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Wild, wild west Oilers drama

By Lori Bennett

National Sports Columnist

NHL Noise

There was more drama out of the wild, wild west this past week. On Sunday, November 12th, Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland made his move and fired Coach Jay Woodcroft and his assistant, Dave Manson. Shortly thereafter, the Oilers announced they had hired Kris Knoblauch as their new head coach, and that senior advisor Paul Coffey would be joining his coaching staff as an assistant.

Immediate reaction was not positive. Many suspected that Connor McDavid was the behind-the-scenes architect of this emergency renovation, which McD quickly denied, saying he learned of the coaching staff change when he woke up to a text on Sunday morning, when the deed was already done. In fact, the hire is likely driven by Oilers CEO Jeff Jackson, who was known to have a longstanding appreciation for Knoblauch. When Jackson was an agent, many of his clients played for Knoblauch.

Pundits have been fairly unanimous that this was an unfair firing — that Woodcroft was a good coach for the Oilers, and that the real failure lies at Holland’s feet for not having given the coach a solid option in net. You won’t hear me challenge that – it feels like I’ve been writing the same thing for years. The core weakness in Edmonton is goaltending.

But call me skeptical about the coach’s blamelessness. The Oilers have had unreliable netminding for years, and they have not been this bad. Their defensive structure in front of Campbell and Skinner has been especially stinky this season, and that’s on coaching. Either the system is problematic, or your players just aren’t executing for you.

The Oilers won their first two games under Knoblauch, but the coaching change will not be enough. I’ll write it one more time — the Edmonton Oilers desperately need an upgrade in net, and if you’re a fan of the Oil I hope they’ve made a trade by the time you’re reading this.

The Montreal Canadiens are a potential trade partner for the Oilers. They’re one of the teams carrying three goalies on their roster because they fear losing one for nothing if they place him on waivers to loan to their AFL affiliates. These teams are all waiting for the right offers to materialize.

Habs GM Kent Hughes is not snoozing while he waits. Reports broke last week, and were confirmed by Samuel Montembeault, that the Habs were negotiating a contract extension with the young netminder. If rumours can be believed, the parties are negotiating a three-to-four-year extension worth about ten to twelve million dollars.

Once Monty is under contract, one wonders if this opens the door for the Habs to move on from Jake Allen. The veteran tandem goalie would be an upgrade in Edmonton, even if he isn’t the ace in the hole that the Oilers might like for the McDavid-Draisaitl window.

Speaking of trades, the Calgary Flames look to be gearing up to do some business. Their crop of unrestricted free agent defensemen is attracting interest across the league, and all extension talks have been reportedly put on hold. That means the Flames are considering capitalizing on these players in some fashion of a rebuild.

Of course, a full rebuild is probably off the table with veterans Nazem Kadri, Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar just having signed enormous contracts. But rookie GM Craig Conroy will probably be tempted to move out his unrestricted free agents for picks and prospects who can be important pieces of a retool.

Things came to a head last weekend during Hockey Night in Canada when news broke that Nikita Zadorov had requested a trade out of Calgary and would welcome a move to the Toronto Maple Leafs. This news must be very tempting for GM Brad Treliving, who traded for Zadorov when he was in Calgary, and with the Leafs blue line struggling.

The Leafs are also rumoured to be in on a free agent signing. Prolific goal scorer and owner of three Stanley Cup rings, Patrick Kane, is recovering from hip surgery and approaching a return to the NHL. Toronto is on his potential list of destinations, according to NHL Insiders. I’m not sure offense is what the Leafs need, but Kane knows how to win in the post-season and certainly Toronto could use some help in that category.

While all of these rumours were swirling, the Leafs were out of town — way out of town. They were one of four teams – along with the Detroit Red Wings, the Ottawa Senators and the Minnesota Wild — who were in Sweden for the NHL Global Series 2023. The series took place between Thursday, November 16 and Sunday, November 19 in Stockholm. Each team was due to play two games before returning to North America.

Raptors Racket

This past Wednesday, November 15th, the Toronto Raptors greeted the Milwaukee Bucks while holding onto their .500 record and 10th place in the Eastern Conference. The game was the first ever NBA start for rookie Gradey Dick.

Dick had 11 points, and Scottie Barnes had a strong game scoring 29 with nine rebounds and seven assists. But the Bucks were too much for the young Raptors and the result was a 128-112 loss.

Those two kids are the guys to watch. The next version of the Toronto Raptors will rise and fall on the development of Dick and Barnes.

Blue Jays Babble

Off-season news continues to dribble in for the Toronto Blue Jays with a couple of significant events over the past week. Third baseman Matt Chapman rejected Toronto’s qualifying offer, officially making him a free agent. GM Ross Atkins is on the record as saying he still hopes to sign Chapman as a free agent, but if Chapman signs elsewhere the Jays will receive a compensatory pick in next year’s draft because they gave him a qualifying offer that was declined.

The Blue Jays also added to their coaching staff. DeMarlo Hale, who spent six years in Toronto when John Gibbons was manager, is returning to the club as the associate manager under John Schneider. Hale has been a bench coach for the Cleveland Guardians, most recently, working under Terry Francona.

This change to the coaching staff follows the addition of Carlos Febles as third base coach to replace retiree Luis Rivera, and the reassignment of hitting strategist Dave Hudgens to a player development role based in Dunedin with the Blue Jays minor league affiliate. Don Mattingly is expected to take on a bigger role as offensive coordinator if he is not poached to manage another team. Hale’s addition is a good cushion should Mattingly move on.

As much as we might prefer to hear the Jays have made a big splash in free agency, perhaps some of this past season’s decision-making on the bench were enough to shake things up on that level. The other changes will come as the off-season unfolds.

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