of Famer. He might also end up in the Faint Praise Hall of Fame by comparing Jay Woodcroft to, um, Jeff Blashill?

Truly, this is one of the funniest comparisons I’ve seen in a while. It really hammers home the feeling that Ken Holland is out to lunch.

If you’re comparing Jay Woodcroft to promoted AHL coaches, wouldn’t you want to bring up Jon Cooper? Along with being the longest-tenured coach in the NHL and one of its brightest minds, Cooper also succeeded in the AHL.

If that’s too lofty, Dallas Eakins inspires more hope than Jeff Blashill.

But maybe Ken Holland’s just trying to keep already-low expectations down? You can only take so much from the Bakersfield Condors’ four seasons under Woodcroft, particularly because they never advanced beyond the second round.

Youth movement, system tweaks?

Yet, beyond Ken Holland’s comical comparison, there are some reasons to hope that Woodcroft can unlock some minor quick fixes for the Oilers.

For one thing, Woodcroft doesn’t seem to have some strange blood oath going with Mike Smith, which may differentiate him from Tippett. While you don’t want to ask for too much from 23-year-old Stuart Skinner, Tippett’s default setting was asking for too much from a banged-up Mike Smith who is almost 40.

Generally, promoting an AHL head coach translates to better opportunities for young players. That could be a boon for Skinner, rising defenseman Evan Bouchard, and others.

Twitter user @bcurlock shared fascinating insight on how Woodcroft’s systems may differ from Tippett, and how those tweaks may affect Draisaitl and McDavid:

That thread also notes Woodcroft being amenable to analytics, which sounds promising after the “Corski and Fenski” era under Tippett.

As of Thursday, playoff projection models spit out a wide array of odds for the Oilers. Some hover around 40-percent, others closer to 60.

Overall, though, the point is clear. While the Oilers probably should’ve changed from Tippett sooner, there’s still time for Woodcroft to help turn things around.

At least in terms of salvaging a playoff spot this season.

Holland has Oilers mired in a salary cap mess, complicating trade deadline picture

But what about the long-term future of the Oilers? That’s when things get dire, at least if “at least we still have Draisaitl and McDavid” only calms so many nerves.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s one of the darker elements to sticking with a Ken Holland or Marc Bergevin for too long. As the years progress, they make more and more long-term bets, and sometimes the moves are short-sided.

So, even if a new GM comes in, they’re saddled with the mistakes of the past. It’s a sobering reality for an Oilers team that keeps plunging deeper and deeper into salary cap hell.

[Some might say it prompted them to sell a piece of their souls]

Cap Friendly estimates the Oilers’ 2022-23 spending at about $74.36 million with just 14 roster spots covered. If the salary cap remains the same — and it’s unlikely to climb that much — they’d only have about $7M in cap space. Even if you assume Oscar Klefbom ($4.167M) and others go to LTIR, that’s a dire situation.

With Darnell Nurse‘s contract extension kicking in at $9.5M per year, the Oilers are committing $23.4M to Nurse, Bouchard, Duncan Keith, Tyson Barrie, and Cody Ceci next season. There’s waste among the forward group, too, particularly with Zack Kassian carrying a $3.25M cap hit through 2023-24.

All of this bloat leaves the Oilers with less room to operate at the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline, and possibly also in free agency. On Thursday, Ken Holland reiterated the idea that the Oilers might not do much at the trade deadline.

On one hand, gambling on rentals would show that the Oilers realize that you only get so many swings at the fence with Draisaitl and McDavid in their primes.

Yet, things are so clogged up, it’s fair to wonder if the Oilers might focus on a different trading method: bribing rebuilders to take on problem contracts.

How much would it cost to bribe the Coyotes to absorb contracts like those of Barrie, Ceci, and Kassian? Most likely, Holland wouldn’t want to admit defeat with such deals, but a new GM may explore such avenues.

Holland appears short on answers

Long-term, it’s difficult to believe that Ken Holland has the vision to lead the Oilers out of this mess. Unspool this thread once again, and you’ll see a GM who whiffs time and time again at gauging the value of supporting cast members.

Recent NHL hires hint at once-dusty teams at least gesturing at progress. The Canadiens are trying to learn something from the Panthers, and the Canucks are moving away from the “200 Hockey Men” model.

Even the brightest and freshest hockey minds would struggle to clean up the mess the Oilers have on their hands. But it sure doesn’t look like Ken Holland is the hockey person with the right answers.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

MVP Matthew Tkachuk lifts Atlantic to NHL All-Star Game win

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SUNRISE, Fla. – Florida’s Matthew Tkachuk was right at home at the NHL All-Star Game.

Again.

Detroit’s Dylan Larkin had a hat trick, Toronto’s Mitch Marner had three assists and the Atlantic Division topped the Central Division 7-5 in the All-Star Game final on Saturday.

All-Star Game MVP Matthew Tkachuk – playing alongside his brother Brady Tkachuk of the Ottawa Senators – had seven points on the day, after a five-point outburst in a semifinal win over the Metropolitan Division. Larkin had five goals in the Atlantic’s two games.

“We wanted to get a win for the home crowd, the fans,” Montreal’s Nick Suzuki said. “They did a good job of cheering on the Atlantic Division. We just wanted to put on a good show for them.”

And for the MVP, winning in front of Panthers fans meant more than just winning.

“It’s been an honor to play in front of them this whole year and it’s great that the other players in the league can see what a great place this is to play,” Matthew Tkachuk said. “I’m as happy as can be here.”

Arizona’s Clayton Keller, Dallas’ Jason Robertson, Colorado teammates Cale Makar, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen all had goals for the Central in the final. Makar also had two assists.

It was the first time the Atlantic won the All-Star Game, after six previous tries in the divisional format. The 11 players – nine skaters and two goalies – on the Atlantic roster split $1 million for the win.

“It was so much fun,” said Larkin, who had five goals in the two games. “I’m proud of how we won it. What a great group of guys … it was just a great weekend.”

Matthew Tkachuk has now been on the winning team in both of his All-Star appearances, and both times, he enjoyed the comforts of home. He helped the Pacific win the 2020 All-Star title in St. Louis, his hometown and one of the many spots that his father – Keith Tkachuk, who was in the crowd Saturday – played during his career.

“I’ve been very fortunate, the two that I’ve been in that I know the ins and the outs of everything that goes on away from the rink,” Matthew Tkachuk said. “It just made it so much more comfortable for me and extra special.”

And this one truly had home-ice advantage. Matthew Tkachuk – the former Calgary standout who picked Florida this past offseason, despite much speculation that he would be going to St. Louis – had three goals and two assists in the Atlantic’s 10-6 win over the Metropolitan in the second semifinal.

It was 3-0 Atlantic after the first half of the 20-minute final; all games under this All-Star format are 3-on-3, 20 minutes in length with a brief break after 10 minutes. The lead got to 4-0 early in the second half of the final, giving the Atlantic 10 consecutive goals; it trailed 6-4 in the semifinal before closing on a 6-0 run.

Larkin scored with 1:06 left to make it 6-2, the first of five goals in a frantic finish.

“It’s been a blast,” said Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who scored for the Atlantic with 36 seconds left to make it 7-3. “I met a lot of great people.”

NOTES: The NHL gets right back to play on Monday with six games, including a home game for Florida – meaning it’ll be a quick turnaround for the arena. … The Central Division is now the only one yet to win an All-Star Game in this format. The Pacific has three wins, the Metropolitan has three wins and now the Atlantic has one. … Florida was supposed to host this game in 2021, only to have it canceled by the pandemic. The Panthers hosted All-Star weekend in 2023. … Attendance was a sellout, 19,250.

SEMIFINAL 1: CENTRAL 6, PACIFIC 4

Keller had two goals and an assist, MacKinnon scored twice and the Central moved into the title matchup. St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko had a goal and three assists for the Central. Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson had two goals, while San Jose’s Erik Karlsson and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid also scored for the Pacific.

SEMIFINAL 2: ATLANTIC 10, METROPOLITAN 6

The teams combined for a record-tying – in the 3-on-3 era, anyway – 16 goals. Matthew Tkachuk had three goals and two assists, tying a single-game record for the format. Larkin scored twice and Brady Tkachuk had a goal and three assists for the Atlantic. Columbus’ Johnny Gaudreau had three goals for the Metropolitan. Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby had two goals and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin had the other.

UP NEXT

The next NHL All-Star weekend is Feb. 2-3, 2024 in Toronto.

Panthers offer Sarah Nurse deal to lead girls hockey program

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers are trying to sign a high-scoring forward who has an Olympic gold medal and two world championships, with hopes of getting the deal done in the coming days.

If it happens, she won’t be playing for the Panthers.

Sarah Nurse, the Canadian forward who had a highlight-reel goal against the New York Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin during the NHL’s All-Star Skills Competition, has the chance to run the Panthers’ new program designed to get more girls playing hockey.

Florida president Matthew Caldwell offered the job to Nurse publicly – very publicly, at a lectern, with a microphone, before a crowd of onlookers. And he was serious.

“I’m going to embarrass you, but we’re going to offer you a job today,” Caldwell told Nurse, who was seated in the crowd. “We want you to be the face of our girls program at the War Memorial. So, are you in? On the spot? We don’t deal with agents, OK. I’m a tough negotiator.”

The idea to hire Nurse was first floated to Caldwell by Melissa Fitzgerald. She’s the general manager for the War Memorial, which is the two-rink facility being refurbished by the team and will become its practice headquarters.

“We’ve been talking about it for a few weeks,” Caldwell told The Associated Press. “Our youth hockey team kind of brought it up as a joke to me, but I said, `Let’s think big. We’re building this huge facility. Let’s put our money where our mouth is.”‘

The only part Caldwell was less than serious about with Nurse was how the Panthers don’t deal with agents. He spoke with Nurse’s representative, Thomas Houlton, after the event.

Houlton did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He and Caldwell spoke for about 15 minutes after the event, which was attended by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Panthers stars Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk, and dozens of kids who got to play ball hockey afterward.

Nurse played for Canada’s world-champion teams in 2021 and 2022, along with Canada’s Olympic gold winners at the Beijing Games last year.

She was one of five women’s players from USA Hockey and Team Canada – the two most dominant women’s national teams in the world – who were part of the skills events. She wore custom skates highlighting Black History month and the Black Girl Hockey Club, a nonprofit focused on getting more Black girls and women into the sport.

She used a move made famous by Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg when he helped Sweden win gold at the 1994 Olympics against Shesterkin, a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie.

U.S. star Hilary Knight didn’t think Nurse’s goal should have surprised anyone, saying, “she’s a top scorer.”

Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

ovechkin all star
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SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there.

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

WELCOME HOME, LU

Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

Luongo, who was regaled by “Luuuuu” chants from the Florida fans all night, was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

“You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design depicted his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks. They were a gift from CCM for his making the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“I’d never put the pads on since I retired,” Luongo said. “First time I put them on was this week. Felt pretty good.”

He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night. But if there’s more alumni games, Luongo suggested he might jump back into the net.

“It back some good memories tonight to be in the blue paint, hearing the chants,” Luongo said. “Maybe one day we’ll hear them again.”

REMEMBERING JIMMY

Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

ANTHEM POISE

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

SLAP SHOTS

Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

“Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.