The Otters' coaching change, ousting Robbie Ftorek to bring in former Ed Chynoweth Cup-winning coach Kris Knoblauch, will be worth watching in terms of whether it amounts to a sea change for Erie. The Otters, who are last in the OHL's Western Conference with a 7-15-2-3 record and were subjecting goalies Oscar Dansk and Devin Williams to regular 40-shot shellings, including a lot of high-percentage shots.
The 34-year-old Knoblauch showed in his all-too-brief two-season tenure with the Kootenay Ice that he can make a team's whole greater than the sum of its parts. Managing partner Sherry Bassin might just be doing now what he might have done during next summer's coaching carousel. In this case, a coach with a recent championship on his résumé was available during the season, thanks to the, uh, unique circumstances that put Knoblauch out of a job with the Ice.
Ftorek resumed coaching this summer just weeks after the death of his 23-year-old daughter, Anna Ftorek. He might be too proud to say whether that affected him at work, but it's part of the story. In any event, the Otters had to do something:
"Robbie has a distinguished career in coaching and is one of the classiest people in the game," Bassin said. "He is a great mentor on and off the ice. I decided after considerable thought to make this difficult decision and to move in a different direction. The entire Otters family has the utmost respect for Robbie, Wendy and their family and expect that he will go on to bigger and better opportunities."
"Based on this decision, I negotiated through the night and am happy to announce that Kris Knoblauch has accepted, in principle, the position as head coach of the Erie Otters." (ottershockey.com)
Ontario Hockey League observers' only exposure to Knoblauch came during the 2011 MasterCard Memorial Cup. The Ice had rolled through the WHL playoffs by being opportunistic and riding a hot goalie, Nathan Lieuwen, to a 16-3 record that included knocking off much more potent teams such as the Saskatoon Blades and Portland Winterhawks, each of whom boasted a centre who had played on the first line for Team Canada (Brayden Schenn and Ryan Johansen).
Knoblauch might be coming in with the image of being a defensive coach. That is clearly Erie's weak point, which will lead to questions about how this affects McDavid, the 15-year-old who is in the top 20 in OHL scoring with 34 points in 27 games. To be fair, it's doubtful Knoblauch had the clamps on Sam Reinhart last season. The Ice centre scored nearly a point per game in his age-16 season. Reinhart thrived within that system, so McDavid ought to be able to as well. But people will be on the lookout for it.
If new Erie coach Kris Knoblauch puts in the same D system he had with Kootenay, I might just have to tear my eyes out for Knights-Otters.
— Ryan Pyette (@RyanatLFPress) November 29, 2012
OHL news - The Erie Otters have fired head coach Robbie Ftorek. Kris Knoblauch takes over. With Connor McDavid on the team the Otters...
— Jeff Marek (@JeffMarek) November 29, 2012
..have to get better asap. Expectations were much higher for this team this season. Next year even more.
— Jeff Marek (@JeffMarek) November 29, 2012
It is a move clearly made in hope of salvaging something and setting up for McDavid's sophomore season, helping sell hope in Erie or wherever. The Otters received an absolute gift by finishing last in a year when such a gifted player opted in to the OHL draft a year early.
Failing to capitalize on it between now and when McDavid is drafted in 2015, though, would fall on Bassin and the Otters front office. Knoblauch, like Ftorek before him, is playing the cards he's dealt in terms of the players Erie trades for and drafts. If it's more of the same under Knoblauch, then people will glean that the issue is not the head coach.
Hopefully people do spare a thought for Robbie Ftorek. A coach being fired is part of the hockey business. It is never pleasant, especially with what he and his spouse, Wendy Ftorek, have been through recently.
Sorry to hear that Robbie Ftorek was fired as Head Coach of the Erie Otters. Classy guy with a top notch hockey mind. I'm really surprised.
— Steve Fitzsimmons (@playbyplayguy) November 29, 2012
Robbie Ftorek was fired coaching Wayne Gretzky in LA now fired coaching Connor McDavid in Erie.
— steve simmons (@simmonssteve) November 29, 2012
Erie Otters fire head coach Robbie Ftorek. All the best to Robbie. Definitely one of the most creative coaches I've ever had.
— Adam Scully (@adam_scully) November 29, 2012
Bassin's timing is rather cagey. Erie's next three games — a Sault Ste. Marie/Sudbury northern swing and Knoblauch's home debut vs. Ottawa — are all against sub-.500 teams. Making a change now gives the new guy a better chance to look good.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.