By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Ralph Krueger always was an unconventional choice to be the coach of the Buffalo Sabres. While it’s still a little astonishing that he landed the position in the first place, it’s even more amazing how fast it slipped away from him.
Krueger played pro hockey in Germany, and stayed there when his playing days were over to coach. He landed an assistant coach’s job in Edmonton in 2010, and was promoted to the head coaching position after a couple of years. Krueger only had the job for one shortened season (48 games). From there Ralph went back to Europe, where he eventually ran a British soccer team while doing a little work in hockey along the way.
Krueger seemed well regarded as a person and as an intellect by all who encountered him, but certainly it was strange to see someone so far away from the NHL – literally and figuratively – land the head coaching spot with the team in 2019. Considering his background, he seemed like a better candidate to be a “senior advisor to the general manager” or, in a different world, “president of the team.” But the latter certainly wasn’t going to happen under the present organizational chart, and Krueger said loudly that coaching hockey wasn’t out of his system.
The Sabres showed some improvement in 2019-20, getting up to 30-31-8 in the Covid-shortened season. The most important development of that year was that Jack Eichel played like a star, and the team clearly needed him to do that because it had invested a lot in making him the centerpiece of the franchise. It wasn’t a playoff team (25th overall), but a better future could be seen.
That future looked a little brighter in the summer, even though Jason Botterill left as general manager when ownership opted to cut the hockey department’s budget in the light of the pandemic. Kevyn Adams was placed in the job, a slightly odd choice considering his inexperience in hockey management. But he did have a good relationship with Krueger, even if a GM usually prefers to have his own coach behind the bench. That person has so much to do with the success of both executives.
Trying to improve
Adams made some transactions that appeared to be good ones, as he tried to take some steps to get the team within the fringes of the playoffs. One of the additions was Taylor Hall, who looked like an odd fit for the roster but who had plenty of talent and experience – and the team needed more of both. Buffalo eventually was stuck in a ridiculously tough division that probably promised to keep them out of the playoffs under any circumstances, but there was hope for improvement. The Sabres were 4-4-2 at the end of January, about where they should have been.
But then, everything slowly unraveled like a cheap sweater. On February 1 the Sabres discovered that the Devils had brought Covid-19 to Buffalo for the previous two games, and that bug cost the Sabres two weeks of games. When they returned, they were no match for the good teams on their schedule like the Islanders and Capitals. By the time Buffalo was in better condition, goalie Linus Ullmark was hurt on a long-term basis … and there wasn’t much help behind him. (Error: general manager) The Sabres came out of the break 2-3-1 thanks to a pair of wins over New Jersey, but the future looked threatening because of a run of games with the Flyers, Islanders and Penguins.
That’s where the situation turned critical. Buffalo did nothing in a pair of 3-0 losses at home to the Flyers, and looked almost as flat in an improbable three straight losses – all by a score of 5-2 – to the Islanders. Eichel was lost to a neck injury, without a word on when he might be back. He took the team’s good power-play record out the door with him, leaving the team unable to score enough even-strength goals to have a chance to win. Adams addressed the media in the middle of the Islanders’ series on March 5, saying that the team’s performance was unacceptable. The underlying message was to the players: “I know you love playing for Ralph Krueger. But if you don’t do something soon, I’m going to have to fire him.”
If the players heard that message, they certainly didn’t act like it. The team’s effort and performance cratered on Monday night when the Capitals completely dominated them in a 6-0 outcome, one of the worst games in Buffalo’s team history. At the end, after 12 straight losses, Krueger could only keep muttering some generalities that sounded like they came out of a leadership book. He sounded inarticulate and beaten down – and who could blame him? Only the logistics of removing a coach in the middle of back-to-back games probably kept the move from happening Tuesday. The inevitable took place early Wednesday morning – just over a month after the Sabres resumed play.
“It felt right that it needed to be done now,” Adams said late Wednesday morning about the coaching change. “We can talk about the fact that it could have been done before. But the results haven’t been good enough. I look and evaluate everything, and I was trying to take an honest evaluation – taking into account the circumstances the team was in. This is about moving forward. It’s about, how do we improve? Every crisis is an opportunity for positive change, and this is a chance to move in the right direction.”
Adams opted to promote Don Granato to interim head coach for the rest of the season, and shuffle the assistant coaches around a bit. That’s probably the best possible move under the circumstances. While there were some good candidates out there – Bruce Boudreau, Gerard Gallant and Claude Julien, among others – different candidates (John Tortorella, Rod Brind’Amour) may become available at the end of this season. Besides, Adams should not be in a hurry, because the franchise craves a little stability and he needs to pick the right person.
“The search will be effective immediately,” he said. “I have in my head some characteristics and attributes that are important for the team as it moves forward. … I don’t want to rush into anything and make a quick decision. This is about getting it right. It’s critical.”
There will be plenty of time to ponder what happens next to the Sabres. But Krueger deserves some words as a send-off. He takes the blame for some of the team’s problems. Krueger never figured out how to use Jeff Skinner effectively, and the play of Rasmus Dahlin has fallen off quite a bit this season. Those are two big pieces of the rebuilding puzzle. I’m not smart enough to know if his system of play was appropriate for the talent at hand. Something, though, went wrong – based on the relatively microscopic goal totals this season of Hall, Skinner and Eichel.
Still, the National Hockey League hasn’t been too fair to Krueger. He’s been a head coach in three separate seasons, and none of them have been full 82-game campaigns. Krueger isn’t the only coach to have problems in Buffalo in the past decade; he’s only the latest. I assume Ralph knew that the Sabres were one of the least desirable coaching positions in the league when he took the job, and was smart enough to realize that it might not end well.
Western New York really never got to know Krueger. Standard operating procedure in pro sports is to limit contact between the organization and the media and the fans as much as possible. The message is controlled that way. Ralph seemed at his best when he was talking about the big picture. This is a rare man of perspective who knows there’s more to life than hockey. I would have loved to hear him talk about everything and anything in an hour interview at the History Museum.
There’s no reason to feel too sorry for Krueger. The possibility of unemployment starts shortly after the first day of the job in coaching. He heads back to Switzerland now, with something like $5-6 million due him in the next 16 months or so. There are worse fates. Let’s hope this unusual and interesting man is remembered as something more than just another casualty of the Sabres’ almost endless organizational woes.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)