Kris Knoblauch’s journey from youth hockey coach to ‘saving’ Oilers’ season


The Edmonton Oilers looked anything but championship-caliber.

It was 13 games into the season. They were 2-9-1, skidding into an abyss of their own making. Those visions of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl lifting the first Stanley Cup for the Oilers since 1990 fizzled into static.

Coach Jay Woodcroft was out. Kris Knoblauch, a novice NHL head coach who had been behind the bench of AHL Hartford, was in. And general manager Ken Holland isn’t shy about giving Knoblauch credit for reaching to the abyss, pulling the team to solid footing and leading the Oilers to within seven wins of the Stanley Cup.

“He came in and saved the season,” said Holland, who hired Knoblauch to replace Woodcroft in November 2023. “The team rallied around him and we got to .500 at Christmas time. We dug out of a big hole and Kris was a big, big reason for it.”

Knoblauch gets a little lost in the cacophony of hype when the Oilers succeed. It’s more about McDavid and Draisaitl, two of the best players in the world; or the emergence of Evan Bouchard as an elite defenseman; or the way their special teams take over games.

But where would the Oilers be now were it not for Knoblauch rebuilding their confidence after a spectacular early-season flop? Or making the right personnel choices? Or having the audacity to bench starting goaltender Stuart Skinner for a playoff newbie in Calvin Pickard against the Vancouver Canucks, to get his team’s attention defensively and give the struggling Skinner a breather? And then having it actually work?

“You’re in a playoff series against Vancouver, and he has a real tough decision to make in a goalie move. It gave Stu a chance to reset,” Holland said. “He’s very impressive for a rookie coach. It’s a hard league. I thought during the regular season, he had a great feel for who should play and who shouldn’t play.”

Then there was the timeout in Game 7 against Vancouver. The Canucks had cut the Oilers’ lead to 3-2 at home in the third period. It was loud and chaotic and it felt like things might be slipping away from Edmonton. So Knoblauch called a T.O., gathered his players and calmed things down.

“We got to make some plays. Keep it simple. We’re good. We’ve been in this situation lots,” he said on the bench. “Make your plays, win your battles, let’s put the pressure on them.”

The Oilers won Game 7 and advanced to the Western Conference finals.



Oilers survive late Canucks surge to win Game 7, reach West finals

The Oilers score three second-period goals to power a Game 7 victory over the Canucks, setting up a date with the Stars in the Western Conference finals.

There’s something inherently different about the Oilers’ composure this season. They don’t get rattled when they can’t get to their offensive game or when the power play doesn’t click. They look as poised winning a lower-scoring grind of a playoff game as they do lighting offensive fireworks.

Some of that demeanor comes from the players’ own focus this season. But it also trickled down from Knoblauch and what he preaches as a coach.

“It’s about confidence in your game and confidence that it doesn’t matter what happens, you’re going to persevere and get through it,” Knoblauch said.

It’s also about a coach keeping a stoic equanimity, whether he’s calling a timeout in Game 7 or softly criticizing postseason officiating.

“As a coach, I always want to get excited, start yelling and screaming,” he said. “But I also know, especially when I was coaching junior, I didn’t want my players losing their focus and didn’t want them to get distracted. If I don’t want them to do it, I shouldn’t be behaving that way, either.”

That composure was evident when Knoblauch coached the Erie Otters in the OHL and the Hartford Wolf Pack in the AHL.

It was also evident in a side gig Knoblauch had right before the Oilers hired him: working as a youth hockey coach in West Hartford, Connecticut.

“He never yelled at us. Super positive guy,” said Zac Jainchill, who played on the youth team that Knoblauch helped instruct. “It’s cool to know that someone that had coached me is now a few wins away from winning the Stanley Cup.”

KNOBLAUCH WAS DRAFTED No. 166 overall by the New York Islanders in 1997, but his playing career didn’t see him rise any higher than the Central Hockey League, where he played for the Austin Ice Bats in 2004-05. He transitioned to coaching soon after that, manning the benches for the Kootenay Ice (2010-2012), Erie Otters (2013-2017) and the Wolf Pack (2019-2024), an affiliate of the New York Rangers.

His son, Marek, was born in 2007. While Knoblauch was coaching the Wolf Pack, his son was playing youth hockey with the West Hartford Wolves program. Despite leading the top minor league affiliate of an Original Six team, Knoblauch offered his services to help coach the team.

“I mean, it’s absolutely unbelievable,” said Ken Mangini, assistant coach of the West Hartford Wolves bantam team. “There’s really no words. It was so cool.”

Knoblauch would horse around with the players, push pucks with the assistant coaches and move pucks around as different drills were being done. He attended several games with the team but never worked behind the bench, having established early on that he felt his presence might be a distraction during games.

“We didn’t really know what to expect from him, but he showed up quite a few times,” Mangini said. “We started around August, so he probably came once a week. He’d game plan and put practice plans together with us. He was just another coach out there.”

Knoblauch became something more than “just another coach” last November.

Mangini was coaching the team on a Sunday afternoon. Marek Knoblauch had informed the coaches that he wouldn’t be around that weekend for the game.

Mangini was in the locker room doing a postgame discussion with his players — what went right, what didn’t. As he went through his spiel, Jainchill interrupted his speech. Jainchill had gotten a text message from his older brother. It was a link to an ESPN article that offered some breaking NHL news: Kris Knoblauch was now the head coach of the Edmonton Oilers.

“I just shouted out, ‘Holy cow!'” Jainchill recalled.

Mangini was annoyed. “Can it just wait?” he said. “Like, please let me finish, I want to get home.”

“I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever, this is more important,'” Jainchill said with a laugh. “He got mad at that, but it’s fine. Everyone was pretty excited about the news.”

That included Mangini.

“He was just with us, literally just with us, a few days ago, on the ice shooting pucks around,” he said. “We got to learn from not only from the head coach of the Wolf Pack, but now the head coach of the Edmonton Oilers, who’s going to be working with Connor McDavid. It’s just crazy.”

When Knoblauch was hired by the Oilers, there was a torrent of reactions from executives, former teammates and the players he coached in the minor leagues.

Mangini and Jainchill had their own unique perspective on the new Edmonton coach.

“He knew his stuff for sure,” Jainchill said. “Definitely made us all better hockey players.”

Like when he made a comparison to Jainchill’s offensive game that the young player will never forget. “He told me I had silky mitts like [Rangers center] Mika Zibanejad,” he said. “I thought that was the coolest thing ever.”

Mangini wasn’t surprised to see Knoblauch get his chance in the NHL after seeing how he operated at the youth level.

“I am so happy for him,” he said. “Kris is just really down to earth, really approachable, easy to talk to, everything that you would hope you could have in a coach.”

COMMUNICATION AND RELATIONSHIPS. Those have been the central focus for Knoblauch as a hockey coach, at every level. Perhaps it’s in his teaching background, as he has an education degree from the University of Alberta. Perhaps it’s just a 45-year-old head coach believing there’s a better, more human way to connect with athletes.

“It was a character analytic thing,” Erie Otters GM Dave Brown told USA Today Network last year. “He would say, ‘I would take the guy out for coffee, talk to him for 20 minutes and get to know him a little bit better as a person — what’s going on in his home life and everything else.'”

Knoblauch had a handful of current New York Rangers players on his Hartford teams, and they experienced that one-on-one attention firsthand.

“It seemed like a pain at the time, being in his office every day, watching so many video clips,” forward Will Cuylle said. “But looking back on it, it really made a huge difference and obviously I’m super thankful for that.”

Rangers rookie sensation Matt Rempe would also have one-on-one sessions with Knoblauch.

“I was just always in his office, and he was always asking, ‘Oh, what are you doing today? How’s your family, how’s your mom?’ All that type of stuff,” Rempe said. “Not even so much about hockey. Sometimes he’ll show some clips and stuff, but just I feel like he makes you feel comfortable and at home and I think that’s really important.”

Rempe said he’s “so happy” for Knoblauch’s success in Edmonton.

“He was so good to me. He was talking to me every single day, just built a really close personal relationship with him,” he said. “He was always so nice to me and supportive. So, great guy. I thought he was a great coach as well. So I’m really happy for his success.”

Although that happiness does come with an important caveat for Rempe.

“As a Calgary guy, I hate to see Edmonton do good,” said Rempe, throwing his elongated arms in the air for effect. “I hate it.”

Knoblauch was coaching Rempe with the Wolf Pack when the Oilers came calling. He aspired to become an NHL head coach, having put in the time in the AHL and as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers from 2017 to 2019. He was an interim coach for the Rangers in 2020-21 and 2021-22 while filling in for David Quinn and Gerard Gallant due to COVID-19 absences. He went 6-1-1.

He had to contemplate whether Edmonton was the right landing spot for his first NHL coaching gig. Ultimately, the chance to coach a talent-laden playoff contender was too much to pass up.

In the 2017-18 season, Holland was looking to hire a head coach for Grand Rapids, the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate. He had a meeting with Knoblauch in an airport hangar that lasted a few hours. A job didn’t materialize, but Holland started following Knoblauch’s career. He’d get glowing remarks about Knoblauch from Ryan Martin, the New York Rangers’ assistant general manager who runs the Hartford Wolf Pack. Martin worked under Holland in Detroit.

“Ryan told me he had great feel, great instincts,” Holland said. “It’s easy to have those instincts when you’re at the AHL level and there’s not a lot of media. Certainly the decisions are much more under the spotlight and you’re much more scrutinized at this level.”

When the Oilers were bottoming out at the start of the season, Holland had a conversation with Edmonton’s CEO of hockey operations Jeff Jackson about coaching options. Jackson knew Knoblauch when he was a player agent, as several of his former clients played for the coach in Erie, including McDavid.

That relationship made Knoblauch’s hiring an awkward one. Many assumed McDavid had influenced either Woodcroft’s firing, Knoblauch’s hiring or both. The star center and the team pushed back hard on that speculation.

“I know the narrative out there, couldn’t be further from the truth,” McDavid said after the hire. “Obviously I thought he was great in junior. I don’t know what he’s been up to other than he’s been coaching obviously in the NHL as an assistant and in the American league.”

Jackson said the Oilers “didn’t consult with the players on this decision” when the team hired Knoblauch.

“The fact that Kris was Connor’s coach in Erie in 2014-15, it only has something to do with this because I think Kris Knoblauch is a very good coach,” Jackson said. “Connor didn’t have anything to do with this decision and neither did the others in the leadership group.”

Perhaps it’s coincidence, perhaps not, but McDavid scored 122 of his 132 points this season in the 65 games in which Knoblauch was his coach.

Knoblauch put a premium on having the most talented players lead the way this season.

“Everyone follows by example,” he said. “If your leaders are getting excited and getting frustrated and angry, it spreads throughout the whole team. They’ve handled it really well, whatever has been thrown in our direction. That’s definitely what you want from a mature, focused group.”

It’s been a surreal few months for Knoblauch, going from minor league coach moonlighting as a youth hockey instructor to the head coach of a team that’s seven wins away from the Stanley Cup.

“I’m trying to enjoy it as much as possible,” Knoblauch said. “It’s been quite a ride, just to be able to get this position with the Edmonton Oilers, an elite organization. A team that has some superstars and a lot of good players. I’m just trying to enjoy it as much as possible. And you never know when you’re going to get an opportunity like this again.”

Holland believes the Oilers wouldn’t have this opportunity without Knoblauch.

“He’s very impressive in the decisions that he’s made and a big reason why we’re here today,” Holland said. “Kris has done a lot of winning.”

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