"I want players that want to win," Kris Knoblauch stated on July 29, the day he joined the Rangers organization as the Head Coach of the Hartford Wolf Pack. "I want a group that wants to win, wants the organization to have success. When the team has success, individual players become recognized."
So do their coaches. In this case it is Knoblauch, who this past Sunday was named as one of the four American Hockey League bench bosses to have the honor of coaching in the AHL All-Star Classic on Jan. 26 and 27 outside Los Angeles, running the team from the Atlantic Division - the division in which his Wolf Pack are second to nobody heading into the New Year.
In fact, with 45 points through 34 games, Hartford currently stands atop the entire AHL Eastern Conference, and Knoblauch has coached six players this season who have seen action for the Rangers in 2019-20, including Fil Chytil and Ryan Lindgren. Knoblauch is eager to deflect praise for all of this onto others, but come game day on Jan. 27 (with the Skills Competition on the 26th), it'll be Knoblauch standing behind an All-Star bench, the only one of the four All-Star coaches who is in his first year coaching his club.
"Obviously I'm very happy with the way things have gone. The transition here to Hartford has gone even better than I'd hoped," Knoblauch said in an interview with NYRangers.com on Wednesday, one day after his Pack beat Bridgeport, the Islanders' affiliate, for their third win in four games to close out 2019. "But a lot of things were in place in the organization: Bringing in the veteran players that they did, and then also the young prospects that have joined our group have really made a big contribution to our team."
Knoblauch is new to the AHL, but hardly to winning: Seven seasons, and titles in two different leagues, as a Major Junior head coach, first with WHL Kootenay and then OHL Erie, which under Knoblauch became the only Canadian Hockey League team ever to win 50 games in four consecutive seasons. He joined the Rangers organization after two seasons as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers; wanting to be a head coach again, he accepted the position in Hartford and has brought his aptitude for winning with him to the XL Center.
"Very deserving," Steven Fogarty said of Knoblauch's All-Star honor. Fogarty is the Hartford captain this season, and the team's second-leading scorer, but was speaking this week in Edmonton, preparing to play his second game this season for the Rangers after a Dec. 28 call-up. "Since day one, guys have just bought into what he's been preaching, both him and (Associate Head Coach) Gord Murphy.
"He's just a guy you want to play for and want to win for. He brought that winning culture and we're approaching games expecting to win, and that's something that I think is super important."
"The thing I see is, these players are more concerned with the team's success rather than individual accolades, and whether they're being called up or getting awards or whatever it is," Knoblauch said. "They just want to contribute and help the team win, and I think that is the main reason why we've had success this year."
Still, as Knoblauch says, the accolades follow the winning, and it is a sure bet that Knoblauch will not find himself alone among the Hartford contingent at the AHL All-Star Classic. The league will announce its All-Star players on Friday, but Igor Shesterkin, for one, shouldn't hold off on travel plans: The Wolf Pack's rookie goaltender, who turned 24 on Monday, is up among the AHL leaders in goals-against average (1.98, 1st), wins (14, 2nd, two fewer wins in nine fewer games than the league leader), save percentage (.931, 4th) and shutouts (three, 3rd).
Those numbers should be more than enough to win over the All-Star gatekeepers; to his Coach, Shesterkin has meant a great deal more.
"He is a really good professional. He comes to the rink, works hard, is focused every day, whether it's practice or games," Knoblauch said. "We've been talking a little bit about our veteran leadership and guys like (Vincent) LoVerde and (Phil) Di Giuseppe coming in and being excellent role models, but here is a rookie in his first year in the American League, and he has set the bar very high for others to follow just with his professionalism.
"As for his play, I think the highlights and his numbers speak for themselves about how well he's playing. I believe he'd be our MVP for the first half of the year."
And then there is Joey Keane, tied for second in goals (six) and eighth in points (21) among AHL defensemen - "but he doesn't get enough credit for his defensive play right now," Knoblauch said. "He's a strong young man who moves very well around the ice, which helps him so much defensively and takes away time and space from the opposition, not allowing them to make plays."
Keane, no doubt, is one of the organization's blueliners who have benefited from working both with Knoblauch and with Murphy, a defenseman with 862 NHL games and near two decades of NHL coaching experience under his belt. Murphy spent the last five years as an assistant on Philadelphia's bench, the last two next to Knoblauch, and four days after Knoblauch was hired, Murphy came aboard to join him in Hartford.
"I just knew what a good coach he is, how he knows the systems and is a good teacher to especially the defensemen," Knoblauch said. "He understands what it takes to be a National Hockey League defenseman, and that's ultimately our goal, to mold these young men and get them ready for the NHL. He has done an outstanding job with that."
Hockey and teaching are two fields in Knoblauch's wheelhouse: He was a substitute schoolteacher on the side when he was starting out in coaching, and thought that might be his career path while he was earning his graduate-level degree in Education at the University of Alberta a little over a decade ago.
Fogarty did not know this about Knoblauch. "But that doesn't surprise me," he said. "Just the way he builds relationships with the players -- I think that's an important part of leadership and coaching, is understanding each guy's different, each guy ticks a different way. I think he's good at bringing that out in everybody."
For four months now he has been bringing out the best in the Wolf Pack, and for his accomplishments he will see what he can bring out of the Atlantic Division All-Stars come Jan. 27 in Southern California, the first time the event will be held west of the Mississippi. He isn't exactly sure what to expect when he gets there. "I think it'll be a nice break," Knoblauch said, "and I'll enjoy just the different scenery and a more relaxed environment and hanging out with a lot of hockey people" - and that includes those players who have earned their way to this event.
"For them to get awarded a chance to play in that All-Star Game, it's quite an honor, and it should be," Knoblauch said, "because they're among the best in the American Hockey League this season."
So are their coaches.