Jay Woodcroft went from a prominent role behind an NHL bench to riding the buses in the American Hockey League.
Now back in the big leagues as head coach of the Edmonton Oilers, Woodcroft says he wouldn’t be where he is today without the chance to hone his skills in the minors.
Woodcroft and Oilers general manager and president of hockey operations Ken Holland addressed the media on Wednesday, a day after the coach and the NHL club agreed to a three-year contract extension.
The 45-year-old Toronto native was named interim Oilers head coach midway through this past season after Dave Tippett was fired. It was Woodcroft’s return to hockey’s top professional tier after three and a half seasons as head coach of the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors.
He had been an assistant coach at the NHL level with San Jose (2008-15) and Edmonton (2015-18), but wanted a chance to run his own bench.
“For me, the one thing I didn’t have on my resume at that time was head coaching experience,” Woodcroft said. “When I was presented with the opportunity to go to Bakersfield, it allowed me to grow in a different way.
“I think the American Hockey League is a heck of a league. I learned a lot about myself and what my beliefs were during my time in Bakersfield.”
Woodcroft posted a 105-71-21 record with Edmonton’s AHL affiliate and led the team to Pacific Division championships in 2019 and 2021.
He was promoted to lead the Oilers bench Feb. 10 after Tippett was fired following a 7-13-3 run that had the Oilers sitting fifth in the Pacific Division.
Edmonton went 26-9-3 with Woodcroft at the helm for the final 38 games of the regular season – the second-best record in the NHL over that span – and finished second in the Pacific Division.
They defeated the Los Angeles Kings and archrival Calgary Flames in the playoffs before being swept by Colorado in the Western Conference final.
“Obviously we’re in a results-oriented business, and when Jay took over I think we were six or seven points out of a playoff spot,” Holland said.
“And obviously we went to the final four. So No. 1, Jay delivered. He came in made the decisions that were needed to be made, and the team responded and played at a high level.”
With elite forwards Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl finding another gear in the playoffs – McDavid still led playoff scoring with 33 points before Wednesday’s Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final between the Avalanche and Tampa Bay, and Draisaitl was second with 32 – the Oilers advanced to the conference final for the first time since advancing to the Cup final in the 2005-06 season.
Asked about the Oilers’ success in 2021-22, Woodcroft replied: “I don’t think anyone is satisfied with just that.”
“I think we all understand that there’s a whole lot of work that’s going to be required for us to have the season we want to have next year,” he said. “Some people would call it a successful year for us, and we’re driven to take the next step. Ask ourselves hard questions, be open to the seeking of answers to try to push us forward.”
Woodcroft did not confirm if any of his assistants, including Dave Manson, who joined the Oilers with Woodcroft from Bakersfield, would be back next year. He said he wanted to talk to them first.
“Over the last four years, Dave and I have done a lot of coaching together, and we’ve done some winning together,” Woodcroft said.
“I feel very comfortable with him but I’m looking forward to sitting down with him, as I am with all the coaches and getting their thoughts and seeing where they’re at.”