Coaching change, improved goaltending have saved Oilers’ season

Edmonton Oilers
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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.

[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Panthers in first place; Blues climbing]

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.


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    Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

    The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

    Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

    Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

    Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

    The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.