The Edmonton Oilers are off to a fantastic start to the 2019-20 campaign, using a roster that, James Neal notwithstanding, isn't that much different than the one that fell flat just last year. One big change, however, came behind the bench with the installation of veteran coach Dave Tippett. And if you want to know how respected Tippett is around the hockey world, just talk to those who live the game.
I was reminded of this the other day while talking to a player agent – he loved how Tippett was coaching the Oilers. Tippett is known for his structure and his defensive acumen behind the bench and while the agent referenced this, he also noted that Tippett trusts his players and lets them be creative on the offensive end. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are playing some of their best hockey right now (and that’s a pretty high bar to clear, given both of their pedigrees).
What is interesting to me is the fact McDavid, Draisaitl and linemate Zack Kassian have lined up for more defensive faceoffs than any other forwards on the team. Last year, McDavid was behind Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in that category (Draisaitl was a leader last year too) and maybe it’s too small a sample size for this year, but it is intriguing to see Tippett’s deployment. Clearly he knows McDavid can handle anything and is willing to trust No. 97 to play as much as he can, in whatever situations are present.
Now, the Oilers are still struggling in terms of possession hockey (their Corsi For percentage is near the bottom of the NHL), but their PDO is in line with normalcy, so we can’t necessarily say Edmonton has just been lucky so far. What we are seeing is McDavid and Draisaitl scoring at career-high paces and a team that is thriving despite the early-season loss of top-four defenseman Adam Larsson to injury.
And I don’t want this to come off as a condemnation of Tippett’s predecessor, Todd McLellan – he had a pretty good track record before he came to Edmonton – but instead let’s just look at the positive improvements Tippett has brought to town with him. This is a coach who had already proven he could help a team overachieve; the greatest example being the 2011-2012 Phoenix Coyotes – a team without a point-per-game player that nonetheless went to the Western Conference final. They did so with Mike Smith in net and now the veteran netminder is helping the Oilers get back on track in a battery with the so-far undefeated Mikko Koskinen.
Smith isn’t the only link to that Coyotes squad – Tippett also brought in former Phoenix lieutenant Jim Playfair as an associate coach. Tippett and Playfair have a long work history together and Playfair has tons of NHL experience behind the bench as a defensive coach. Last year, the Oilers had one of the worst penalty-killing units in the NHL. So far this season, they have one of the best. That’s a nice checkmark for Playfair.
Tippett also brought in former University of Michigan assistant coach Brian Wiseman, whose first pro job was as a video coach for the Dallas Stars – when Tippett was there. So the man knows who he likes and clearly keeps tabs on them.
While there is often a temptation to slot in veteran coaches as being set in their ways, Tippett has clearly kept himself intellectually curious. He was helping Seattle imagine its new infrastructure as the expansion franchise took its first baby steps, taking on a senior advisor role before getting hired by Edmonton. Here is a man whose first NHL head coaching job came in 2002-03, finding incredible success with a franchise that seemed close for years, but just couldn’t turn a corner. McDavid and Draisaitl are leading the charge, but they’re getting pretty good support from their new coach.
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