By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Ralph Krueger has been described as hockey’s Renaissance Man, a well-rounded individual who can talk about finance as easily as the neutral-zone trap.
Krueger was the coach of the Edmonton Oilers for a season (memorably fired via Skype after the 2012-13 season,), and he also had considerable international experiences in places like Austria and Switzerland. Krueger has led some teams to overachieving performances in events such as the OIympics and World Cup.
Then there’s the matter that he spent more than five years as the Chairman of the Southhampton soccer team of England’s Premier League. Krueger also has worked with the World Economic Forum, which is not a typical resume item in the hockey business.
Therefore, the new coach of the Buffalo Sabres – the announcement came on Wednesday morning – guarantees at least one point about the upcoming season. The answers at the postgame news conference figure to be much better than the questions.
Former NFL executive Bill Polian once said that any smart GM always kept a list of coaching candidates in his desk in case a change was made for one reason or another. If general manager Jason Botterill does the same, you’d have to guess that Krueger has been on that list for a long time. In fact, he was considered for the job two years ago in the search that eventually led to Phil Housley’s hiring.
“I did have some conversations with him,” Botterill said at a news conference. “But he had to commit to Southampton. He couldn’t leave. When we made the coaching change, he remained interested in coaching.
“He spent a weekend here last month and spent time at a lot of establishments without being noticed. He was excited about the city. He got to know the Pegulas. We came to a verbal agreement last week.”
Krueger added via conference call, “When we picked it up when I was deciding to move back to the game of hockey, he (Botterill) embodies a lot of the qualities that I cared about.”
One report puts that agreement as a three-year deal at close to $4 million per season.
“When I stepped away from Southampton and wanted to return to hockey, there was nothing that moved me more than coaching,” Krueger said. “In the nest four months I need to work hard and get up to speed. I personally look for opportunities that will be a challenge.”
Talk to me
As word spread of the hiring, many people mentioned that Krueger has a reputation as a great communicator. Botterill thought that was one of his most attractive attributes.
“There’s an energy with him,” the GM said. “Players will feel a comfort with him. He’ll know when players need encouragement and when they need a push.”
With the coaching search now over, Botterill has one major short-term issue on his plate in the form of Jeff Skinner’s contract. The winger proved to be a good fit with the Sabres last season, and Buffalo has room under the salary cap to give him a competitive offer.
Yet with each passing day, Skinner edges closer toward unrestricted free agency – now about six weeks away. The veteran certainly could settle this situation early by signing a contract. But, if he’s waited this long, why not wait a little longer to see what sort of offer might be out there?
Botterill knows that the hiring of a new head coach might have some influence on Skinner’s ultimate decision.
“We’ve kept in dialogue with Jeff and made him aware who was going to be a coach today,” Botterill said. “It’s important next week for Ralph to touch base with Jeff at the world championships (in Europe).”
Keeping Skinner would be a major piece of the puzzle for the Sabres, but ultimately Krueger’s chances of success will come down to something else.
“Our main focus was to find someone who can get the most out of our young players,” Botterill said, and he’s right.
If Krueger can do that, the Sabres might be able to end the longest current playoff drought in the NHL in the near future. The new coach thinks the team is ready to take the next step.
“When I was in Edmonton, that was a rebuild situation completely,” Krueger said. “This is a young core with some experience. … There’s some good experience around that group. This group is ready to become a contender and compete with any team on a given night. I like the way Jason has been putting this team together.”
No third chances
The clock is ticking on Botterill after two unsuccessful years at his current job. He gets another chance to reboot his fortunes with this hiring, and he’d better get it right this time because he probably won’t get another chance.
The Krueger pick is a little out of the box, as the cliché goes, but the Sabres have to be helped by someone who can provide some obvious brainpower to the organization. Come to think of it, Krueger could have been introduced as the team’s new president, and no one would have complained a bit.
We never know where the next great coach is coming from. But if I’m picking someone with my job on the line, I want the smartest guy I can find to help me. Krueger fits that description.
The hiring has a chance of working, and that’s all we can ask after so many years of floundering at the KeyBank Center.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)