By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The new coach of the Buffalo Sabres was introduced to the public on Wednesday morning at the KeyBank Center, and there was no doubt about the identity of the star of the show.
Ralph Krueger arrived in the area on Tuesday. He received the tour of the building, and then took questions from the media in an event that was part news conference, part rally. It’s always a little odd when members of the organization come out of their offices to fill out the crowd at these events. It feels like a political speech, where followers are placed behind the speaker so their enthusiastic responses (and they had better be enthusiastic) be noticed by those in the rest of the building and – more importantly – by the television cameras.
Krueger took a seat behind a table in the atrium of the arena by himself. Owners Terry and Kim Pegula sat quietly in the front row, thus passing up a chance to make public comments about the new coach or anything else involving the Sabres these days. That’s rather typical of them, of course, so it wasn’t unexpected.
Since Krueger has had the job for a while, no much “news” was expected out of the news conference, and that was indeed the case. Still, there was curiosity about how he’d handle the chores of a formal introduction to a new city and fanbase.
No worries there. Ralph did just fine.
Krueger came across as a good speaker, someone who is well organized and thoughtful in a variety of aspects of his life. He seemed prepared for most of the questions, and answered them directly without lapsing into the usual clichés. His first answer was a chance to show that he didn’t need much of a history lesson about the team and the city when it comes to hockey.
“To grow up in Winnipeg is to know all about the history of the Buffalo Sabres,” he said. “It’s an organization that, coming in as one of the first 14 teams, has made an amazing footprint in terms of personalities. I’ve also had many friends who have worked in this organization,” such as Miroslav Satan and Uwe Krupp. “I’ve felt the passion that’s associated with hockey in Buffalo, and I’m excited to tap into the passion for that.”
What about Jeff?
Topic A, naturally, was the status of Jeff Skinner. The clock continues to tick on the free agent, who will be eligible to jump to another team at the end of the month.
“I’ve had the opportunity to communicate with Jeff,” Krueger said. “He was training out of state, so it was a long phone call. The conversation was mostly about how I as a coach would like to his skill set, his talent. I work on the basis that Jeff Skinner is a Buffalo Sabre, and as a result that’s how our conversation went. Everything else – Jason (Botterill) has control of that process. … But I could feel (Skinner’s) unbelievable passion for the game, and I see a skill set that is unique but can still be built upon.”
Skinner was the Sabres’ top goal scorer last season, and there’s considerable pressure on the team to re-sign him almost regardless of cost. But Krueger pointed out that if Skinner gets away, he’ll turn the page.
“I don’t spend one minute worrying about an injured player,” Krueger said. “If he’s not in the lineup, we’ll move on. It’s the reality of sports. Whether a player changes teams, as coach of the Sabres, I’ll look at what the new mix is and work with that. This is all about us maximizing out potential. Sometimes the movement of players is necessary. I compare it to an injury. You have to deal with the present situation.”
What do you do when you take over a team that you haven’t seen in person? If you’re Krueger, you talk to people.
“More than anything, it’s been conversations with Jason – to take our time, to build the best possible supporting staff, to have a really strong team,” he said. “I’m all about quality and not quantity, so let’s get it right – and take our time. Also (I need) to get up to speed on communication with the players. I will talk to the whole roster. I’ll have about half of the players done at the end of this week. It’s important that at the same time that I get familiar with the NHL and look deeper.
“I’ve been communicating with a lot of NHL coaches. I’ve had a lot of conversation about the processes going on – the speed of the National Hockey League, and the flow of the game – how it’s opened up. While we’re building, we need to be clear on how we want to approach the game and what’s best for the final roster.”
Krueger has been out of the NHL for a while, and the role of analytics has grown immensely since then. The new coach says he’s willing to look any information that will improve the team, but he’s also looking to maintain a balance in that search.
“This franchise has been playing for almost 50 years,” he said. “When the puck is dropped, the same basic elements make a difference as to which team wins and which team loses. I’m never going to become over-modern and computerized as to the way the team plays. It’s something I’m extremely interested in, but we have to be the best in how to use it.”
Krueger added that he hopes to have a coaching staff in place by the end of the month.
It’s not crucial to shine at an opening news conference, of course. Such a skill probably is well down the list of necessary components of a successful coach. If it was crucial, Rex Ryan might be coaching the Bills right now.
Still, good communication through the media to the public isn’t unimportant. You only need to look at Krueger’s predecessor, Phil Housley, in that area. Housley often lapsed into deep hockey terminology or almost standard answers during news conferences. When things went bad, the coach couldn’t explain easily what was happening and what was being done to fix them.
Krueger probably won’t have that problem. He has a reputation as a great communicator with members of the organization, and that should extend outside the doors of the KeyBank Center to the fans. After all, they are the ones buying the tickets, and they are the ones that can give Krueger the benefit of the doubt when things aren’t going well – which, as we know, has been the case for most of the past several years.
Botterill apparently has bet on smarts when it comes to this hiring decision, and it’s tough to argue with that. The Bills have done that a couple of times over the years. Marv Levy worked out very well for Buffalo’s football team, and the Sabres hope they have the next Marv now on their payroll. But Dick Jauron was a smart guy as well, but his stay as head coach didn’t work out so well – perhaps for reasons not of his doing.
So is Krueger going to turn out like Levy or Jauron? The answer to that question will determine whether we will have to reassemble at the KeyBank Center in two years or so for yet another rally, waiting to see what the next coach of the Sabres has to say.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)