Awful optics aside, Oilers hiring of Kris Knoblauch a reasonable decision

Zach Laing
6 months ago
Make no mistake, Sunday’s press conference where Edmonton Oilers frontmen Ken Holland and Jeff Jackson discussed the dismissal of Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson was nothing short of theatrical.
On one hand, you had Holland and Jackson struggling to get their story straight. The former said he “talked over this past week with some of the veterans on our team,” while the latter said, “We didn’t consult with the players on this decision.
The answers could be as simple as Holland talking about making his staple rounds chatting with players. In contrast, Jackson spoke about players not being in the room when the final decision was made to dismiss the Oilers’ coaches of not even two years.
And even if that may have been the case, Sunday’s forty-minute-long presser didn’t convey that message. It conveyed confusion, frustration, and a clear conviction that something had to change.
Whether it was those two bumbling around answers about what led to the dismissal or new Oilers assistant coach Paul Coffey — a right-hand man to owner Darryl Katz — who has now been parachuted onto the bench, saying he didn’t even want to coach in the first place, the optics of Woodcroft and Manson’s firing is messy.
As a matter of fact, you could put this press conference — at least from this perspective — right up there with such Oilers hits as Kevin Lowe saying the Oilers have “two types of fans,” and that he knows “a little bit about winning,” or Craig MacTavish’s “visually better” press conference, or even Peter Chiarelli’s ”price you have to pay” comments.
To summarize, Holland said over the weeks of the season, he and Jackson had been speaking multiple times a day about what was going on with the Oilers. Holland was also making the rounds with other GMs on potential trades to shake up the roster. Still, it wasn’t until after last Thursday’s loss against San Jose that they “started to talk really seriously about ‘should we consider making a coaching change.” Holland said the decision to fire Woodcroft was made Saturday, before the team played Seattle, and the process of hiring Kris Knoblauch began, but he also said the final call was made during that Kraken game.
The best reasoning? Holland said the team is in win-now mode and, “If you wait another 10 games and things don’t change, it’s probably too late.” That’s about the only thing that could justify the Oilers firing not just their… *checks notes* …10th coach in 14 years, but one whose .643 points percentage ranks first among any coach in franchise history, while his 14 playoff wins rank fourth.
It’s not an easy sell to a fan base who was enamoured with Woodcroft, his ‘one day at a time’ approach, and his coaching style, which got them deep in the playoffs twice. But if you want to take the Oilers’ mindset of “we have to stop the bleeding before it gets worse,” then you have grounds for a coaching change, success aside.
And make no mistake, the Oilers have been bleeding. They’ve been plummeted by uncharacteristically low shooting and save percentages, and a group of players who have been making the same mistakes repeatedly.
Now, it’s Koblauch and Coffey’s mess to clean up.
Step one? Meet the players and get a feel for the roster.
Step two? Fix Connor McDavid, and stop the skid.
“What I see out of him is what I see out of a lot of the team — a team that’s trying very hard, very passionate, want to win, want to do what’s right, but ultimately, right now, are very frustrated,” said Knoblauch. “As a player whose played any kind of sport, if you’re frustrated or you are feeling down, it is tough to perform at the highest level.
“Right now, I want Connor, and everyone, to just take a breath, relax, just play hockey, and find some joy in it, and play the way they can. Right now, I think there’s just too much pressure on them, and they’re feeling it. That’s my take on what I’ve seen from afar, watching some video, but when I talk to those guys, maybe I’ll get a different perspective.”
Step three? Getting the Oilers to buy into consistently strong defensive play, which is something that has seemingly lacked around these parts for eons.
Knoblauch, however, demonstrated Sunday why he’s been coveted around the game for some time. He spoke about how he sees his players committing to the play in the neutral zone.
“I think you hear NHL coaches talk about what’s successful, and it’s playing fast,” he said. “Moving the puck up, immediately, getting the puck to the forwards to make plays. The longer we hold the puck and dust it off and slow the game down, all it allows is the opposition to get into position, get into their structure, which makes it more difficult to generate any offence.
“Most of that comes from our defencemen moving the puck up. We do have some defencemen who are very capable of skating the puck up, and there’s going to be times where that’s necessary.”
But in order for the Oilers defencemen to be in a position to move the puck up the ice,
“As for the defensive zone, we’re going to look at exactly what the Oilers were doing in these past few games. Personally, I feel much more comfortable with more of a zone structure defence.”
Much like Woodcroft before him, Knoblauch’s first game an NHL head coach will come on home ice, against the New York Islanders tonight as the Oilers, once again, usher in a new era.
Let’s hope this one isn’t like the last one, which was like the last one, the one before that, and so on and so forth.

Zach Laing is the Nation Network’s news director and senior columnist. He can be followed on Twitter at @zjlaing, or reached by email at zach@oilersnation.com.

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