This week the Buffalo Sabres made the unavoidable decision to relieve head coach Ralph Krueger of his duties. The Sabres, as has so often been the case in recent years, are having an awful season. A series of Covid-19 cases ravaged the team in February, and their captain suffered a neck injury that has kept him out in March. Former league MVP Taylor Hall has sputtered in his latest landing spot, and 2018 number one overall draft pick, defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, is a league-worst minus-27.
The firing of Krueger is unlikely to help the club this season, but it was an obvious call for new Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams. With such an uninspiring record (36-49-12 over his time in Buffalo and 45-71-19 in the NHL as a whole), is there a chance he’ll find another NHL job?
The man who hired Krueger, Jason Botterill, left the Sabres prior to the 2020-21 season. He landed an assistant GM job with the league’s newest franchise, the Seattle Kraken, and now has a once-in-a-career chance to help build a franchise from scratch. The empty slot as inaugural head coach of the 32nd franchise has been a hot topic as we move steadily closer to the Expansion Draft. Botterill saw something he liked in Krueger once, and it could be that he recommends the man with legendary speaking skills once again to GM Ron Francis.
Krueger Was Once Thought of As a Genius
As head coach of the Swiss national hockey team, Krueger took a group of relatively under-skilled players and turned them into a giant killer. The tight defensive game the Swiss played might not have been the most exciting product to watch, but it got them wins over Russia and Canada in major international tournaments and made them an opponent that the great teams couldn’t take lightly. He seemed like one of the best coaches outside of the NHL, and it looked to be a matter of time before he found a job in the league.
Joining the Edmonton Oilers as an assistant coach in 2010, he spent two years behind Tom Renney before taking over the main job himself. The Oilers, in the midst of one of the worst rebuilds in league history despite multiple first overall picks, were in the playoff hunt at the trade deadline that season but crashed after that point, finishing well out of the race. Krueger agreed to a search for a veteran assistant to help him the following season, but Oilers GM Craig Mactavish, enamored with potential hire Dallas Eakins, instead made the surprising call to replace his current coach. In Europe at the time, Krueger received the news via Skype. Leaving the hockey world for an extended period, he signed on as chairman with the Southampton soccer club of the English Premier League. Eakins would do no better as Oilers’ coach, but his lack of success put Edmonton in a position to win the Connor McDavid lottery.
The Myth of Krueger Grew While He Was Away
His lack of great results in Edmonton was seen as a combination of factors. Incompetent management, a poorly built roster, and perhaps a dash of inexperience at the pro level on his own part meant it was always going to be an uphill battle with the Oilers. His unceremonious removal, and the success in another sport that followed, allowed people to see the great orator that Krueger is while ignoring his win/loss record in the one year he had at the helm. The general belief was that, given the right set of tools, another stint in the NHL would show Krueger’s true ability.
Hired by the Sabres in 2019, he again faced a challenge. If there is a team that has had a worse run than the post-2006 Oilers, it would be Buffalo. Three league-worst finishes and no result higher than 23rd since 2012, along with a lack of any playoff appearances since 2011, meant the team was closing on all-time records of futility. Krueger’s leadership skill was put to the test, and unfortunately, it wasn’t up to the challenge. One shortened season with a sub 0.500 finish, followed by the disaster that 2020-21 is for the Sabres, and the Buffalo chapter of his career came to an abrupt close this week.
An Opening in Seattle
Francis has shown extreme patience in his head coach search. Some good candidates, such as Peter Laviolette, have been scooped up by other teams while the Kraken GM has deliberated on his own decision. One has to believe that he’ll consider Krueger, and a conversation may already have happened amongst the Seattle management group on the former Buffalo coach’s suitability for the job. There’s still a slim chance that the man who changed Swiss hockey for the better might just need the right opportunity to find success and that Edmonton and Buffalo’s deep issues were more than any coach could overcome.
Ultimately the answer should be no. While he is a great speaker and has many real talents, it seems clear that those don’t equal success as an NHL bench boss. His teams might not have had a shot at the playoffs, but one would prefer to see year over year improvement, even on a bad club. To say the Sabres improved during his tenure would be overly kind. A captain who seems close to a trade demand and the six worst plus/minus players in the league at the time of his firing show that it just didn’t work in Buffalo, and he is unlikely to be the best option for Seattle either. Krueger will land on his feet, but there is no scenario where he is the ideal candidate to be the Kraken’s first head coach.