Here’s some big Flyers news on this otherwise sleepy Wednesday in June: the team has hired Erie Otters head coach Kris Knoblauch to fill their open assistant coaching vacancy. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman first reported the rumor this morning.
“Kris has had great success at the junior level with the Erie Otters and Kootenay Ice,” general manager Ron Hextall said. “He’s coached a lot of good young offensive gifted players. We feel he is a real good fit with our group and we’re excited to have him in our organization.”
“I’m very excited not only for a chance to coach in the National Hockey League, but also to join an organization like the Flyers and to work with Ron and Dave and the rest of the staff,” Knoblauch said. “It’s a great opportunity and I’m really looking forward to getting started.”
The Flyers have been without their full complement of assistant coaches since firing Joe Mullen on April 13. Assistant coaches Ian Laperriere and Gord Murphy remain under head coach Dave Hakstol heading into next season, and it’s likely that Knoblauch will take over power play duties from Mullen.
So what’s this all mean?
Knoblauch is a hot talent in the coaching world
First, let’s just say that hiring Knoblauch is a very good move for Philadelphia on the ice. He doesn’t have any professional head coaching experience, much like Dave Hakstol before him, but he’s widely known as an up-and-comer in the coaching world. In addition to assistant coach gigs with Canada’s World Junior entry, he’s seen a ton of success since taking over the OHL’s Otters during the 2012-13 season.
That record includes second place in the OHL playoffs in 2014-15, the OHL championship in 2016-17, a runner-up performance in the 2017 Memorial Cup, and the league’s best regular season record in 2015-16. Erie is the first team in any of the three Canadian major junior leagues to rack up four-straight 50-win seasons, doing so every full season Knoblauch has been head coach. He was named OHL coach of the year in 2015-16.
That said, Knoblauch has had a ton of talent on his Erie teams. Connor McDavid is the obvious one, and Knoblauch coached him for two seasons. The list does not stop there, however: let’s add Andre Burakovsky, Dylan Strome, Alex DeBrincat, Taylor Raddysh and Brendan Gaunce. Three of Erie’s top five all-time scorers played for Knoblauch in these last four-and-a-half seasons. So, that can’t be ignored. What would he be without those names?
Before Erie, Knoblauch coached the Kootenay Ice of the WHL for two seasons as a head coach and three seasons as an assistant before that. In his first season as head coach there in 2010-11, the Ice went 46-21-1-4 in the regular season before winning the WHL championship against Portland. They lost three games that entire postseason, ultimately falling in the semifinal of the Memorial Cup.
The only reason Knoblauch was available for the Erie job in 2012-13 was because of his ambition. As the Edmonton Journal tells it, he interviewed for a position with the University of Alberta’s Golden Bears -- his alma mater — without telling Kootenay, and that was enough for them to let him go.
Knoblauch ... had a falling out with the Ice this past summer in the midst of being interested in the Golden Bears’ coaching vacancy ... . Knoblauch coached the Ice for two seasons with an 82-47-7-8 record, but when he reportedly interviewed for the Golden Bears job with no permission from the Ice, they let him go.
Now, he’s being ambitious again. Again, via the Edmonton Journal, here’s Knoblauch talking about his summer plans:
“I hope to get some interviews this summer, whether somebody likes me or not … I’ve been here for 4-1/2 seasons, and I’m ready to make the step (to pro),” said Knoblauch. “Before, I’d say I could take it or leave it. Now, I’d love to go on (pro).”
Most expected those pro job offers to come in via the American Hockey League, so it’s maybe a bit odd that he got an NHL job so quickly. That brings us to the next question: what does this mean for the Flyers?
What Knoblauch brings to the Flyers
Let’s talk about the power play, since that’s the main job that needs replacing here on the Flyers coaching staff. Knoblauch’s Erie teams have been downright nasty with the extra man.
This past season, the Otters scored on a ridiculous 27.2 percent of their power plays, and yeah, that’s in part because they are talented. It takes more than just pure talent to score on that many power plays, though. In 2015-16, they converted at 25.3 percent; in 2014-15 an utterly bonkers 31.2 percent; and 30.7 percent in 2013-14. Come on. Really?
Here’s a really great breakdown of Erie’s offense that you should read, but this part about their transition game and how they set up in the offensive end is really what stands out, both at even strength and the power play:
The Otters play a very Russian-style of offence, meaning puck possession and transitions at speed that make your head spin. ... All 4 Otters hit the line with speed, puck going north. Strome forces the D to back off, meaning Debrincat has an acre of space to handle the puck when he gets it just inside the blue line. ... The Russians scored twice against Canada at the World Hockey Championship on this type of entry and passing play. ...
Erie is dangerous when they have possession in the offensive end, as well. However, they generate a lot of their clean zone entries because of their transitions. In a game moving more and more towards speed and skill, the Otters are using a brand of hockey made famous by the Russians. It requires the ultimate buy-in from every player, from the D, up. Buy-in to move the puck, to support the puck and to attack with speed, which leads me back the theory: North/South until the blue line, East/West after that.
Here’s TSN’s Craig Button, via the Journal, talking about Knoblauch’s coaching credentials:
“Watch how his teams play, his kids play smart, he maximizes their abilities and yet I keep hearing … ‘you know, he might not be the greatest interview (for pro jobs).’ The interview should be how his teams play. Four 50-win seasons in a row and very successful in the Western League before that. He can flat-out coach. He’s adaptable, he knows how to make adjustments as the game’s going on. He’s a great developer and bench coach.”
I don’t have much doubt that Knoblauch will come in and help the Flyers on the bench and with their power play. But let’s get back to the ambition part here.
A shot across Dave Hakstol’s bow?
Knoblauch is a guy who wants to step into the pro ranks and give himself the best route to an NHL head coaching gig. He was almost certainly not going to get one of those jobs this summer — only Florida and Buffalo are open right now — so he’s all about maximizing his chances to get one in the near future.
There are lots of AHL head coaching jobs available, and the most lucrative one is probably with Chicago’s affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs. But you could argue that taking an NHL assistant job gives him an easier path to a head coaching gig. He’ll have more eyes on him in the NHL, and he could see the Flyers’ talented power play as a tool to a bigger gig.
And what if he sees the opportunity for that bigger gig right here in Philadelphia? Dave Hakstol is entering his third season as head coach of the Flyers, and this is the year where the young prospects are really going to start reshaping the look of this team. If things go as poorly this year as they did last year, is Hakstol’s leash short? Let’s just say that none of us would be shocked — again, in the event that the Flyers dramatically underperform as they did a year ago.
In hiring one of hockey’s rising coaching stars, Ron Hextall surely has thought of the impact it’d have on his head coach — the message it sends to Hakstol, the players and the fans.
It might not matter if Hextall truly believes Knoblauch is going to make the team better. But just as the Flyers hiring Hextall as assistant general manager in 2013 put pressure on then-GM Paul Holmgren, the same pressure exists with this coaching move. Maybe it’s even Hextall’s intention. Guess we’ll find out.