Nugent-Bowman: A new Oilers coach, Connor McDavid and a problem of perception

EDMONTON — There’s nothing Connor McDavid wants more than to win a Stanley Cup.

That’s what he’s said repeatedly. That’s what everyone around him has always said. Lifting a Stanley Cup over his head is how he feels he’ll garner consideration as one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. He doesn’t think he’ll ever be in that conversation without his name etched on the holy grail.

So, winning is his singular hockey ambition. Not goals or assists. Not Hart or Rocket Richard Trophies or other individual accolades.

In eight-plus years of NHL hockey, he’s never given us evidence to the contrary.

Winning a championship is the stated goal of the higher-ups in the Oilers organization, too.

It’s through this lens that some of the moves made over the last few months and up to Sunday’s coaching change present a somewhat confusing picture.

First, the Oilers hired McDavid’s agent Jeff Jackson to be the CEO of hockey operations in August. Now, they’ve brought in his old junior coach Kris Knoblauch to replace Jay Woodcroft.

In a market where hiring decisions going back decades have often been criticized for being more about who candidates know rather than what they know, those additions — and their connections to McDavid — have raised eyebrows.

Of course, Jackson and Knoblauch could very well be the best people for the jobs. Jackson is a talented executive and Knoblauch has long been touted as an up-and-coming coach to watch.

Still, those hires have put the spotlight squarely on McDavid. They give the impression that the team captain needs to sign off on every major organizational move, stacking the odds for old business partners and coaches in the process.

To be sure, McDavid does have influence in this organization. GM Ken Holland likes to talk to members of his leadership group. McDavid gives his opinions. His sway helped get Connor Brown signed and kept Warren Foegele in the fold in the offseason.

But on Monday, the captain pushed back when faced with questions about his perceived control over the coaching change.

“I woke up to a text like probably you guys did as well,” he said when asked if he had a heads-up about Sunday’s news. “I know the narrative out there, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.”

The narrative in Edmonton is about far more than the team’s record through 13 games. Leon Draisaitl’s contract is up a year before McDavid’s, but the bigger angst in Northern Alberta is that the captain will bolt when his deal expires after the 2025-26 season.

He’s eligible to sign an extension on July 1, 2025.

It certainly seems the Oilers are feeling the pressure. Perhaps they believe if they can’t win with McDavid on the ice, maybe they can win him over off it.

But McDavid has never needed pampering. He values loyalty, whether that’s been to the Oilers or the OHL’s Erie Otters before that. Both were laughingstocks before he arrived.

Being a part of winning teams is all he’s ever cared about. That mindset shows up in how he plays and leads on and off the ice. The way the Oilers will keep McDavid in Edmonton long term is either by winning it all or proving they’re as close as any team can be in a 32-team, parity-filled league.

A month into this campaign, the Oilers don’t look particularly close. The season has been snowballing out of control, leading to the events of the past few days.

Here’s the thing, though: Until this stretch, the Woodcroft era was mostly marked by winning. Yes, Woodcroft was axed because of a few dreadful games that resulted in an awful 12-game stretch. (He lasted 13 games, and a 3-9-1 record, but the die was already cast before Saturday’s 4-1 win in Seattle.)

But his .643 points percentage was the best of any coach in franchise history, albeit in 133 games behind the bench — just 20 more than Dallas Eakins. The Oilers won three playoff rounds in two years on his watch. That’s enough to earn praise and raises in a lot of markets.

McDavid seemed genuinely disappointed on Monday that Woodcroft was fired. Assistant coach Dave Manson, too. Don’t forget, it was at the end of the playoff series against the Kings in April that McDavid called Woodcroft a top-five coach in the NHL.

“I loved playing for Woody. I loved playing for Manse,” McDavid said. “Two guys that I think are unbelievable coaches. I really think that they’ll be (back) in the league very, very soon.”

With 10 points in his first 11 games, McDavid said he feels personal ownership for the team’s poor start. His 73-point pace heading into Knoblauch’s first game on Monday is shockingly low.

“Our play hasn’t been good enough. I’m first on the list there,” he said. “Our play needs to be better. It’s the reason that two good guys lost their job.”

It’s also the reason McDavid’s old junior coach has his first shot as an NHL head coach. Asked about his relationship with the new coach, McDavid further distanced himself from the decision makers. He was quick to mention that the time they spent together in OHL Erie was long ago — more than eight years, in fact. That’s a lifetime in hockey circles.

Knoblauch becomes McDavid’s fifth NHL coach in nine years. Granted, that’s quite a few. But McDavid isn’t looking to get coaches fired. More pointedly, he’s not the one calling the shots. That was particularly the case with the Woodcroft-Knoblauch switch. He made that crystal clear.

McDavid is the kind of guy who would play for a three-eyed, green-faced alien if it gave him the best chance to win a Stanley Cup.

That’s all that matters to him. That’s all that should concern the Oilers, too.

Now, it’s on Knoblauch to find a way to turn around this season — and the narratives surrounding it.

If he can’t, his history with No. 97 might not be enough to influence the future.

(Photo: Jeff Vinnick / NHLI via Getty Images)

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