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Kris Knoblauch is more than a footnote in Rangers COVID coaching gap

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If all goes well, the plan is for David Quinn to step behind the bench Sunday afternoon in D.C. and coach the Rangers against the Capitals following what would be an 11-day and six-game COVID-induced hiatus.

That is not set in stone, there are still protocols with which to comply, but if that is the case, that would leave Saturday afternoon’s match against the Flyers for Kris Knoblauch, the acting head coach who has overseen a 4-1 run since stepping behind the Blueshirts’ bench on Mar. 15.

The 42-year-old Knoblauch takes no credit at all for it. As he would tell it, he has been nothing more than a conduit between the team and Quinn. There is surely more to it than that, but that is his story and he is sticking to it.

“I’m enjoying it, I’m loving the experience, I like being here, it’s been a lot of fun and I’m learning some stuff,” Knoblauch said when asked if he takes pride in the club’s revival under his watch. “But taking pride, no.

“I’m here, I call the lines, there’s very little work I’m doing. The [permanent] coaching staff really ultimately sets the game plan and put the systems in place for the players to succeed. Right now I’m just relaying that message for a few games, but like I said, I’m enjoying it but take responsibility for it, absolutely very little of it.”

Knoblauch seems a bit more low-key than Quinn, but that’s a description that might be applied to about half the population in New York. Whatever it is that Quinn is imparting to the second-year coach of the AHL Wolf Pack, Knoblauch has transmitted the word in a constructive manner.

It must be somewhat tricky for a coach to become a caretaker and not to insert himself too forcefully into a temp job that comes with a defined expiration date. Yet Knoblauch, who held prior roles as head coach of WHL Kootenay and OHL Erie and assistant coach of the Flyers before moving to Hartford last season, said he has been true to himself.

kris knoblauch stands behind the rangers bench
Kris Knoblauch has done more than just fill in for David Quinn.
Getty Images

“My coaching style is very similar but certainly there are some aspects that are different,” he said. “I know when you are with a team a little more you are a little more invested and your demeanor changes a little bit, but I feel that wherever I’ve coached, I’ve tried to be the same. That’s who I am.

“Wherever that’s as an assistant, a head coach, junior, pro, wherever it is, I try and stay the same.”

The Rangers have obviously adapted to the unusual circumstance. But then, pretty much every team has been confronted by uncommon, if not unusual events, through this season. The lack of normalcy has become the norm, not only for the NHL, but the world.

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“It’s such a challenging year, we’ve all adapted in different ways, and this is just another obstacle,” said Kevin Rooney, who has turned into a very valuable free agent signing. “I think the [permanent] coaching staff has done a great job of sending their message to coach Knoblauch and the staff here for them to deliver it to us.

“At the end of the day, our leaders have really stepped up. Think about the play of Mika [Zibanejad], [Adam] Fox, Kreids [Chris Kreider], and the first two lines, those guys have really taken it to another level. That helps significantly when you lose your coaching staff.”

Quinn has not communicated directly with the team as a group but he has kept in contact with his players through his stretch of self-isolation.

“He has not talked to the team collectively,” Knoblauch said. “But I know he’s talked to many individuals throughout this time.”

And of course, there is the daily discourse between the head coach in enforced exile and the acting coach behind the bench.

“Every day has been a little bit different,” Knoblauch said of the coach-to-coach interactions. “Game days, usually we’ll talk the day before, he can give us updates on the lineup, who’s going to play, and then in the morning, probably go over more systems, we’ve got a pre-scout that we show the players, and we talk about certain points, what’s necessary to show the players and stuff like that.

“There’s so much uncertainty with the lineup, COVID, if somebody’s missing, if someone gets hurt. Everything is pretty informal but we usually touch base a couple of times a day.”

It is winding down now. One more game is the plan. One more game for Knoblauch, who has stirred the concoction right and who should be remembered as more than a footnote to the season.

And indeed, when the time comes to replace the head coach, as it comes for them all, the hierarchy should remember to place Knoblauch on the list of candidates to succeed Quinn. He is sure succeeding in this role.  

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