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McLellan opts for familiarity

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers

Photo by Getty Images.

EDMONTON, AB - Jay Woodcroft wasn’t destined to play in the National Hockey League. He’d be the first to tell you that. But he made up for his lack of elite-level skill with his passion for the game and a thirst for knowledge. He almost knew right away, while still playing, that he’d become a coach some day.

“As a young player, I was always interested in why things happened on the ice,” said Woodcroft. “I prided myself on being a student of the game. While I didn’t have the skill to make it to the NHL as a player, I tried to take that attribute of always trying to learn and study the game into my coaching career. As a young man, I was very interested in passing on my passion to the next generation of players. I did a lot of things with younger players through hockey schools and learning the skills side of coaching as well. That fostered a real passion for coaching and a real interest in getting into this side of the game. I was doing that as a player up into my late 20s and the opportunity arose to join Mike (Babcock) and his staff in Detroit and I jumped at it. I’m very grateful I did because I’ve learned a ton in my 10 years in the NHL.”

Woodcroft, 38, was one of two assistant coaches named to Todd McLellan and the Oilers coaching staff last week. After a playing career that saw him spend four years at the University of Alabama-Huntsville and a few more in minor pro, Woodcroft became a video coach in Detroit for three years, with McLellan as an assistant, under Mike Babcock. He has spent the last seven years as an assistant with McLellan and the San Jose Sharks.

Woodcroft shapes his coaching style after what he learned as a youngster, evolving it after years of tutelage under some heavy hitters in the coaching world.

“I’m a fortunate person because I’ve been around some of the best coaches in the game. I started my coaching career working under Mike Babcock in Detroit and worked alongside Paul MacLean and Todd McLellan there as well,” said Woodcroft. “Then I moved on to San Jose and worked with some great coaches as well. I would say that I’ve had some really good influences along the way.

“I believe in understanding what today’s player is going through, what today’s player needs from a communication perspective. Ultimately, I believe hockey is a relationship game. It’s important to build relationships with everybody around the team, but specifically the players. Once you’ve built that relationship with the player, then you can do things to help take the player along in his game and help them progress in their career. I’ve had some big influences along the way that have had great impact on me as a coach and I look forward to continue to grow in Edmonton working with the staff Todd has put together.”

From left to right, Jay Woodcroft, Todd McLellan and Jim Johnson. Photo by Getty.

When McLellan was building his staff in Edmonton, he went with people he is comfortable with and trusts. In addition to Woodcroft, McLellan hired Jim Johnson as an Assistant. Johnson has been with McLellan each of the last three seasons in San Jose.

“Obviously, familiarity is real important,” McLellan told Bob Stauffer on Oilers Now. “When you’re going into a situation like Edmonton, where both general manager and head coach are new, I’d like to have some people around me that understand how I operate, how I work and keep me organized, keep me focused and can communicate the same message that I’d like to bring to the organization. Jay Woodcroft and Jim Johnson can do that. We’ve been together many years.”

McLellan is excited to keep continuity with Woodcroft, who has been with him for a decade.

“Jay Woodcroft is a 10-year mate, if you want to call him that, of mine,” said McLellan. “Three years in Detroit and we won a Stanley Cup together, then seven pretty good years in San Jose. Very detailed, extremely strong work ethic, no stone unturned, and the ability to create strong relationships with players. I don’t want to label him as the ‘mop-up man’ but when thing aren’t going good he’s the one who can pick guys up, work on their confidence, create video montages to confirm what they do well and get them back on track and a lot of good skill development.”

Woodcroft is eager to continue his coaching relationship with McLellan, accepting a new challenge in Edmonton.

“I was very humbled by the opportunity presented by the organization and also the opportunity to work with Todd. For me, it was a no-brainer,” said Woodcroft. “I’m excited about the history of the Oilers and all the exciting things that are happening around the team right now.”

In addition to Woodcroft, Johnson will join McLellan behind the bench this upcoming season. Unlike Woodcroft, Johnson played 829 games in the NHL as a defenceman. In addition to his three years with the Sharks, Johnson has coached the U.S. Junior National Team, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Washington Capitals as an assistant. He was the head coach of the Norfolk Admirals for 22 games in 2009-10, finishing with a record of 15-5-2.

Johnson specializes in coaching up defencemen.

“Jim Johnson is a former player, which I think is important,” said McLellan. “He played an important position of defence. Especially in our organization right now, we’ve got some work to do on the backend with existing players and players who are on their way in. Communicates very well. Has a real good handle on young players. His son has just finished playing college hockey at Minnesota-Duluth and he’s used to that generation. I think he’ll do an extremely good job for our team.”

Familiarity amongst the staff is good, but this is unfamiliar territory. Together, Woodcroft and Johnson accept the challenge of changing the fortunes of a young Oilers roster that has struggled in the standings. Oilers General Manger Peter Chiarelli has done work by adding to that roster, but now the coaches set out to develop the young talent Edmonton has stockpiled with high picks and trades.

“I’ve seen the growth and the development of the prospects and the younger players within the Oilers organization, over the last few years specifically,” said Woodcroft. “It’s quite obvious that there are some real good players and good pieces to work with. I know that this coaching staff coming in understands that there’s a lot of work to do but we’re excited about the people that are in the organization, both on and off the ice. There’s a real sense of optimism and we’re looking forward to getting to work with everybody.”

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