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Erie Otters shuffle: Kris Knoblauch replaces Robbie Ftorek as coach

Kris Knoblauch took Kootenay to the Memorial Cup semifinal in 2011 (OHL Images)Twenty-seven games into the Connor McDavid era, the Erie Otters have made a huge change in direction behind the bench.

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.

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.

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 neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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