Ralph Krueger hasn’t sat idle since the National Hockey League paused its season March 12 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Buffalo Sabres’ coach returned to his offseason home in Switzerland and the time difference allows him to spend his mornings exercising or enjoying nature. The afternoons and evenings are typically filled with Zoom conference calls, including a symposium he delivered to coaches from Hockey Canada on Thursday night.
Krueger did not analyze the Sabres’ season until it became apparent they would not be part of the NHL’s 24-team return-to-play format. He was torn when making his assessment.
On one hand, Krueger is angered by the results. The Sabres finished 25th in the NHL, one win away from qualifying for the postseason format. On the other hand, Krueger is encouraged by how his team embraced his vision for Sabres hockey and developed an identity.
Krueger also expressed an unwavering confidence in his vision for leading the Sabres to the playoffs, and he shouldered the responsibility for the final result.
“I’ve got to be better,” Krueger said during his end-of-season Zoom conference call with reporters Friday. “I’ve got to be better as a coach. I’ve got to be better as a leader. That’s where it starts. And then I have to drive that into the people around me. I have to drive it into the staff, into our high performance staff, into our players and that’s how we will build a winning culture for all, no matter how you judge it.”
Here are five takeaways from Krueger’s 50-minute interview with the media:
1. Krueger embraced Eichel’s expression of frustration: During a conference call with reporters Thursday, Jack Eichel said he’s “fed up with losing” through a “tough five years” with the Sabres. Eichel has yet to appear in a playoff game and Buffalo has been among the worst teams in the NHL since he was drafted second overall.
Despite his reputation as a beacon of positivity, Krueger did not have an issue with Eichel’s comments. The coach viewed the passionate answer as a “really good sign,” but Krueger wants his players to now use actions, not words, to enact change within a franchise that owns an NHL-worst nine-year playoff drought.
“So, that there’s pain and anger and that Jack’s at the lead of that, that’s a really good sign and it’s very healthy,” Krueger said. “It also shows that our core has a youth that they’re willing to reach for higher standards, they’re willing to reach. And now we need to do the work that backs that up because all this talk, I can tell you anything right now about the past. It’s not really important what I say about the past. It’s the actions that we now take that are going to matter. …
“We have the opportunity to change it and only we can do that. … It will not come easy to get the momentum and the positive feeling in Buffalo that we’re all searching for.”
2. Ristolainen may return: Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen told reporters Thursday that he expects to be one of the first players traded if the Sabres make significant changes this offseason.
The comment should not come as a surprise. Ristolainen has been the subject of trade rumors for more than a year and has continued to avoid saying whether he wants to remain in Buffalo. The 25-year-old has experienced seven non-playoff seasons and explained Thursday he’s not sure what a winning culture entails.
However, Krueger wants Ristolainen to remain with the Sabres. The two developed a close relationship over the past 12 months, and Ristolainen called Krueger one of the best coaches he’s played under.
“What I love about Risto is he doesn’t hold back on anything,” Krueger said. “He tells you the truth all the time. So, I’ve really enjoyed working with him this year. When I began coaching him and I was the leader of that room, he was somebody who wanted to be traded and now he has embraced our path and he was all in on our pathway this year. He attempted to compete at a high level right through.
“He’s a centerpiece of what we’re doing here. The National Hockey League is a world of moving pieces. I want to coach Risto next season. I would enjoy coaching Risto next season. So, that’s probably all I need to say to you. That Risto always comes with a little bit of bite is what we love about him. I’m expecting to see him as a centerpiece and a core player of our group next year.”
3. Coaching staff will return: Despite the Sabres’ struggles on special teams, Krueger plans to retain assistant coaches Steve Smith, Mike Bales and Don Granato.
All three are under contract next season and produced mixed results in their respective duties. Smith, the lone holdover from Phil Housley’s staff, coached the league’s second-worst penalty kill, while Granato led a power play that ranked 29th in the NHL after converting at a 28.6% clip in October. Bales, the Sabres’ goaltending coach, helped Linus Ullmark to a breakout season, but Carter Hutton struggled following six consecutive victories to start to the season.
Smith, who also works with the defense, coached a strong penalty kill the previous season and played an important role in the continuing development of Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju. Granato helped his forwards develop better habits in the defensive zone.
“The coaching staff, under these circumstances, there’s a lot of power in continuity,” Krueger said. “Who would have thought 11 weeks ago that we’d be having a press conference of this nature at this time. There’s so much change and so many distractions right now that I believe continuity is important and actually will strengthen us, and this coaching staff really did a good job of helping to build the culture on and off the ice that we need and I’m excited to work with them going forward.”
4. Early preparations: Krueger informed the media he and his coaching staff have been in contact with players since the NHL suspended the season. There have been one-on-one conversations between players and assistants. Although Krueger said “measurable targets” will be set to hold players accountable during the offseason, he does not plan to “suffocate” them.
The early focus has been on physical preparation. The Sabres’ performance staff has delivered detailed instructions specific to each player’s needs and resources. Meanwhile, the coaching staff has held weekly meetings over Zoom, where they have reviewed each player’s strengths, weaknesses and proper steps for development.
The coaches will now shift their focus to reviewing any possible tactical improvements.
5. Psychological hurdles: The Sabres did not seem physically worn down, even when their lineup was decimated by injuries to Ullmark, Victor Olofsson and Jeff Skinner.
But there was a lack of focus at times, particularly against inferior opponents. The Sabres struggled to close out games and they endured a pair of six-game losing streaks, one following the 8-1-1 start to the season and another after the trade deadline. They struggled to stick to a formula that gave them a chance to win.
Krueger will spend the offseason focusing on how he can help his players better handle the ebbs and flows of the season. He’s injected a belief and confidence into every organization he has led, including VEU Feldkirch in Austria, the Swiss National Team, a young Edmonton Oilers roster in 2012-13, Team Europe at the World Cup of Hockey in 2016 and as chairman of Southampton F.C. in the English Premier League.
The same needs to happen in Buffalo.
“We seemed to fatigue at times during the season and lose our focus on the game we all knew we needed to play,” Krueger said. “The players have said it. They have embraced it. They’ve tried so hard, but here and there we’ve lost our way and when we lost our way we had confirmation what the actual way needed to be. We got back to it, but we lost our way twice for six losses in a row this year and it killed us. It killed our season. It killed everything we worked for, everything we wanted to do. All our dreams were destroyed in two phases where I believe we actually mentally lost our way and not physically or strategically or individually.”