Word of a serious Buffalo Sabres coaching candidate came last weekend when Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman tweeted that "Ralph Krueger has a legit shot at Buffalo coaching job." It was a tweet that immediately raised eyebrows in Western New York. The Sabres have been in the market for a head coach ever since GM Jason Botterill fired Phil Housley on April 7. As the big names came and went--from Joel Quenneville to Todd McLellan to Alain Vigneault--and coaches from potential neophytes (Rickard Grönborg) to dinosaurs (Jacques Martin) were checked off for various reasons, the pickin's was getting mighty slim for Buffalo and their timeline getting ever shorter. Botterill, after supposedly going through seven or eight interviews, hired Krueger as the team's 19th head coach.
The whole situation, culminating with the reported hire of Krueger has been something that was pieced together using various sources in the hockey world. Krueger's name had been an outlier from the beginning as it was said that Botterill had interviewed him the last time they were looking for a head coach in 2017, but his name never gathered any steam until the Friedman tweet on Saturday. After that we got word from Pierre LeBrun, who had interviewed him in early April, that Krueger wanted back in the NHL but in more of a front office role. Friedman made an appearance on The Instigators (MSG and WGR550 Radio) on Monday saying the he had people telling him he was "underselling" it and that the talks were "much farther along" than he was reporting." And finally, TSN's Bob McKenzie tweeted out late last night, "As Friedman first suggested/speculated, Krueger will indeed be the next head coach in Buffalo."
So the coaching search is over, but what exactly did the Sabres get in deal?
First off, it was reported that Botterill was looking for someone with NHL head coaching experience, perhaps that's the reason a fan-favorite like Grönborg ended up signing a deal to coach Switzerland's ZSC Lions. The only head coach of interest with NHL experience right now is Dave Tippett, whom some have suggested might be a fit in Edmonton with the Oilers. The 59 yr. old Krueger does have that NHL experience, albeit rather minimal. He coached the Oilers during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and compiled a 19-22-7 record before being fired by new GM Craig MacTavish and many now believe he got a raw deal and the classlessness was exacerbated by a "blindsided" firing over Skype.
When MacTavish took over the Oilers GM position on April 13, 2013 he said in his press conference that "he was discussing with Krueger the possibility of bringing in a veteran assistant coach before deciding to go in a different direction," according to Sportsnet.ca. Less than two months later, Krueger was fired with MacTavish saying, "During the process of me conducting those interviews, I recognized I was trying to add a coach more closely aligned with the way I wanted to run the team and less about supporting Ralph and the head coach of our team at the time."
MacTavish and his "coaching/vision-alignment" lasted two seasons with the Oilers going 53-88-23.
In and around Edmonton it seemed like a mixed bag of reactions to the Krueger firing with many being behind it. However, in retrospect, some are having second thoughts. "Hockey writers and pundits don't get everything right," wrote David Staples of the Edmonton Journal late last night. "When I think of my own mistakes in writing about the Oilers, my support of Oilers management when they fired Ralph Krueger and hired Dallas Eakins in 2013 is near the top of the list.
"In retrospect, it's clear to see that Oilers GM Steve Tambellini (who proceeded MacTavish) had failed dramatically when it came to building a useful supporting cast of veterans and young talent to bolster the Oilers lineup.
"Krueger, it's now evident, represented the best hope for a winning Oilers team built around that core group of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz, Devan Dubnyk and Nail Yakupov."
However, we'll never know what would have happened had he stayed in Edmonton and we won't know what kind of NHL coach he'll be in Buffalo with only 48 games of NHL head coaching experience. Prior to the Edmonton gig, Krueger was the head coach of a Swiss National Team. The teams Kruger coached internationally were generally regarded as over-achievers despite finishing mostly near the lower reaches as their talent-level never approached the heavyweights of international competition.
Krueger would take that to another level as head coach of Team Europe in the inaugural 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Much to the surprise of the hockey world, Team Europe, who's most pronounced players were captain Anze Kopitar along with Marian Hossa, Thomas Vanek, Zdeno Chara and Roman Josi, made it to the finals where they were defeated by a stacked Team Canada 3-1 and 2-1 in the best of three series.
Former Sabre Vanek told The Athletic's John Vogl that "it would be a huge, huge get for Buffalo" if they hired Krueger. "He's got a way of gluing a team together and getting them to play for each other."
Vanek went on to talk very highly of Krueger's personal relationship with players and how he "really cares about people." He also said that Krueger didn't feel threatened having an assistant like Paul Maurice behind the bench with him. "That's where Ralph was very good. He knows we had a guy like Maurice on staff and he's OK with delegating. That shows leadership and character on his part."
That's all well and good and those are attributes most definitely needed in Buffalo. But we really don't know what will happen with him as head coach of the Sabres. After his unceremonious dismissal from the Oilers, Krueger spent the last six seasons as director and chairman of the Southampton Football Club of the Premier League. "The owner in Southampton wanted to change the culture of the organization and that's really what my main job was," Krueger said of owner Katharina Liebherr to Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun. "She's a Swiss woman who had inherited the team after her father passed away. We were introduced by someone who knew both of us."
Liebherr sold the club two years ago and Krueger's contract ran out at the end of this season.
LeBrun said Monday on the Instigators that at the time of his interview back in April, Kruger himself wasn't sure what would happen at the end of the Premier League season. "The thing that certainly raised eyebrows for me at the time was that he was pretty steadfast in his wish, his desire, if he came back to the NHL, to come back at the same [management] level he was in English soccer." Something changed along the way as the Jones article published in mid-April had Krueger indicating he was pretty much open to almost anything.
"I'm kind of in a strange space right now with my tool kit," Krueger told Jones. "It's trying to figure out where that took kit best fits for me, also to be challenged again and to grow.
"I like to go after things that are different and challenging and where I can do m best to make a difference.
"I'm still not sure where that might be, but there are options in both sports. I just have to come clear with where the right move is right now. But I am very hungry to find another challenge, that's for sure."
Ask and ye shall receive, coach Kruger, as the Buffalo Sabres offer a big challenge to him. The team has the NHL's longest playoff drought at eight seasons, they finished last three times in the past five seasons and are on their fifth head coach since Lindy Ruff was fired in that same lockout-shortened 2012-13 seasons. Rumors of turbulence in the locker room and coaches like Dan Bylsma who was too aloof and Phil Housley who was in way over his head have really made for an ugly situation in Buffalo and contributed to the worst stretch of hockey in franchise history. Add in questions over ownership and their possible contributions to the Sabres demise and it makes for a pretty "challenging" situation.
However, through all the muck Buffalo has been through, they have managed to snare some fine pieces to move forward with. Two of them--franchise center Jack Eichel and franchise defenseman Rasmus Dahlin--hold roster positions that are incredibly difficult to attain, and they also have some nice complimentary pieces beginning with forward Sam Reinhart and defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen and Brandon Montour. But as a team this group has had immense struggles playing as a team on a consistent basis and once things shifted to the negative during the past four seasons, it was all down hill.
Getting them to trust in him and his system, especially during tough times, will be no minor task for Krueger and his staff, which will have a familiar face on it in Steve Smith. The Sabres fired Housley and let go of all his staff save for Smith which, in hindsight, may or may not have been an indication that Krueger was a front-runner. That's one piece and from what we've gathered, Krueger is more of a motivator than an X's and O's type guy so it might be assumed that he'll bring on that type of assistant like he had with Maurice for Team Europe.
But that's for the future. Right now most everyone in Sabreland is in the dark and really isn't sure what to make of the Krueger hire.
I guess we'll find out.