It's safe to say that everyone in Sabreland, outside of the principles involved with the hiring of a head coach for the Buffalo Sabres, didn't really know what to make of Ralph Krueger. Candidates from Jacques Martin to Sheldon Keefe all had resumes that were tangible and immediate with names that were generally recognizable in the vast hockey community but Krueger's name was a bit more obscure. It seems as if he's highly regarded within inner hockey circles but is more of an unknown to layman with only a short stint as head coach for the Edmonton Oilers.
From old school media to social media, the general feeling is that Krueger checked off a varying array of boxes on an individual basis. Although some of those checks might have been in pencil, at least they could claim they had one of thier boxes checked off with the hire.
For Sabres general manager Jason Botterill, who was said to be leaning towards a head coach with NHL experience, Krueger has that, albeit barely. Krueger was a consultant with the Carolina Hurricanes for five seasons before joining the Edmonton Oilers as an assistant in 2010. Two years later he was named head coach in Edmonton for the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season where he coached the Oilers for 48 games before being fired. That, however small a sample size, constitutes NHL head coaching experience.
After that Krueger found himself involved in Premier League Soccer as director, then chairman of Southampton. During his conference call on Wednesday he mentioned "sports science and analytics" which checked off a box for those in the analytics community. While answering a question about his thoughts on analytics, Krueger said there were things he learned in soccer that he felt he could bring to Buffalo. "In these last few years in Southampton I've been able to learn many, many, many things that I'd like to put into play in the National Hockey League," he said. "We have quite a bit of opportunity to develop that area."
However Kruger did qualify that by saying, "I believe it's an important part but above all it will come down to not overusing analytics. You need to create a space where the players have certain guidelines and a framework but within that space I like them to be able to be creative and also to let their instincts play, and finding that balance is the challenge we have as a head coach." That put another faction at ease, those who look at the players on a more human level.
Although Botterill's goal certainly wasn't about appeasing the masses or any faction thereof, Kruger is like a bridge candidate who's hire allayed a lot of fear and apprehension amongst the faithful who came from opposing sides of the spectrum. He had NHL head coaching experience but wasn't a dinosaur so entrenched in his ways that innovation was a violation of his systemic beliefs. And he's aware of analytics and embraces it to an extent but he also is very much a players coach who recognizes that they're more than numbers in a spread sheet.
That covers a lot of ground in Buffalo as the other candidates made for extreme factions fighting over which singular quality is best for the Sabres moving forward.
Within the Sabres organization there seems to be a comfort level with the new head coach and during Krueger's conference call, as well as through various interviews and pressers in, we got a good sense that. Krueger seemed very comfortable with himself and comfortable with the decision he made to take on the Buffalo Sabres head coaching job (although he does recognize the challenges and the work involved.) As he offered up lengthy, talkative answers with confidence and flairs of subtle excitement, one came away with the impression that he was like a family member, an uncle you've heard about more than you've seen but on the occasions where you do interact, his worldly knowledge was delivered with calm confidence in himself and the situaions he's been in and been through.
For Botterill, it seemed as if his relationship with Krueger was that of a friend of his older brother, one didn't necessarily hang with but a person he knew of and about and admired. Botterill was aware of Kruger via various "unique touch points" but back in 2017 when the rookie GM was looking to hire his first head coach, his boss, Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, highly recommended Kruger and that's how the two became more familiar with each other. Botterill mentioned comfort and "the ease of dialogue" the two had during their first talks and the similarities as to how both thought the game should be played, how the interaction between coach and general manager should be and how that went on to the players. "When I sit down with Ralph going through this process, I felt at ease," said the GM, "and that's part of why I felt very comfortable making him the head coach. Our level of communication is going to be very strong."
"First and foremost was the very natural communication with Jason Botterill," said Krueger pointing out that at this point in his career, it was very important to have that with the people he would be working with and for. "A couple of years ago it had a natural flow to it and when I was deciding to move back to the game of hockey, he really embodies a lot of the things that I care about. His culture that he's driving into the Sabres was important."
That comfort level was also reciprocal in regards to ownership as Terry Pegula and his wife, Sabres team president Kim Pegula, signed off on the hiring. "When I then met Terry and Kim a few weeks ago," said Krueger, "the culture at the top was confirmed. The path that they would like to go down, the way people are treated and the passion they have for the city of Buffalo and also for the game of hockey through the Sabres, those three people (Botterill and the Pegulas) would be the key reasons that really made me feel passionate about taking on this responsibility."
One would think that ownership would be leery of nearly any coaching candidate when you consider what's transpired over the course of the last four seasons. After the tank, the Sabres churned through one general manager and two head coaches during the supposed build portion of the program. They hired a Stanley Cup winning coach who was fired after two seasons then they hired a up-and-coming rookie head coach who also lasted only to seasons. Their combined record 126-157-45 is the worst record in the league over that span. Add in that Krueger has a short NHL coaching resume and that he spent the last six years as an executive in the Premier League and the mention of Krueger to ownership must have at least raised an eyebrow amongst the owners.
Perhaps having been in the front office of Southampton with an owner in Katharina Liebherr, who inherited the club from her deceased father, helped the process. When I asked Krueger about his professional relationship with Liebherr he said, "first and foremost it was very refreshing to work for a woman. I enjoyed the dialogue, I enjoyed the priorities, often different in a good way. It brought a healthy balance to the club.'
"Certainly when I met Kim and Terry," he continued, "when we had our conversation it was outstanding in the balance they bring as owners. I just felt very comfortable with them, [they're] extremely positive and passionate people and I could feel that we're going to have a very constructive journey together here, which is important for the fans here in the end because it's all about getting this group back on track and winning."
Having ownership sign off on Krueger and the comfort-level he seems to have with them might have been the most important box to check. It's been a rough go for everyone in Sabreland lately and dependent upon who you talk to read or hear, there are many factors that contributed to Buffalo's dismal record and that includes ownership, who've been rumored to have had a heavy hand during it all.
However, that's neither here nor there now as Botterill tied his ship to Krueger. There's no doubt the comfort level is real and his hire does check off a lot of boxes, but the ultimate boxes to be checked come in the win/loss column and if the team can break the cycle of losing. In that respect we're still in the dark, but at least the coaching search is over and the new coach seems to have a unifying amalgamy of traits that will hopefully bring Western New York together behind their Sabres.