As Dylan Strome listed the Erie Otters’ accomplishments over the past few years and the talented players to come out of the junior program, the Arizona Coyotes’ top prospect quickly gave credit to Kris Knoblauch, the coach who made it happen.
“He’ll be in the NHL in no time,” Strome said recently.
That time is now as the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday hired the rising coaching star as an assistant on Dave Hakstol’s staff. One of the hottest names in NHL coaching circles, Knoblauch is coming off an Ontario Hockey League title and four consecutive 50-win seasons as he helped Connor McDavid and many other talented teenagers develop into successful professionals.
Getting his first major-league coaching job is the next logical step for the 38-year-old Knoblauch, who is very well-regarded around hockey. Agent Jeff Jackson has been glad to send McDavid and prospects Taylor and Darren Raddysh, Travis Dermott and Alex DeBrincat to Erie, where Knoblauch improved their NHL stock.
“Connor McDavid was going to go play in the NHL no matter if Kris coached him or not, but he made Connor a better player,” Jackson said. “He teaches a culture of winning and speed and puck movement, but he empowers all the kids.”
Knoblauch also had a hand in the development of Washington Capitals forward Andre Burakovsky and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Connor Brown in Erie and Buffalo Sabres forward Sam Reinhart during his time coaching the Kootenay Ice, which included a Western Hockey League championship.
Brown said Knoblauch deserves “a massive amount” of credit for turning the Otters into a junior hockey powerhouse and compared his style to that of Mike Babcock, the Stanley Cup- and two-time Olympic gold medal-winning coach of the Maple Leafs.
“They deliver information in a way you really understand,” Brown said. “He brings that classroom mentality to the dressing room.”
Going to a young team like Philadelphia, which might have 33-year-old Valtteri Filppula as its oldest player, looks like a perfect fit for Knoblauch, who learned early in his career that drawing up power plays and forechecking strategies was a small fraction of the job compared to managing individuals. In Erie, Knoblauch and his staff created personality profiles of players to know how best to communicate with them.
“He does a lot of investigative work to try and find out how they think, how they respond, what do they respond best to,” Erie general manager Dave Brown said. “Any time a coach takes that much time and pride into doing that kind of thing, I think you’ll see somebody who’s going to be successful.”
With an emphasis on speed, skill and offense, Knoblauch had three different players lead the league in scoring in his four full seasons in Erie: Brown in 2013-14, Strome in 2014-15 and DeBrincat in 2016-17. His team ranked first or second on the power play all four years, too, a good sign for the Flyers as Knoblauch will be responsible for improving a power play that finished 20th in the NHL.
“You see in the NHL how key special teams are,” said Strome, the third pick in 2015 draft when McDavid went first. “He’s so good at special teams. They’re probably his go-to.”
That’s one part of his repertoire. Flyers general manager Ron Hextall cited Knoblauch’s experiencing coaching “a lot of good young offensive gifted players” as the reason he was the Flyers’ choice to replace Joe Mullen.
“Kris’ teams had a lot of success on the power play, in the goal-scoring department, goals against and obviously just the success overall,” Hextall said on a conference call. “We liked his personality, we feel he’ll fit in really well with our group and he has a good hockey mind.”
Knoblauch, a native of Imperial, Saskatchewan, has been in the mix for NHL and American Hockey League jobs for a few years now and had his choice of paths with a larger goal in mind.
“I do have aspirations to someday be an NHL head coach, and to do that you have to get some more experience and coach somewhere else,” Knoblauch said last week. “As a coach you have to get out of your comfort zone and you have to try different things. No better way to try different things than to coach a different team.”
Jackson said Knoblauch, a New York Islanders seventh-round pick in 1999 who played one year in the minors and another in France before going into coaching, “doesn’t get rattled” and that players gain confidence from his calm demeanor. Those who know Knoblauch well don’t expect that to change as he goes from coaching kids to grown men.
“He’s a pretty level-headed guy, so I don’t think there’s going to be a whole lot of issue there,” said Mark Holick, who had Knoblauch as an assistant for three years in Kootenay. “In the pros I think that’s a good trait to have.”
His Erie teams were among the least-penalized and highest-scoring teams in the OHL. Part of that is thanks to another element that should transfer well to the pros: Knoblauch’s willingness to to tailor his systems to the talent he’s coaching.
“He’s always adapting,” Dave Brown said. “Kris is open-minded. He’ll do whatever it takes to adapt to his players and I think he’s always learning.”