Since entering the NHL in 1979 following its merger with the World Hockey Association (WHA), the Edmonton Oilers have replaced their head coach six times during the season, most recently in 2021-22 when Jay Woodcroft took over from Dave Tippett.
Each mid-season coaching change was preceded by a prolonged slump, and in each instance, the Oilers’ points percentage increased under the new coach. Here are the six times in franchise history that coaches changed during the season.
1980-81: Glen Sather Replaces Bryan Watson
Glen Sather coached the Oilers in their inaugural NHL season before he decided to focus solely on his role as president/general manager and handed the coaching reigns to Bryan Watson. But after just 18 games, Sather snatched them back, relieving Watson of his duties on Nov. 22, 1980.
The Oilers had started the season 4-9-5, and at the time of Watson’s dismissal, they were on a stretch where they had won just twice in 12 games and were below the playoff cutline. Under Sather, the Oilers went 25-26-11 and qualified for the postseason, where they swept the Montreal Canadiens in a shocking preliminary series upset.
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Sather remained behind the Oilers’ bench for another eight seasons, guiding the team to four Stanley Cups before once again stepping down to concentrate entirely on being GM. Lead assistant John Muckler was promoted to head coach for 1989-90, and in his first season, he shepherded the Oilers to another Stanley Cup victory. Muckler left Edmonton to take the Buffalo Sabres’ head coach job in 1991 and was succeeded by assistant Ted Green.
1993-94: Sather Replaces Ted Green
After more than four years working exclusively as president/GM, Sather once again summoned himself out of coaching retirement after the Oilers began the 1993-94 season by going 3-18-3. Edmonton had won just once in the previous 23 games and had the fewest points in the entire league when Sather fired Green on Nov. 26, 1993, and appointed himself head coach.
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The Oilers were a significantly more successful team with Sather at the helm, going 22-27-11 following the change behind the bench. But the Oilers had been buried so deep by its dreadful start that they still finished the season at the bottom of the Pacific Division standings.
Sather stepped down as coach following the season and began searching for Edmonton’s next coach. The GM finally named his replacement on Aug. 2, 1994, hiring George Burnett, who had spent the previous two seasons coaching the Cape Breton Oilers, Edmonton’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate.
1994-95: Ron Low Replaces Burnett
The 1994-95 season started more than three months late and with a reduced schedule of just 48 games, following a lockout that stretched from Oct. 1, 1994, to Jan. 11, 1995.
It was under these irregular circumstances that Burnett debuted in Edmonton, but the rookie NHL coach never did find his footing, lasting all of 35 games before getting fired on April 6, 1995, after Edmonton had suffered a seventh consecutive loss to drop to 12-20-3. Burnett’s tumultuous tenure was marked by stripping team captain Shayne Corson of the ‘C.’
Assistant coach Ron Low assumed command for the remainder of the season. Edmonton went 5-7-1 in its final 13 games and ended the season with the Western Conference’s second-worst record, missing the postseason for a third consecutive year. Low would go on to serve as Oilers head coach for the next four seasons, guiding Edmonton to playoff berths in 1997, 1998, and 1999.
2014-15: Todd Nelson replaces Dallas Eakins
On Dec. 15, 2014, Oilers general manager Craig McTavish made the team’s first in-season coaching change in nearly two decades, firing Dallas Eakins after they had won just once over the previous 16 games and dropped to last place in the NHL’s overall standings.
Eakins was 31 games into his second season as bench boss and ended his Oilers tenure with a 36-63-14 record, giving him the worst points percentage (.381) in franchise history among those who coached more than 82 games.
Todd Nelson, the then-head coach of the Oklahoma City Barons, the Oilers’ AHL affiliate, was promoted to interim head coach of the NHL club. The Oilers failed to win their next six games following the change behind the bench and managed just two wins in the 14 games immediately preceding Eakins’ dismissal. They ended the season last in the Western Conference.
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Though he went just 17-25-9, Nelson was able to stabilize what had been a dysfunctional team and earned praise from many observers who felt the interim head coach should be given the job permanently. The Oilers, however, were undergoing an organizational overhaul, with Peter Chiarelli replacing MacTavish as GM. Chiarelli then-veteran coach Todd McLellan and Nelson wound up departing the organization.
2018-19: Ken Hitchcock Replaces Todd McLellan
McLellan had the Oilers headed in the right direction, leading them to the postseason for the first time in a decade in 2016-17, his second season. But a disappointing 2017-18 season that ended without a playoff berth was followed by a subpar 9-10-1 start in 2018-19, and after a stretch that saw the Oilers drop six of seven, McLellan was fired on Nov. 20, 2018.
Searching for a turnaround, Chiarelli turned to the legendary Ken Hitchcock, who had just recently retired but jumped at the chance to coach his hometown team. Hitchcock went 26-28-8 over the final 62 games, for a point percentage of .484, which was only a hair better than McLellan’s .475 in the first 20 games. After the Oilers finished the season 11 points out of a playoff spot at second from the bottom in the Pacific Division, Hitchcock was dismissed.
Meanwhile, Chiarelli had also been shown the door. The first big move from his replacement as GM and President of Hockey Operations, Ken Holland, was to hire Tippett as the 16th head coach in franchise history on May 28, 2019.
2021-22: Woodcroft replaces Tippett
Tippett’s tenure as Oilers coach saw regular season success but postseason disappointment and came at a most unprecedented time in NHL history.
The first season he was behind the bench for the Oilers, 2019-20, came to an early end after Edmonton’s 71st game on March 11, 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the sporting world. At the time, the Oilers were second in the Pacific Division with a record of 37-25-9.
It was five months before play resumed, with the NHL staging its postseason inside a “bubble” in empty arenas. Seeded fifth in the Western Conference, the Oilers were upset 3-1 by the Chicago Blackhawks, the No. 12 seed.
The cloud of the pandemic hung over the NHL into the 2020-21 season, leading to a shortened 56-game schedule and a temporary divisional realignment that grouped all seven Canadian teams together. Tippett guided the Oilers to a 35-19-2 regular season mark, second in the division, but the playoffs brought another crushing defeat, this time a 4-0 sweep at the hands of the third-place Winnipeg Jets.
Two consecutive playoff failures meant increased pressure for Tippett as NHL life returned to near normal in 2021-22. Edmonton started the season hotter than their coach’s seat, going 16-5-1 to start December with the best record in the Western Conference. But that was followed by a prolonged stunning slump the Oilers win just twice in a seven-week span. Ultimately Tippett was let go on Feb. 10, 2022, and replaced by Woodcroft, who had been coaching the Bakersfield Condors, Edmonton’s AHL affiliate.
Tippett concluded his Edmonton tenure with a 95-62-14 regular season record. At the time, he was second to Sather for the best points percentage all-time among Oilers coaches.
The change worked wonders, as Edmonton went 26-9-3 under Woodcroft to finish second in the Pacific Division. Woodcroft then became the first coach in Oilers history to join the team mid-season and take them past the first two rounds of the playoffs, coaching Edmonton to series victories over the Los Angeles Kings and Calgary Flames before the Oilers fell 4-0 in the Western Conference final to the Colorado Avalanche.
Now in his first full season, Woodcroft is encountering some rocky roads, as he looks to take the Oilers even further, to the Stanley Cup in 2023.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.