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Woodcroft backs Oilers' new defensive system despite 'growing pains'

Jeff Vinnick / National Hockey League / Getty

A lot is going wrong for the 1-4-1 Edmonton Oilers in the early days of the 2023-24 campaign, but head coach Jay Woodcroft is certain that a change in their defensive system isn't to blame.

"I think it gets magnified by the fact that our record is what our record is right now," he told the media Wednesday, including Sportsnet. "Any time you go do something new and you're working through something, there's growing pains. Can we be better? Yeah, we can. And we don't make any excuses for it."

Prior to the new season, Edmonton switched its scheme from man-to-man coverage to zone defense, which the Presidents' Trophy-winning Boston Bruins and Stanley Cup-winning Vegas Golden Knights used last year.

The Oilers led all teams with 325 goals for last season, but they also gave up 256 goals against, good for the 16th most in the league. Getting that number down with a new system was a focal point for the team through training camp and the preseason, but it hasn't paid off just yet.

Edmonton has been outscored 17-27 through the first six games of the new campaign and is coming off a messy performance in which Woodcroft's squad surrendered seven goals in a loss to the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday.

Woodcroft said he believed the new system "performed pretty well" prior to his team's shellacking in Saint Paul.

"I think through (the first) five games, we gave up one defensive-zone goal," he said. "(Tuesday) it wasn't good enough. Part of that's on us, part of that's a credit to the other team that did some unique things, some good things, and their top players found a way to break it."

The Oilers gave up eight goals in their season opener against the Canucks, but Woodcroft argued that none of those tallies were a result of a breakdown in the new system.

"The first goal was off a rush where a player floated one, we missed it, a guy tipped it in. Second goal was off a breakout turnover. I think we gave up three power-play goals that night, so that's five," he explained. "Gave up a faceoff goal, that's six. We gave up a forecheck goal on the eighth goal where we didn't work above someone, that's seven. … Oh, and then there was one off the rush where it kinda banged around in the second period there."

He added, "That had nothing to do with D-zone coverage. That had everything to do with individual errors within those types of situations."

According to Woodcroft, the one defensive-zone goal the Oilers allowed in their first five games came in Game 2 against the Vancouver Canucks, when Nils Hoglander scored on a tip-in.

"We weren't good enough around our net," he said.

Hailed as Stanley Cup hopefuls heading into the season, the Oilers are 11 points behind the Golden Knights, who sit atop the Pacific Division with a 7-0-0 record.

Edmonton will square off against the New York Rangers on Thursday.

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