Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Looking at Kris Knoblauch’s In-Game Matchups
By Jason Gregor1 month ago
Since arriving in Edmonton on November 12th, head coach Kris Knoblauch has delivered results.
The Oilers are 21-6 with him behind the bench, and while he inherited a good roster, the team wasn’t performing well. Knoblauch has made some noticeable changes, and it has led to victories. The more games he coaches, the more we witness his approach to in-game adjustments and matchups.
His arrival, along with assistant coach Paul Coffey, gave the Oilers a major boost. The players have spoken often about how Knoblauch and Coffey’s first goal was to rebuild their confidence. They told the team they were good. They reinforced it through video. Repeatedly. That was step one, and it worked. Coffey was very blunt with his defencemen. He wanted them to make plays, and believed they could. He didn’t just want them to dump the puck out of the zone, or even into the offensive zone, when they had possession. Take your time. Make a play. The results have been staggering.
They are 21-6, but they’ve only allowed 2.52 goals/game, fifth best in the NHL. They spend less time in their own end because the coaches encourage the players to make plays and possess the puck.
Knoblauch put Mark Stuart in charge of the penalty kill, and he had opted for two D pairs and three pairs of forwards who take the bulk of the minutes.
Draisaitl has averaged 0:49 per game and is used on face-offs or when one of the six forwards is in the penalty box. Brett Kulak averages 31 seconds a game. Since taking the shot off his foot, I’ve noticed he hasn’t been on the PK lately, and I wonder if they are trying to protect his foot from taking shots. For the past few weeks, Evan Bouchard has been the fifth D-man on the PK.
Knoblauch likes to load up Connor McDavid with Draisaitl and one of Zach Hyman or Evander Kane on the first shift after a penalty. He wants to get back on the offensive and build momentum off a good kill. And considering RNH is the most used forward on the PK, he needs the rest, so Draisaitl takes his spot. It has worked very well, as the PK is third best in the NHL since Knoblauch arrived at 87.5%. They’ve allowed 11 goals on 88 kills, but also scored four shorthanded goals. Being -7 on the PK over a 27-game stretch is a big factor in why the Oilers are winning.
Nov 13, 2023; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his goal with center Leon Draisaitl (29) during the third period against the New York Islanders at Rogers Place.
Knoblauch was very transparent when he arrived. He said it would take a few weeks before the team became his. He would need time to implement all the changes he wanted while also keeping some things that were already in place because he liked them. He has moved a few forwards around. He put Warren Foegele mainly on the right wing because, after watching the video, he discovered Foegele was more productive as a right-winger. He attacks better coming down the right wing than on the left. Foegele had played more in Carolina on the right wing and is comfortable there. He can play both sides, but Knoblauch liked him more on the right wing. Foegele has 15 points in 27 games under Knoblauch, which prorates to 45. I’m not sure he will maintain that, but he’s been more efficient on the right wing.
Lately, I’ve been watching which matchups he likes. Last night he started with the McDavid-Matthews matchup. He had McDavid’s line, along with Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard, out against Matthews’ line almost exclusively at 5×5 in the first period. Ryan McLeod’s line had one shift against them. Matthews’ line scored on their opening shift and had a very strong first period.
Knoblauch switched to start the second. He went with Draisaitl’s line with Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci. They had the first few shifts, and then McDavid had a shift with Nurse and Ceci, and Matthews’ line scored again (Morgan Reilly). Draisaitl’s line then had the next six shifts (the rest of the second and into the third) against Matthews, and then McDavid had a few more. Knoblauch didn’t like how the McDavid-Matthews matchup was going and went with a heavier line and bigger D corps, for most of the second and third. The one element Evander Kane has that no other Oilers forward has is an imposing physical presence. He delivered a hard, heavy hit on Matthews in the third, and we saw him neuter Matthew Tkachuk in the Flames series two years ago. The Kane-Draisaitl-Foegele line has a good combination of skill, size, and speed, and Kane’s tenacity can make them a good matchup against most lines, especially when the games are more emotional like last night’s.
Two of Knoblauch’s best in-game decisions led to goals. He loaded up McDavid with Kane and Draisaitl for an offensive zone face-off and Draisaitl scored 16 seconds later. And then for the game-winning goal, during another offensive zone face-off where the Maple Leafs couldn’t change after an icing, he kept McDavid on the ice, but removed Zach Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and replaced them with Draisaitl and McLeod — his top-three centres on the ice for a shift, and 28 seconds later, it led to McLeod’s eighth goal of the season.
In typical Knoblauch fashion, he tried to downplay his impact on the game.
“As a coach, you can always make adjustments, and a lot of the times, it really has no impact on the game,” said Knoblauch. “We got off to a slow start, I didn’t like it. They are a good team, and throughout the game, they are going to be pushed by the opposition where they are the better team. there are times when we will be the better team, and hopefully, we will be the better team more often.“There were times during the game where we were looking maybe to make changes later in the game. We did some things on offensive zone face-offs. We scored two goals by putting Leon and Connor together, one with Kane and one with McLeod. We make little adjustments there, but ultimately, the game is about players and players usually figure it out, and it is up to them to execute it.”
He is correct in saying it is up to the players to execute, but he also gets credit for being the one who chooses who to put on the ice at certain moments. I’ve noticed Knoblauch does a good job of coaching each game as its own. Of course, he is going to play McDavid and Draisaitl late in games, but he isn’t afraid to play the guys who are going. And McLeod was going. Prior to playing them in that shift, they’d played a grand total of 106 seconds as a trio all season. This was not a normal combination. Knoblauch explained his reasoning on why he opted to put McLeod out at that moment.
“He had a heck of a game,” said Knoblauch. “And there is also a time in game where you look at who had been out there a certain time, how much have they played, are they tired, and there are a lot of decisions being made in that moment. He was fresh, where a lot of other guys weren’t, and he’d had a pretty good game thus far.”
The decision worked, and more than just the goal, that decision shows all the players that the coach isn’t afraid to reward guys late in games when they’ve played well up to that point. It really builds the confidence of a group and unifies a team.
The one trend Knoblauch has mentioned lately is that he hasn’t liked their starts. The Oilers have allowed the first goal six times during their 11-game winning streak. It is great they are able to overcome one or two-goal deficits, but the data tells you it is not a sustainable long-term plan. The Oilers are 6-0 when allowing the first goal. They were 4-8 prior to these six wins. They are 10-8 on the season when allowing the first goal and have a .556 winning percentage. Dallas and Colorado lead the league at .565 as both have won 13 of 23 games. They are the only three teams who have won more than half their games when allowing the first goal.
Coaches are always looking to improve, and slow starts are the only regular concern during this 11-game heater. I’m curious to see what changes, challenges or video sessions Knoblauch implements to get them to have better starts.
Through his first 27 games, he’s seemingly found a positive answer.
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