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Calm and steadfast, Knoblauch steers Oilers out of awful start to Stanley Cup Final

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When Kris Knoblauch became coach of the Edmonton Oilers, they had lost 10 of their first 13 games and the Stanley Cup was the last thing anyone on the team was talking about.

Since then, no team in the NHL has won more games and Knoblauch is a big reason they are in the final. It comes as no surprise to those who know Knoblauch to see him making the most of his first chance to be an NHL head coach.

“He’s paid his dues, he’s worked hard and now he’s getting an opportunity,” said veteran coach Rob Daum, whom Knoblauch played for at the University of Alberta from 1999-2004 . “A lot of times coaches get maybe too much credit and too much blame when things go good or bad, but I think in this situation because of the circumstances when Kris took the team over, it’s hard to ignore the impact he’s had on this team.”

The fall struggles feel far away now, with the Oilers in the final against Florida and four victories away from the franchise's first championship since 1990. None of this seemed possible under Jay Woodcroft. Knoblauch replaced him Nov. 12 and brought a straightforward, calm approach to a star-studded team that needed a steady hand.

The organization found that in the 45-year-old from the Saskatchewan prairie, who has traversed North America with wife Autumn and children Marek and Emry. He abandoned his dream of being a police officer to go into coaching, a path that has allowed him to make use of his education degree.

“He’s not a teller and a yeller — he’s a teacher," said longtime junior hockey executive Sherry Bassin, who owned the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League during part of Knoblauch's run there. “He’s a student of the game.”

A decade after coaching Connor McDavid in Erie, Knoblauch has again gotten the best out of the sport's biggest star and his teammates, from Leon Draisaitl to goaltender Stuart Skinner. Daum believes Knoblauch is the same person he was more than two decades ago; now 45, he has not wavered from his approach.

“He doesn’t really get worked up over too much, and he’s not screaming in your ear or whatever it may be,” said Detroit forward Alex DeBrincat, who played three seasons for Knoblauch in Erie, culminating with an OHL title in 2017. “It kind of keeps that calm vibe on the bench, and I think you just kind of stick to the game plan and play your game. I think that’s a big thing with why he’s had teams that are successful.”

Much like DeBrincat, Florida Panthers forward Sam Reinhart credited Knoblauch for being a big part of his development during their time together in junior with the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice.

“Seems like a lifetime ago,” Reinhart said. “He’s obviously had a tremendous amount of success since, so no surprise he’s gotten to where he is.”

COACH'S APPROACH

Bassin recalls one day walking into Knoblauch's office — in the front of the building, right by the door so he could greet players and staff every day — and noticed a binder filled with hundreds of practice drills open on the desk. Written across the diagrams in red ink were the words, “DOES NOT WORK.”

Knoblauch refused to throw it out; he wanted to remind himself and be better next time, something that he translates to his players.

“He always wants the best out of you, and that’s the way he’s always taught,” said Tampa Bay defenseman Darren Raddysh, who played five Erie seasons under Knoblauch. “Whether it’s in video or just having a conversation with him, you just feel that sense of calmness with him and you can kind of just take his lead.”

And those interactions are rarely straight criticism. After a regular-season loss, Knoblauch called injured players Dylan Strome and Andre Burakovsky into his office to tell him he thought Erie could have won if they were in the lineup.

“That kind of confidence that he instilled in guys, I think it just builds for the future and it makes you want to play for a guy like that,” said Strome, who considers Knoblauch one of his favorite coaches. “(He) just created that winning culture and was a lot of fun to play for.”

SOLVING CHALLENGES

Knoblauch broke into the NHL as an assistant with Philadelphia in 2017 and spent two seasons there before four years running the American Hockey League’s Hartford Wolf Pack. He has shown a knack for handling difficult situation.

This postseason alone he made two major calls: pulling Skinner for journeyman backup Calvin Pickard in the second round against Vancouver before going back to his starter, and inserting defenseman Philip Broberg into the lineup three games into the Western Conference final against Dallas, trailing 2-1 in the series.

Edmonton has not lost since.

“That’s the art of coaching: managing your players, managing your team to give yourself the best chance to win, knowing who gives you the best chance to win, understanding the personalities involved, understanding your team,” Daum said.

Knoblauch clearly understands his team and what buttons to push, doing so in such an unassuming way that Bassin describes him as a “down-home country boy.”

It's that style that has gotten the Oilers this far and made so many root for Knoblauch to hoist the Cup.

“People respect him also because aside from his hockey knowledge and what he does, he’s just a very good human being,” Bassin said. "To know him is to like him. But there’s a difference between being liked and respected. If you can be both, fine. If you can only be one, be respected. Kris Knoblauch is respected and liked.”

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AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, contributed.

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AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://www.apnews.com/hub/NHL