Former Rangers AHL coach clinches Stanley Cup Final trip with Oilers

NHL: New York Islanders at Edmonton Oilers
Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Rangers are not playing in the Stanley Cup Final. But the man who began this season as coach of their AHL affiliate in Hartford will be there.

Kris Knoblauch guided the Edmonton Oilers into the Stanley Cup Final with a 2-1 Game 6 win against the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Final on Sunday night. He’s now trying to become the 10th rookie head coach to win the Stanley Cup and just the second since 1986.

Few, if any, would have had this on the bingo card at the start of the season — since the 45-year-old began it in the American Hockey League, coaching the Wolf Pack.

His fifth season at the helm of the Wolf Pack, though, was interrupted when the Oilers hired him to replace fired coach Jay Woodcroft on Nov. 12.

Knoblauch inherited a 3-9-1 Edmonton team that sat last in the Pacific Division and 31st overall in the NHL. The Oilers stabilized, were 8-3-1 in their first 12 games under Knoblauch and roared to a 104-point season, finishing second in the Pacific.

Under Knoblauch, the Oilers were 46-18-5, a sterling .703 points percentage.

Edmonton has had an impressive run this postseason, knocking off the Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks, and now the Stars, who clinched the No. 1 seed in the West with the League’s second-best record, behind the Rangers. The Oilers are 12-6 in the postseason and own the best postseason power play (37.3 percent) and penalty kill (93.9 percent).

The Rangers have duel reasons to root for Knoblauch in the Stanley Cup Final. Not only was he one of their own, but he’ll be coaching against the Florida Panthers, who just ended the Rangers season with a six-game win in the Eastern Conference Final.

Related: Here’s what’s next for Rangers after being eliminated from Stanley Cup Playoffs

Rangers passed over Kris Knoblauch twice when hiring coaches

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at New York Rangers
Credit: POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

Knoblauch was in the running for the Rangers coaching gig last offseason following the firing of Gerard Gallant, with general manager Chris Drury ultimately electing to go with Peter Laviolette, who led the Blueshirts to the Presidents’ Trophy and a franchise-record 114 points.

Knoblauch had a taste of NHL experience, serving as an assistant with the Philadelphia Flyers from 2017-19 and filling in as the Rangers interim head coach in 2021 when David Quinn missed six games when in NHL COVID-19 protocol. Knoblauch was 4-2-0, opening the stretch with a 9-0 win over the Flyers.

The Rangers made two coaching changes since Knoblauch joined the organization at the start of the 2019-20 season. Despite an excellent 119-90-32 record in four-plus seasons, turning around a Hartford squad that had struggled for many years, Knoblauch was passed over in favor of coaches with prior NHL experience.

Edmonton took a chance on him after a slow start, and it’s paid dividends. The Oilers have never lacked talent — look no further than Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, for starters — but now they’ve evolved into a complete hockey team that’s built for postseason play.

Knoblauch has a chance to win the Stanley Cup in his first NHL season and bring Edmonton back to glory for the first time since 1990. The 2024 Stanley Cup Final starts Saturday with Game 1 against the Panthers in Sunrise, Florida.

Lou Orlando has spent the past two seasons as a New York Rangers beat reporter for WFUV Sports. The... More about Lou Orlando

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