Make no bones about it, the Buffalo Sabres are at a seminal moment in their history.
The franchise is turning to their sixth head coach since Terry and Kim Pegula purchased the franchise in 2011. The team is on the heels of a soul-crushing season in which they frittered away a 10-game win streak and missed the playoffs. They now own the league’s longest active playoff drought. Finally, many once-bitten, twice-shy fans are feeling more disconnected and apathetic than ever, having lost faith in the franchise and its leadership. They’re left wondering whether the Blue & Gold will ever be successful again.
Fear not, the Sabres have found their guy.
- He has a losing record in only 48 games as an NHL head coach.
- He has zero games of NHL playoff experience in three years of NHL coaching.
- He hasn’t been behind an NHL bench since 2013.
Botterill Goes Bold
Sabres’ general manager Jason Botterill’s second time filling the head coaching vacancy is likely his last if it doesn’t lead to some semblance of success. The GM’s reputation and his job is likely on the line. That said, selecting the 59-year-old Krueger is hardly a play-it-safe move. Krueger is not a retread coach, like Jacques Martin, Todd McLellan, Bob Hartley, and several other names that were linked to the team over the past few weeks.
“We liked the fact he was on the bench for three years in Edmonton, but we also put a lot of stock into his experience at the World Championships and the World Cup at the Olympics,” said Botterill. “Those are high-pressure situations … and he got results. That was impressive from our standpoint. When we did the follow-up from talking with different players who had worked under Ralph they felt he was a very good communicator with them. That ability to get the most out of a group and communicate with a group we felt was a very good fit for our situation in Buffalo.”
For many fans, Krueger is a fairly new name that doesn’t carry much baggage. He’s probably most widely known as the recipient of a pink slip by the Edmonton Oilers’ GM Craig MacTavish via Skype. Fired after an abbreviated lockout season, he was never really given a shot to find success there. He then crossed the pond to become the Chairman of Southampton, an English Premier League soccer team.
Aside from possessing tremendous communication skills and leadership acumen, Krueger is a best-selling author and a believer of modern analytics. Hiring him is taking a stab at trying something different. A bit of a gamble. But even if he whiffs, it’s a fresh take for moving this franchise that’s desperately trying to climb out of the NHL’s cellar dwellers and into the playoffs.
Setting up Krueger for Success
How much impact can a coach have in his first year with a team? Ask the New York Islanders about Barry Trotz. He coached the franchise, who had just lost their long-time captain and best player to free agency, to the second round of the playoffs. While it’s not common, it does happen.
Related: Sabres’ Season Filled with Streaks
Philosophy, culture, systems and communication can only go so far. The combination of skill and talent on the roster are far more important than the coach who leads it. Bylsma, who won a Stanley Cup coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins, didn’t have any success with the Sabres. Housley, who went deep as an assistant coach with the Nashville Predators, tried to beat his system into a Sabres roster that wasn’t capable of playing it.
“I think that above all, this group is ready to become a contender and to compete with anybody on any given night,” said Krueger during a conference call Wednesday. “I’m confident that we can become that kind of a team quite quickly. I like the way Jason has been putting this group together and the way he thinks.”
Krueger knows the roster needs some work. “I know we’re going to work hard through the summer to add some pieces,” said Krueger during a conference call.
He stopped short of making any playoff promises, adding, “I will do everything within my power to find out what this group is made of pretty quickly and to get us into that competitive space for much longer than the team was able to get into last season.”
Sabres’ Legacy of Losing
As mentioned, Krueger is the sixth Sabres coach since Terry and Kim Pegula purchased the franchise in 2011. His predecessors include Lindy Ruff, Ron Rolston, Ted Nolan, Dan Bylsma and Phil Housley.
Krueger’s NHL head coaching record of 19-22-7 during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season equals a win points percentage of .469, which is higher than four of the previous five previous Sabres head coaches: Phil Housley (.421), Ted Nolan (.425), Ron Rolston (.431). Stick taps to Dan Byslma (.485) who just narrowly edged Krueger.
Ruff was the last Sabres head coach to guide them into the playoffs. He has a .560 win points percentage, but was sent packing after slow start in 2012-13.
Ron “Gardening Gloves” Rolston was shown the door with a 4-15-1 record to start the 2013-14 season. To this day, when on the ice, he still wears what appears to be simple gardening gloves rather than traditional hockey gloves. To each his own.
Nolan coached for less than two seasons and was the scapegoat for a dismantled team that finished the 2013-14 season with a 17-36-8 record. It didn’t get much better the following season as the Sabres finished with a dismal 23-51-9 record before Nolan was let go.
Bylsma lasted two seasons behind the Sabres bench, amassing a 68-73-23 overall record. In his first season, he went 35-36-11 then fell to 33-37-12 and last place in the division the following season.
Housley left the Nashville Predators as an assistant coach and never got the Sabres off the ground. In 2017-18 the team went 25-45-12, finishing in last place. This past season, despite a 10-game win streak, the Sabres went 33-39-10, failing to make the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season.
Krueger Could Be a Nightmare
The Sabres have been flat-out terrible since Lindy Ruff was let go. They’ve finished in the league basement three of the past six seasons. It was time to change things up and try something different. Krueger, while not completely unconventional, is a progressive choice for a team that badly needs a breath of fresh air.
Though Krueger is no Sheldon Keefe (coach of the Toronto Marlies) or Rikard Grönborg (head coach of for the Sweden men’s national team), he’s a bold choice by Botterill. He’s a pick that carries a certain amount of risk. But at this point, there’s not much left for the Sabres to lose.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”