On Thursday, Jack Eichel and Team USA were sent packing from the 2019 IIHF World Championships in Slovakia. The Young Americans gave everything they had but in the end were bested by the rambunctious Russians. Final score in the quarterfinal match was 4-3 Russia.
Before boarding a plane to head home to Buffalo, Eichel, the Buffalo Sabres' captain, took time out to meet with his new head coach Ralph Kreuger. Buffalo GM Jason Botterill hired Kreuger earlier this month while the World Championships were under way and in progress. Botterill flew home to Buffalo where he met with media to announce the Kreuger hiring. Krueger could not accompany Botterill to Buffalo because he was tying up loose ends of his own. Kruger joined Botterill on his return flight to Kosice and Bratislava where Team Canada is set to play the Czechs on Saturday in the semifinals. Russia will play Finland as well.
So, Eichel and Krueger had their much anticipated meeting of the minds. A two live Krue, as it were. Four seasons into his NHL career, Eichel has yet to play in a Stanley Cup playoff game. Dan Bylsma and Phil Housley were not able to deliver the Sabres to the playoffs. Ralph Krueger is now tasked with leading Eichel and the Sabres back to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Just get in. Then do damage.
On Friday, Krueger confided in Darren Dreger that he felt his introductory meeting with Eichel went better than he first expected. Krueger was impressed with Eichel's candor and his depth of character.
"It was a real natural conversation. We were both pleased at the end," Krueger said.
"We could feel the common purpose that drives me here to the job and Jack to his daily job with the Sabres. We really went a lot deeper than I expected on a first contact. It was good. We definitely spoke the most about hockey but also about life and leadership, which is very important from his perspective."
This isn't Krueger's first rodeo. He knows full well that the heach coach and star player must come together, form a union and be simpatico from the moment the puck drops. They took the first step towards achieve that goal during their first ever meeting in Slovakia.
Krueger said that having the opportunity to coach two young phenoms in Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin made coaching the Sabres a high priority. Kruerger is impressed with the impressive arrray of young, talented players that Botterill has amassed in Buffalo and in AHL Rochester.
Krueger said having his face to faace meetung with Eichel was important to him. Krueger will also be meeting with Sabres forward Samson Reinhart in the days to come.
"It's an excellent opportunity to spend some quiet time with them before they go off into their summer break," Krueger said. "Pick a little bit into their brains about where they're at and where they want to go."
Krueger hasn't coached in the NHL since 2013. Over the last six seasons, the NHL has evolved into a young man's league. Gone are the days where head coaches wait until training camp opens in September to communicate with players. These days, the NHL is a twelve month a year business and the successful coaches are the ones who remain engaged with their players after the season ends. Be it via text meesages, phone calls, and face to face meetngs.
"I think It's really important that there's open lines of communication and the expectations are very clear," Krueger said. "That's what the young athlete of today wants. You need to be quick, you need to be direct but you need to be open and allow for an honest conversation."
Krueger told Dreger that he has assessed the Buffalo Sabres roster and he likes what he sees. In the days to come, Krueger will be assisting Botterill in a face to face session with pending unrestricted free agent forward Jeff Skinner. The 27 year old sniper scored 40 goals laast season for the Sabres. Skinner is looking for an eight year contract with an average annual vaue in the $8M to $8.5M range. Forty goal scorers are not cheap. You can't buy one on Craigslist. When you have a young, productive sniper, you lock im up lock term which is what Botterill is eager to do. Closing Skinner on a new jumbo contract worth $64 to $68 million guarenteed will become a back door tap in if Skinner vibes with Krueger before unrestricted free agency begins on July 1.
"Those conversations, they are going to happen here in the next few days," Krueger said. "It's important for us to see the value of Jeff, what he's done and how he embraced being in Buffalo and became a friend of the players on the team. Those are conversations we need to have now. They're never easy but Jason has definitely asked me to be a part of that process, which I enjoy."
Krueger, 59, said he thinks the Sabres will compete for a playoff berth next season. He said he feels it is important to hear what his players have to say about their experiences, both good and bad in Buffalo.
"I believe that has to be our goal," Krueger said. "Let's be honest, we still have some building to do. There's free agency ahead. We have some conversations even with players we still have in free agency. Let's bring the lineup together. I need to get to know the others better.
"I have a few months here to really get up to speed on our competition but I certainly believe we can be in the mix here very quickly. This season needs to be one where the people feel us moving towards being a contender."
Krueger said Buffalo Sabres fans made a lasting impression on he and his wife while they bar hopped around the Queen City during their recon visit. Krueger said he the people of Buffalo made he anad his wife feel welcome in their city.
"I could feel the passion of the city," he said. "It feels a lot like a city in Canada as far as how important the team is in the city. And that means a lot to me to working in an environment like that."
Krueger is t former chairman of Southampton Football Club.
He was head coach of the Swiss men's national ice hockey team (1997–98) until the end of the XXI Olympic Winter Games in 2010 and the bench boss of the Edmonton Oilers (2012–13) season. He was the head coach of Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
In 2014, Krueger shifted from hockey to the world of association football, to become director of English Premier League team Southampton. On 12 March 2014, Krueger was appointed the chairman of Southampton F.C.
Last month, Krueger joined forces with Jason Botterill. A union that Sabres fans hope and pray will deleiver their long suffering team back to respectability and relevance.
Krueger is also known for his involvement in the World Economic Forum, where since 2011 he has been a Member, Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership.
Krueger preaches patience and attention to details. He is a fiirm believer that players play in games the way they perform in practice. He wants his players to be prepared and engaged in the process of executing the fuundamentals at all times.
"We need to be able to focus on our execution and what we need to do and let the results take care of themselves versus worrying about them," he said. "I think getting fear out of that space where there's been some struggles in the last few years and people have been very disappointed, we need to realize it's not going to be easy."
Krueger and Eichel will have to be on the same page. The rest of the players will buy in when they see the head coach and the captain supportng one another.
"It's going to be hard work and, for me, it's just getting the culture right in that environment, getting these players to another level with the game also without the puck. All those things we hear all the time. It's not going to be easy. I know that. I know it's going to be hard work but I love a challenge."
Krueger fancies himself a project manager. He will be be revered as a hero to Sabres fans around the globe if and when he completes the six year old rebuilding project a Seymour H. Knox III Plaza on Buffalo's majectic waterfront.