New Sabres head coach talked to fans ‘undercover’ in lead up to decision

HC at Noon discussion on why they thought Sabres GM Jason Botterill may have hired a younger head coach who might better related to captain Jack Eichel and their very young core.

No matter what happens during the NHL’s off-season, it’s hard to imagine a more interesting and risky behind-the-bench hire than Buffalo’s decision to bring Ralph Krueger aboard.

By now you probably know his brief NHL track record as a coach. From 2010-12, he served as an assistant with the Edmonton Oilers and took over as head coach in the lockout-shortened 2013 season. Prior to that, Krueger was a long-time coach in Switzerland and Austria, all the way back to 1991-92, just after he retired as a player in the German league.

But ever since the Oilers let him go in favour of Dallas Eakins after just 48 games, Krueger has spent most of his professional life in soccer and served as chairman of the English Premier League’s Southampton FC for the past five years. He briefly returned behind a professional hockey bench in 2016, when he led the identity-less Team Europe to a second place finish at the World Cup.

The risk here is that he’s been away from the NHL game so long that he’ll return a little out of touch, especially compared to other candidates who have been working this job at some level the whole time. But Krueger isn’t worried about that. He said even when he was with Southampton, his day started by loading up NHL.com. He watched games on the regular, and kept close relationships with key figures in the game he met along the way.

“The Olympic Games in 2014 where we had Babcock leading a group of Hitchcock, Lindy Ruff, Claude Julien and myself and the communication that went on there for one year where everybody put everything out on the table and the discussions were really open. Discussions of that nature have stayed on,” Krueger told The Instigators on WGR 550 in Buffalo. Krueger served as a consultant with that Canadian team.

“I had Paul Maurice and Brad Shaw at the World Cup in 2016, we’ve become very close friends, permanently communicating with each other. So all over the league I’ve got people, Jon Cooper down in Tampa and so on, who really are friends through my experience and it’s been helpful.”

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Krueger is all about taking in as much information as he can to formulate an opinion or a way of doing things (“I think it’s important to listen first and foremost”). In fact, he said he did his own little research on the Buffalo market in the weeks leading up to his Wednesday morning hire — and you can’t get any more “in the weeds” than this.

“I came into Buffalo undercover a few weeks ago and walked the streets for five, six hours on one day and three hours the next. I enjoyed the passion of the people. I asked people about hockey.”

If you live in Buffalo, didn’t know what Krueger looked like 24 hours ago, and had an impromptu conversation about the Sabres with a stranger over a playoff game in recent weeks, there’s a chance you influenced the outlook of the team’s new coach.

“I watched two playoff games in…I’m not going to mention the pub that I was in. It was really interesting. I asked people about the Sabres. I asked them how they were feeling about the potential about the group. What I felt was a passion for the game. I really like the size of the market. I’m more a smaller city person than a big city person personally, but also I know the history of the Sabres. I grew up loving to watch the way they played and I can feel the passion from the fan base and the hunger for something good to happen here.”

The potential reward in Krueger is big. Not only did he take the misfit European team to a World Cup Final few expected, but his limited time as Edmonton’s head coach was intriguing. That season Taylor Hall averaged 1.11 points per game — the highest of his career until his MVP campaign. It was also Nail Yakupov’s best points-per-game season and, even with the short schedule, the 31 points he scored was just two off his NHL career best. It was Justin Schultz’s best season as an Oiler and Devan Dubnyk posted a .924 save percentage one year before a disastrous 2013-14 nearly pushed him out of the NHL.

The Oilers missed the playoffs by 10 points, but were still very young and early along in their rebuild. The 45 points they earned in those 48 games was a better pace than any of the next three seasons.

The hope is that Krueger can empower some of Buffalo’s youngsters who have yet to perform. Casey Mittelstadt‘s rookie season ended with a disappointing 25 points. Alexander Nylander hasn’t found consistency or a permanent place on the NHL roster three years after being taken eighth overall.

The important thing is that this isn’t a two-year experiment that ends if Buffalo doesn’t make the playoffs. Ever since Lindy Ruff was dismissed following a 16-year run as head coach, the team has gone through four coaches in six years, which isn’t ideal when you’re searching for identity and accountability from a young core. Krueger’s new contract is a three-year deal, which should be the minimum amount of time he gets to put the Sabres on track.

Krueger is certainly a home run swing by GM Jason Botterill. With a little time and patience among the tough teams and coaches of the Atlantic Division, maybe Krueger can lift Buffalo to new heights and return them to the playoffs — or to contender status.

“I’d love to see that happening when I think of those people who now won’t be able to talk to me in the pub anymore.”

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