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Oilers fire head coach Woodcroft; name Knoblauch replacement

Jay Woodcroft Jay Woodcroft - The Canadian Press

EDMONTON — Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson's fates were already sealed before the Edmonton Oilers took the ice in Seattle Saturday night.

Despite the Oilers' 4-1 win, raising their record to 3-9-1, the decision had already been made by CEO of hockey operations Jeff Jackson and general manager Ken Holland to fire the head coach and the assistant in charge of defence.

They passed on the news to Woodcroft and Manson early Sunday morning.

“Jeff and I talked (Saturday) afternoon, the team was on the road.” said Holland as new head coach Kris Knoblauch was introduced to the media Sunday afternoon at Rogers Place. “We made the decision, obviously we had to get the wheels in motion.

"We had to get permission from the (New York) Rangers, and we had to negotiate a contract. We played on Saturday, we play Monday, we play Wednesday. So, whether it was yesterday or the day before, it wasn’t something that was going to transpire in 12 hours.”

The Oilers had to reach out for permission because Knoblauch was in his fifth season coaching the Hartford Wolf Pack, the Rangers’ American Hockey League affiliate.

He was previously an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers and has also coached Oilers star Connor McDavid for three seasons with the Ontario Hockey League's Erie Otters.

Knoblauch is no stranger to Edmonton, where he played his junior hockey and spent five years at the University of Alberta.

Paul Coffey, who was already with the organization as an adviser to owner Daryl Katz, will replace Manson.

Jackson, who was McDavid’s agent before taking the job with the Oilers before the start of the season, said the star centre had no input in the hiring of his former junior coach.

“No, we didn’t consult with the players on this decision,” Jackson said. “We didn’t speak with Connor or Leon (Draisaitl) or Nuge (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) or (Darnell) Nurse or any of the leadership group.

"These guys are here to play hockey, they know that. They don’t like being involved in these types of decisions.”

Coffey said the offer to become an assistant coach came as a “total shock” to him and his wife, and his first thoughts were of sympathy for Woodcroft and Manson.

“Two great coaches had to take the burden for the start of this team,” Coffey said.

Holland defended the decision to fire Woodcroft, who went 79-41-13 over parts of three seasons with the Oilers, so early into the season.

“We’re in the win-now mode,” said Holland. “We’ve talked about that over the last few years that I’ve been here. Since I've got here, where you look at the team — the players on the team, the age of the team — the time is now to try and win.

"You can get into a debate if 12 games or 13 games is enough. I think if we would have waited another 10 games and if things don't change it’s probably too late. So Jeff and I felt something needed to be done.”

McDavid has won the scoring title five times, in addition to earning three Hart Trophies as league MVP since beginning his career with the Oilers in 2015. Knoblauch will be his fifth head coach.

"I can't control what happened in the past with coaching changes," Jackson said.

The Oilers are off to an awful start in 2023-24.

Goaltenders Stuart Skinner and Jack Campbell have combined for the league’s worst save percentage. Campbell was sent to the minors after clearing waivers despite being in the second of a five-year, US$25 million deal. McDavid has just 10 points in 11 games, while Draisaitl only has five goals this season.

“Coming in midseason, you can only do so much,” Knoblauch said.

But one thing Knoblauch wants to stress is the Oilers' need to move the puck a lot quicker.

“It’s about playing fast, and most of that comes from our defencemen, moving the puck up, and who are very capable of skating the puck up, and there are times when that is going to be necessary," he said.

"But, ultimately, it’s about getting the puck up the ice as quick as possible into our forwards’ hands so they can make plays. And simpler is often the best play.”

Knoblauch added that it’s time for his star players to stop putting so much pressure on themselves.

“I’ve learned a lot of lessons in Hartford, junior hockey and my time in Philadelphia.” Knoblauch said. “I think the most important thing is that your players have to feel good about themselves in order to perform.

"Right now, I see some guys who are beaten up. They are frustrated. They put so much pressure on themselves to perform, and it hasn’t been healthy for them. Sometimes, you get a new head coach, and it’s a new regular season.”