EDMONTON — A day after the Edmonton Oilers made a coaching change, the players are still trying to process the shock.
“I didn’t see it coming,” said team captain Connor McDavid.
The reigning Hart Trophy winner told reporters he received the news via text message that head coach Jay Woodcroft and assistant coach Dave Manson had been fired Sunday morning, a scheduled off day for the players.
“I loved playing for Woody, I loved playing for Mans — two guys I think are unbelievable coaches," he said. "I really think they’ll be back in the league very, very soon.”
Monday morning’s skate at Rogers Place was the team’s first full workout under new coach Kris Knoblauch. The Oilers (3-9-1) host the slumping New York Islanders (5-5-3) on Monday night. The Isles have piled up three regulation losses in a row.
Knoblauch had been coaching the Hartford Wolf Pack, the New York Rangers’ American Hockey League affiliate, before coming to Edmonton, a city where he spent time as a Western Hockey League player and a member of the University of Alberta Golden Bears.
The 45-year-old from Imperial, Sask., was an assistant with the Philadelphia Flyers for two seasons and coached the Rangers for eight games on an interim basis when staff couldn’t be behind the bench due to COVID-19 protocols.
“It is quite different,” said Knoblauch. “When I was there as an interim head coach, in New York, it was fun. There was no pressure on me, I was there behind the bench. Being in the NHL was exciting.
“Now, it’s a little bit different. When you’re a head coach here, and it’s your position, and your decisions that are being questioned and evaluated, obviously there’s a lot more pressure.”
Knoblauch coached McDavid for three seasons with the OHL’s Erie Otters.
McDavid said he hasn’t really followed Knoblauch's progress in recent years — it’s more of a reintroduction than the continuation of a long-standing relationship.
“It’s been a really long time,” said McDavid, who has just 10 points in 11 games one season after leading the league with 153 points. “He was great in junior. I don’t know much about what he’s been up to. I know he’s been coaching, he’s been in the NHL as an assistant and the American League as a head coach.
"He’s a young voice, which is great because it resonates with a lot of the guys in this room. He’s someone I’m looking forward to working with.”
McDavid said that Woodcroft “never lost the room” despite the Oilers’ poor start to the season. That was echoed by Leon Draisaitl, who scored 52 times last season but has just five so far in 2023-24.
“I couldn’t agree more,” said Draisaitl. “He was a great coach. He’s going to have a lot of success wherever he’s going. There’s no way he lost anyone in this room.
"As players, we’re the ones on the ice, we’re as prepared as any team in the league for any given night. It’s on us to obviously be better.”
For Draisaitl and McDavid, Knoblauch will be head coach No. 5.
“I don’t think it means anything,” said Draisaitl. “We’ve had a lot of success here, too. We’ve won over 100 games (actually, 99 over the previous two regular seasons, with three more this campaign) over the last two years — people tend to forget that. It’s definitely not the start we wanted, but that’s on no one but us players.”
Woodcroft was 79-41-3 in his coaching career with the Oilers.
Hall of Famer Paul Coffey takes over from Manson as the assistant in charge of the defensive corps.
Defenceman Darnell Nurse said he’s looking forward to hearing the legend’s perspectives on a daily basis.
“The way he sees the game, he had such a great career and had so much success in this league for a reason,” said Nurse. “To be able to pick his mind, and get a first-hand look, and some tips in-game and in action, it’s going to be huge for us.”
Knoblauch said on Sunday that a new coach provides the players with a reset on the season, and gives a team he feels has been “beaten down” a chance to take a breath.
McDavid doesn’t quite see it that way.
“Obviously, we don’t start zero, zero and zero. We start where we start," he said. "That being said, it is a fresh voice, a fresh face.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 13, 2023.
Steven Sandor, The Canadian Press