The Buffalo Sabres overhaul behind the bench continues. Less than a month after hiring Ralph Krueger as head coach, the sixth to serve in that role in the last eight seasons, the team announced Mike Bales and Don Granato will be joining the Sabres staff as assistant coaches. Also, assistant coach Steve Smith will be retained. Assistant coach Chris Hajt and associate coach Davis Payne will not be retained.
Bales Bound for Buffalo
Bales had an out in his contract with the Carolina Hurricanes that allowed him to resign if he was offered the position of an assistant coach. Though he has the title of assistant coach, his responsibilities will include working with the Sabres netminders.
Bales, a 47-year-old Saskatchewan native, has ties to general manager Jason Botterill from their days together in Pittsburgh. He spent two seasons as the Penguins’ goalie development coach then four seasons as their goalie coach, earning back-to-back Stanley Cup rings while managing the tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray. Bales was considered instrumental in molding rookie Murray’s rise to the top of the league in 2016. He was let go by the Pens after winning the second Cup in 2017.
Bales and Brind’Amour
The Carolina Hurricanes then jumped at the chance to hire Bales. This past season, his second year with the ‘Canes, Bales coached the unheralded castoff tandem of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney. Though they squeaked into the playoffs with the first wild card spot, the ‘Canes advanced to the Eastern Conference Final under rookie head coach Rod Brind’Amour.
“When I took the head coaching job it was real easy for me to just let him run with the goalies,” Brind’Amour said during the Conference Final. “I don’t even know what he does with them. He takes them, he does his own thing. He has his meetings, and then we talk about who goes in net and he tells me who he thinks should go, and I would say 99 percent of the time this year it’s the guy I was going to go with.”
A fifth-round pick by the Boston Bruins in 1990, Bales spent the final nine years of his career in Europe before retiring in 2010. He appeared in a total of 23 NHL games with the Bruins and Ottawa Senators from 1992-97. He compiled a forgettable 2-15-1 record with a 4.13 goals-against average and an .869 save percentage. He even played 39 games in the Sabres organization in 1997-98 suiting up for the Rochester Americans and sharing crease duties with future Sabres goalie Martin Biron, then an AHL rookie.
“Mike was always competitive, which was great because you’re a young guy and you think you’re going to be given the world,” Biron recalled. “He was a really good veteran, worked extremely hard.”
“You’re seeing that this is going to be a priority for Ralph Krueger and his staff, to have a voice from the goaltender’s side into what’s going on, especially in the defensive zone,” added Biron.
Granato was an assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks for two years with Joel Quenneville and Jeremy Colliton. His career includes stints as an associated head coach at the University of Wisconsin and five seasons with the United States National Development Program.
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From 2011-12 to 2015-16, Granato was a head coach at the USNDP, where he led his teams to victory at the 2014 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and the 2015 IIHF World U18 Championship. Granato was also an assistant coach for Team USA at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championships and at the 2014 and 2018 IIHF World Championships. He was awarded the AHL Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award for coach of the year for the 2000-01 season.
As a player, Granato captured an NCAA Championship with the University of Wisconsin in 1990. He is the brother of longtime NHLer and Wisconsin coach Tony Granato and U.S. Olympic women’s star Cammi Granato.
Smith, originally hired by former Sabres coach Phil Housley in 2018, is the lone holdover.
He was part of Krueger’s Edmonton Oilers staff in 2012-13. The three-time Stanley Cup winner ran the team’s defense and the penalty kill units last season. The Sabres’ PK finished in 12th place and their defense was mostly a sore spot. In terms of goals allowed, only nine teams allowed more than the Blue and Gold. Smith’s experience and a touch of continuity should be helpful.
Smith had a 16-year playing career for the Oilers, Blackhawks and Calgary Flames. Before joining the Sabres, he had nine years of experience as an NHL assistant, including four in Carolina.
Bales will replace Andrew Allen, who was hired in 2015 as the Sabres’ goaltender coach. Allen worked under Housley and Dan Bylsma.
Allen had some limited success early on with Robin Lehner, who was dealing with off-ice issues, but overall, the Sabres netminders have struggled while he’s been with the team. There are many reasons for that, including poor defensive coverage, odd-man rushes, lack of depth on the blue line to name a few.
Krueger’s Bench in Buffalo
Krueger mentioned on a local radio show that he prefers a maximum of three guys behind the bench, including himself. Smith and Granato will likely join him, while Bales watches from the press box. However, right now, all of the coaches’ eyes are on the NHL Entry Draft in Vancouver. Round one is scheduled on Friday, June 21, starting at 8 p.m. EST. Rounds 2-7 take Saturday, June 22 at 1 p.m. EST.
The Sabres have two first-round draft picks, No. 7 overall (their own) and No. 31 overall (courtesy of the Ryan O’Reilly trade with the St. Louis Blues). They hold a total of eight picks over seven rounds. According to Botterill, the team is also looking at the trade market to upgrade their roster.
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.”