Morning-skate absences don't bother new Edmonton Oilers head coach

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The absence of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl from Sunday’s optional morning skate was certainly noticed by Edmonton Oilers head coach Kris Knoblauch.

But not because he was interested in taking attendance ahead of his team’s first game back off an extended road trip through the Eastern Conference.

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Rather, the freshly minted NHL head coach was more focused on seeing how his star players have been handling the work load, including the effects of recent travel, as the season wears on.

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“I think rest is so important in this league and I want to give the players rest,” Knoblauch said following Sunday morning’s on-ice session ahead of the game against the Anaheim Ducks at Rogers Place. “When they are on the ice, I want them making the most out of it.

“So, when I have my practices, I want to make sure that it’s productive, it’s hard and it’s game-like. It’s not, we’re just hitting the ice again and just going through the motions.”

No one was accusing the Oilers of that following a 5-0 shutout over the Washington Capitals to close out a four-game road trip, even if the previous three didn’t go their way.

It was the most convincing victory of the season, albeit one where the bar hadn’t been set very high previously.

And when they got back on home ice Sunday, it was without the majority of their big guns, including Draisaitl and McDavid, who led the team in scoring heading into the game against Anaheim.

“If I’m expecting our players to be on the ice and having productive practices, I always have to respect that they need their time off and they need the rest so that when they are on the ice with us, they are 100 per cent,” Knoblauch said. “As for me checking out (who was practising and who was absent), it wasn’t so much to see which players were on the ice.

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“I did see, but it was mostly just what the formality is. What kind of drills the coaches are doing.”

After all, Knoblauch was just two weeks into his new role Sunday after taking over for Jay Woodcroft following a start to the season that could be described as disappointing, at best. And the replacement is still feeling things out, both around Rogers Place and on the road with his team.

“Just the more feel I have, I am walking around through the dressing room just to see who’s hanging out with each other, who’s talking, what their pre-game routines are and all those kind of things that, as a coach, I think is important to get a handle on everything,” Knoblauch said.

At this point, he said he hasn’t noticed any sort of different atmosphere between playing at home or on the road.

“For me, it’s so new right now that I’m not sure how our team responds, what our team needs playing at home or on the road,” Knoblauch said. “The first two games, just coming in here for me and getting used to the surroundings and everything that was going on, there was a lot of uncertainty for me.”

His new surroundings might not exactly feel familiar at this point, but the look of his roster did heading into Sunday’s game. Knoblauch didn’t tinker with anything following the shutout against Alexander Ovechkin and the Caps, which saw the Oilers post their first clean sheet of the season with Stuart Skinner making 25 saves.

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But for as good as that looked, it also comes with a feeling of now-or-never if the Oilers hope to find the consistency it will take to climb back into a playoff race. And it begins with Anaheim on Sunday.

“This is one of the many teams that we need to pass, obviously, so it’s an important game,” Knoblauch said. “But so many games are important right now, when you don’t get off to the start that you want to and you have to catch up ground.”

But it has to happen now.

“I think we’re getting really close. Every day, we’re trying to build something. It’s not a switch we turn on overnight, but we should continue this build of doing the right thing every night and I think we’re on the right pace,” said Oilers forward Ryan McLeod. “We have the pieces we’re going to score with, we just need to be better as a group and defend and start playing the right way.

“The coach has put in a really good plan to start doing that, so I think everyone’s super motivated to take that next step.”

E-mail: [email protected]

On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge

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