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Is Kris Knoblauch the Oilers’ answer?

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Robin Brownlee
3 months ago
Jeff Jackson hasn’t wasted any time making his presence felt since joining the Edmonton Oilers as CEO of hockey operations the first week of August, but he and GM Ken Holland didn’t seem to be on the same page Monday afternoon when discussing easily the most significant move of his brief tenure.
Namely, the firing of coach Jay Woodcroft and hiring of Kris Knoblauch as his replacement. Jackson, a lawyer and agent who used to represent Connor McDavid, said he hadn’t discussed the issue of bringing in Knoblauch, who coached McDavid with the OHL Erie Otters, with the Oilers’ captain or any members of the team’s core group of players. 
“We didn’t consult with the players on this decision,” said Jackson, who sits a notch above Holland in the front office hierarchy and reports to owner Daryl Katz. “Never spoke with Connor, Leon, Nuge or Nursey or any of the other leadership group. These guys are here to play hockey. They know that’s what they want to do. 
“They don’t like being involved in these types of decisions. That’s my experience. So, the fact that Kris was Connor’s coach in Erie, it only has something to do with this because I think Kris Knoblauch is a very good coach. Connor didn’t have anything to do with this decision and neither did the other leadership group.”
Holland apparently wasn’t as tight-lipped. “I talked over this past week with some of the veterans on our team,” said Holland. “I’m not going to tell you what they said. I take the information and ultimately, I have to make decisions. Obviously, Jeff’s got a long relationship with Connor. You can probably talk about that.”

FRONT OF THE LINE

Even when writing the beat, you’re not privy to conversations behind closed doors, let alone when you’re at arm’s length as I am these days, so I’m not here to call anybody a liar as to what was said. If Jackson says he didn’t discuss the coaching change with McDavid, that’s his story, even if I find that surprising, given how long they’ve known each other.
The real question for me is how and why Knoblauch got to the front of the line of candidates once it was decided Woodcroft had to go. Did his history with McDavid play into the process, even if you take it at face value that bringing him in wasn’t discussed with the core group of players? Of course it did. 
Knoblauch, 45, has ties to this town as a player with the Edmonton Ice and Alberta Golden Bears. He has a long record as a coach and an assistant in the OHL and WHL, winning championships in both leagues. Knoblauch ran his own bench in the AHL with Hartford for four full seasons. He has two seasons as an NHL assistant with Philadelphia (2017-19) on his resume. What he doesn’t have is experience as a head coach in the NHL beyond six games as a fill-in with NY Rangers during COVID.
How does his lack of NHL experience mesh with a team that has declared itself to be in Cup-or-Bust mode? With the Oilers in a hole at 3-9-1 now, there’s no room for error or time for a new coach to feel his way into the season, even with experienced assistants on his staff. In simple terms, how is Knoblauch the best candidate for this job under the circumstances?
Woodcroft hadn’t run his own bench in the NHL when he took over from Dave Tippett, but he had 10 seasons as a video coach and assistant in Detroit and San Jose to lean on. On top of that, he had three seasons as an assistant on Todd McLellan’s staff with the Oilers and four seasons running the AHL farm in Bakersfield. Woodcroft had coached or was familiar with virtually every player on Edmonton’s roster when he stepped in. He hit the ground running. Knoblauch won’t have the same advantage when he begins his tenure behind the bench against the New York Islanders tonight.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Jackson and Holland decided it was time for Woodcroft to go despite his 79-41-13 record and the highest points percentage in franchise history at .643. That’s their call. I didn’t see the need for it 13 games in, but they did. Fair enough, but sending Woodcroft and Dave Manson down the road for Knoblauch and Paul Coffey is the best Jackson could do? That represents an upgrade? I don’t see it.
I thought that the coaching carousel that marked a difficult decade-plus for this franchise had stopped spinning with the arrival of Woodcroft, even with bumps in the road to start this season. Obviously not. Instead, fans get Knoblauch and Coffey, who has no coaching experience beyond one season with the Pickering Panthers of the OJHL – a team his son Blake played on – almost a decade ago.
For all of the above, the vast majority of what happens next with the Oilers falls to the players, not the coaches. It has always been that way and it always will be. If Woodcroft is down the road after being found wanting despite having two of the best players on the planet at his disposal in McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, that’s on the players. That inevitable bottom line won’t change with Knoblauch.

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