Buffalo Sabres Holding on to Krueger For Now, But Why?

There was a little bit of excitement for Buffalo Sabres’ fans heading into the 2021 National Hockey League season. 

It seems so far away now, like looking back at your summer vacation during some blisteringly-cold February weather. But there really was some optimism around the team this January when the puck first dropped. 

They had added a veteran in Eric Staal, signed Taylor Hall, who was not too far removed from being the NHL’s Most Valuable Player in 2018. Goalie Linus Ullmark had just come off a shortened season in which he proved he was a number one netminder in the league. As the season progressed, he emerged as one of the best currently active goaltenders in the shootout. 

Rasmus Dahlin was expected to have somewhat of a breakout year. Ramsus Risotolainen was about to become a force on the back end. Jack Eichel publicly said how frustrated he was with losing, and fans expected him to come out with his hair on fire and light up the league like Auston Matthews. 

But all that optimism came tumbling down right around the time the Sabres’ season was interrupted after several players caught COVID-19. They had four wins in ten games before the virus put on the season pause. Since their return, they’ve had two wins in 15. 

Buffalo Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger
Buffalo Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

As much as this has focused attention on the players and their inability to give a consistent enough effort to remain competitive through 60 minutes on any given night, the one person taking the most heat right now is head coach Ralph Krueger. Number two on that list might be Adams, the man in charge of Krueger’s future with the club.

Why Hasn’t Krueger Been Fired?

Is Adams waiting to make a coaching move at the end of the season? If so, why? Fans would like to see a change now and after his press conference where he deemed everything but the free water in the press box “unacceptable,” many are expecting the hammer to come down hard and fast.

A couple of factors come into play when we look at why Adams hasn’t fired Krueger yet. One is money. 

Buffalo Sabres Terry and Kim Pegula
Buffalo Sabres and Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

Team owners Terry and Kim Pegula are notably frivolous in regular times. In 2018, the team traded Ryan O’Reilly, and the return was, as The Athletic’s John Vogl recently put it, worse than a bag of pucks. 

“Patrik Berglund quit after 23 games and forfeited $12.5 million just to get away. Vladimir Sobotka had six goals and 10 assists in 85 games before injuring his knee and returning to Europe. Tage Thompson has been a steady scratch on a last-place team. And the first-round pick ended up being 31st overall because O’Reilly won the Cup and Conn Smythe.”

‘Sabres vs. Canucks: After 50 years and no Stanley Cups, whose fans have had it
worse?’ Sean McIndoe, John Vogl, Thomas Drance The Athletic 03/11/21

The plus side of this deal? The Pegula’s avoided paying O’Reilly the $7.5 million bonus, due on the day of the trade. 

Should Krueger be fired in a mid-season dismantling of the Sabres, the team would still be obligated to honor his contract for the rest of the year and through 2021-22. If they keep him on until the end of this meaningless season, then they’ll only have to pay him for one year of not being behind the bench. 

Krueger’s ‘Elevated Status’ With the Sabres

Relatively new to the team, and with the additions he made during the off-season in mind, Adams might have planned for the Sabres to be in a radically different position at this point in the season. If not in a playoff spot, then pushing for one. 

That might be playing a role in why he hasn’t pulled the pin on Krueger just yet. Perhaps, he is taking the time to plan before carrying out his next move(s).

For Krueger, 61, his standing with Adams, 46, was more of a trusted advisor and teammate than an adversary at the beginning of the year. The coach played an essential role in bringing Hall into the mix this offseason because of the connection the two share from the winger’s breakout year when they were both with the Edmonton Oilers.

(Photo: Andy Martin Jr)
Kevyn Adams (Photo: Andy Martin Jr)

Without any assistant GMs, Adams and his VP of hockey administration, Mark Jakubowski, chose not to put themselves on an island. Instead, they reached out to the coach. His experience and connection with the players gave Krueger an elevated status within the organization, who praises Adams’ “inclusive” style.

But losing changes all that.

In recent weeks, reports say that the Pegulas are looking to shed parts of their extensive portfolio to concentrate more on the Bills and the Sabres, which most certainly means the team will be under a heavily scrutinized reexamination. The commitment to — and subsequent firing — of former GM Jason Botterill shows that the Pegulas are not afraid of change. 

But they also like stability. The owners’ familiarity with Adams, who was working within the organization as Senior Vice President of Business Administration when Botterill was canned, meant they didn’t have to look far for their new team manager. He’s their guy, and now you wonder if they’ll be pushing Adams’ to find his own man behind the bench. 

There’s no lack of evidence to support the need for a coaching change now. Given the results so far, it would not be surprising to learn the Sabres players have tuned Krueger’s message out. But if you ask them directly, they’re going to say the opposite is true.

Captain Jack Eichel refused to blame Krueger for the team’s lackluster play. “…Coach isn’t on the ice. We’re on the ice,” he told the media after consecutive shutout losses to the Philadelphia Flyers in late February. “It just seems like we’re off. It doesn’t seem like we’re on the same page.”

Have the Players Turned Against Krueger?

Given the team’s talent in their top six and the way they are playing, many questions are being raised. Is the COVID condensed schedule with few-and-far-between breaks affecting this team more than any other?

So far, whether or not the players have tuned Krueger out or turned their backs on him hasn’t come up, except in the most tertiary parts of media coverage of the team. Are they playing to get the coach fired intentionally? Does any team ever do that? Is it like an NHL player to do anything but try and win the next game?

Last month on his Grapevine podcast, Don Cherry said that the Vancouver Canucks looked like they were failing on purpose to oust Travis Green. The latter is on the hot seat after the Canucks dreadful start. Cherry spoke following two consecutive losses the club suffered at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ hands, 7-3 and 5-1.

Don Cherry
Don Cherry poses for a photo (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

“I hate to say it, but I’ve seen it before, and I’d hate to think it, but they played last night like they wanted the coach fired,” Cherry said. “Nobody could play that bad.”

Cherry’s credibility is, well… not what it used to be. If he says this is something that he’s seen before, does that mean it’s happening in Western New York? No. But that still doesn’t answer the question at hand: why in the world are the Sabres this bad?  

Adams Looking to the NCAA For a Coach

Another reason there hasn’t been a change behind the bench yet could be that the coach Adams wants is not available. If he goes the way of hiring a fresh face from the NCAA, like some think he might, it would be much cheaper than Bruce Boudreau or Claude Julien. 

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman recently told Craig Rivet and Andrew Peters on his weekly appearance on The Instigators radio show on Buffalo’s WGR 550 that Boudreau wants to coach. Buffalo could be an option if Krueger is out of the picture. 

His first choice would be the Maple Leafs since he played there and grew up a fan, but, “…I know he’d love Buffalo if it ever became available,” Friedman noted. 

However, WGRZ’s Paul Hamilton reports that the Sabres are waiting for an NCAA coach to become available. At this time, signs point towards Nate Leaman from the Providence Friars. 

Jacob Bryson, Providence College Friars
Buffalo Sabres’ Jacob Bryson, played under Nate Leaman with the Providence College Friars from 2016-19. :eaman was tied to the Sabres as a possible hire as a new coach this week. (Photo by Richard T. Gagnon)

“I’ve had more than one person mention Leaman… as a prime candidate,” Hamilton wrote. “(He) won the NCAA Championship with the Friars in 2015 and took them to the Frozen Four when it was in Buffalo in 2019.”

Leaman has a .612 winning percentage over 10 seasons with the Friars. 

Adams has made no public semaphore as to what direction he might go in terms of the team’s future coach. Most think a change should come this season.

Fans have a special kind of vitriol reserved for all topics Krueger-related on the internet. If words were corrosive, the things that get said online about the coach would rust holes in galvanized steel.

There could be further, lasting damage to the organization and its reputation if they fail to address the fact that the media, fans, and possibly even the players have given up on the head coach. 

Hamilton also reports, the Sabres may have been secretly quarantining someone in Western New York since the aforementioned back-to-back shutout losses to the Flyers. This secret someone, the sources say, has been tagged to take over coaching duties. If there is any truth to that rumor, the quarantine period will end this Monday, and we will have our answer.