New Sabres season
Can an outside-the-box coach make a difference?
Photo by Bill Wippert
The Sabres’ fiftieth season is upon us, and, unfortunately, it comes at an ignominious time for the franchise. The team has missed the playoffs for a positively Bills-ian eight straight seasons.
Last year was difficult. After the blazing high of the ten-game winning-streak, the crushing season-end lows didn’t leave fans a lot to be positive about this season.
Combine that with the fact that the Atlantic Division is again stacked and looks to be a tough nut to crack. I was downright glum about prospects for this anniversary year when the season ended in April.
Coaching this team is a difficult prospect. There are some of the game’s greatest young stars on the roster, but there is also a lot of dead weight that hasn’t been getting the job done for a decade. The Sabres are too good to be rebuilding, but the team also suffers from too many bloated veteran deals. It is caught in the middle and fans are desperate for any sign of life after nearly a decade of wandering in the desert.
Into this difficult position walks Ralph Krueger, an enigma of a coach.
There’s a lot to like about him, and the Sabres did an admirable job presenting his better qualities to the world when they introduced him this summer. Notable former Sabres lined up to say good things and everyone in management seemed excited, but I can’t help but feel a touch apprehensive.
First, look at his record. On one hand, he has been a successful coach for twenty-five years. He once won five straight titles in the Austrian League, and his Team Europe squad was the runner up at the first World Cup of Hockey.
On the other hand, Krueger’s NHL record is nearly nonexistent, and what little there is isn’t great. He went 19-22-7 with Edmonton in the lockout-shortened 2012–13 season and was replaced as head coach.
He was an assistant the two years prior with the Oilers; his chief accomplishment was that Edmonton’s powerplay was top ten in the league. It hardly adds up to an inspiring resume, and it barely meets the requirement of a coach with “NHL experience.”
The Sabres, and anyone else trotted out to give quotes about Krueger, have trumpeted his intelligence. The man has worked with the World Economic Forum, written a book on leadership and the habits of successful people (in German no less), and, after a thirty-year career in hockey, was able to successfully run an English Premier League team for five years.
He sounds like a fascinating guy, and the kind of person I’d like to have dinner with. However, he’s spent the past five years as an executive and, in his own words, “de facto owner” of a soccer team in England. How much time has he spent in the past half-decade following hockey?
Krueger has famously said that his laptop is loaded up with game footage from the past season so he can catch up on how the game has changed in his time away. Proponents have presented this as a mark of his diligence and his commitment. To me, it’s a terrifying red flag. It doesn’t take much for the game to pass you by, especially at the NHL level. A five-year absence is like Nathon MacKinnon’s entire career.
As much as I try to focus on the positive, it scares me that the coach of my favorite team has to use his laptop to play catch-up.
Admittedly, Krueger is known as an unrelentingly positive motivator who has success elevating people to their potential. This team has looked disinterested and disorganized at times throughout the drought—one of the hallmarks of their play. A coach who can keep them committed and invested throughout the grind of an eighty-two game schedule can change that.
But I worry. Terry and Kim Pegula haven’t shown the greatest decision-making when hiring coaches: they are on their sixth in less than a decade of ownership. They have also shown that they can be starstruck by an effective presentation—hello, Rex Ryan. A positive guy like Krueger might have been appealing to them. It must have been nice to hear that the sky wasn’t falling.
At the dawn of this new season, I can’t help but feel like a lot of the joy or misery that Sabres fans will have over the next few years will come down to this hire. I want to believe that Krueger is an untapped zen master who will bring this team together, but I’m afraid he’s just the latest in the line of mistakes that have categorized the Sabres coaching staff since the departure of Lindy Ruff.
“Playing meaningful games was really what my life was about, and dealing with that pressure together with the players, and finding ways to perform under that pressure,” Krueger said at his introductory press conference. “I think that’s what the National Hockey League season is all about, being able to deal with that for eighty-two games in a row.”
He’s saying the right things and the Sabres made some promising offseason moves. I want nothing more than to put on my blue and gold footie pajamas and be all in on the team this year, but these nagging doubts won’t go away.