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The Oilers’ hiring of Kris Knoblauch invites questions about the franchise’s decision-making

It is possible that Edmonton Oilers have made an exceptional decision by hiring Kris Knoblauch as their new head coach, but it seems more likely that they either bent over backwards to appease Connor McDavid or let him play GM.

Knoblauch may well succeed in Edmonton, but looking at his resume from a 30,000-foot perspective, it’s hard to see an obvious NHL coaching candidate.

Kris Knoblauch is in a position to succeed, but that doesn’t mean the Oilers made the best choice for their franchise. (Jason Franson/CP)

Knoblauch has a strong resume at the CHL level, but he has yet to make a strong impact coaching men.

Since his last season in the OHL (2016-17), the coach spent two years as an assistant with Philadelphia Flyers — where he led the NHL’s 17th-ranked power play — and four years as head coach of the AHL’s Hartford Wolfpack.

During that time, the Wolfpack went 112-87-31, good for a .487 winning percentage, and made the playoffs just once.

None of this proves that Knoblauch is a bad coach. After all, the man has won WHL and OHL titles. But he’s not someone who would have been on the radar of too many NHL teams besides the Oilers. It makes it clear that the fact that he coached McDavid with the Erie Otters was a deciding factor in his hiring.

Having an existing relationship with the Oilers’ most important players is a plus, but it’s unclear whether that’s enough to push Knoblauch over other potential candidates with a track record of significant NHL success — either as a head coach or assistant.

This hiring invited questions about how much influence the Oilers players, but especially McDavid, had in this decision. That question was answered in a way that did not inspire confidence as president and GM Ken Holland alluded to talking to his veteran players while CEO Jeff Jackson was quick to say that the players were not consulted at all about the decision.

The mixed message leaves room for two interpretations – neither of which reflect particularly well on the Oilers.

  1. It’s possible the Oilers talked to McDavid and their veteran players about the coaching situation and that played a role in Woodcroft’s firing and the installation of Knoblauch behind the bench. However, Jackson doesn’t want to seem like the players have an undue amount of power within the organization, so he denies it.

  2. The Oilers really didn’t involve their players in this pick, coming to the conclusion on their own that their best course of action was to get a guy with a relatively thin resume because they put a huge premium on keeping McDavid happy.

The first scenario suggests that McDavid and the veterans exercised a level of control we don’t often see from NHL players, and Oilers management is worried or embarrassed about it. The second suggests that McDavid has so much power in the building that he doesn’t have to say anything for the team to make big decisions that prioritize housing him above all else.

McDavid is good enough that everything the Oilers do should have him in mind to some extent, but the latest hiring speaks to a power dynamic that may not be healthy. Either he’s pulling the strings, or the fear of him becoming disaffected and possibly leaving after the 2025-26 season is strong enough that he doesn’t have to.

Another wrinkle in this situation that makes Edmonton’s decision-making look suspect is the addition of Paul Coffey behind the bench as an assistant to Knoblauch.

Coffey is a franchise legend, but the highlight of his coaching resume is part of a season with the OJHL’s Pickering Panthers — a team he co-owns — in 2014-15. The team won 37.0% of their games that season, and the most notable moment of Coffey’s coaching career is likely the Hall of Fame defenseman’s suspension for using a “discriminatory slander” while behind the bench for a AAA midget game.

While Coffey may have something to offer at the NHL level, he’s not the kind of steady hand and proven asset you’d hope to pair with a new head coach with little experience managing teams at the sport’s highest level.

To be fair, any criticism that can be leveled at the Oilers right now is about their process. We don’t know the outcome of their coaching move yet.

Given that Edmonton has best 5v5 expected goal rate in the NHL (57.82%), all the components of a power play that made history last season and a team save percentage (.864) that will improve, this team is extremely likely to bounce back this year.

Whether the extent of the positive regression will be enough to save their season remains to be seen, but Knoblauch is in prime position to look like a force for good, regardless of how much credit he deserves.

That means in a few months there’s a good chance the Oilers will look like they made the right move, even if they probably would have improved under Woodcroft had they kept him. Before they get any credit for that, it’s worth noting the dubious way they’ve gone about their business — and the power McDavid seems to have gained within the organization, whether it’s something he exercises openly or not.

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