Buffalo Sabres fans woke up Wednesday to the news that head coach Ralph Krueger had been relieved of his coaching duties only 28 games into the 2020-21 season. The Sabres had just suffered their 12th straight loss, a 3-2 defeat at the hands of the New Jersey Devils, perhaps the only team in their division that they have looked competitive against this season. The Sabres, led by Krueger, are last in the Mass Mutual East Division™ with a record of 6-18-4, good for just 16 points.
Krueger, who was hired to be the Sabres’ new coach ahead of the 2019-20 season, was 36-49-12 during his tenure with the team and failed to lead them to the playoffs last season. The Sabres have not reached the playoffs since 2011, creating a sense of urgency to get things done and to get them done now.
Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams took to the stage for the first time in two weeks and just the second time this season late Wednesday morning to address the media following the news.
Adams Fires Krueger, Steve Smith After 12th Straight Loss
“It’s been a tough day,” said Adams to start his opening remarks to the media. “It felt right that it needed to be done now.” Adams sounded emotional when announcing Krueger’s firing, stating that the two of them spoke this morning about the decision, one that was undoubtedly coming sooner than later. “He believed to his core that he could turn this around, but my job was to tell him where I thought we were and have an honest conversation.”
In addition to Krueger being shown the door, assistant coach Steve Smith was also relieved of his coaching duties. Out of all coaching personnel, they were the only two to be fired as of today. Krueger, who has one year left on his contract next season at $3.75 million, will remain on the Sabres payroll, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun confirmed.
For Krueger personally, it’s hard to tell whether he’ll find another coaching job in the NHL. This was his second chance, after all, a sort of experiment following his last job as head coach of the Edmonton Oilers in the 2012-13 shortened season, where he led that team to a 19-22-7 record for 45 points in 48 games and was promptly fired afterward. With a dismal winning percentage at the NHL level, it’s difficult to see another team taking a chance on Krueger.
Adams made it clear during his press conference that the players on the Sabres “adored” Krueger, some calling him the best coach they’ve ever had, others calling him an “alpha male.” Despite those qualities, however, his inevitable departure from the locker room was all but guaranteed with the way things were going.
Don Granato Named Interim Head Coach
The Sabres play their next game Thursday and needed to fill the coaching void left by Krueger in preparation for the game. Adams announced that he elevated assistant coach Don Granato to interim head coach, with assistant coach Mike Bales and video coach Myles Fee sticking around, too. Additionally, Matt Ellis and Dan Girardi, who had both previously occupied player development roles, will join the coaching staff on an interim basis as well.
“Don Granato’s been a head coach for many years at different levels,” said Adams on his new interim status. “He’s commanded a room as a head coach before.” Perhaps some familiarity will be a positive thing for the players for the rest of the season, but how effective Granato can be at helping the team get back on track remains to be seen.
One thing is for sure, though: the Sabres are at no shortage of experience with Granato behind the bench. Before being hired by the Sabres, he spent two seasons as an assistant coach with the Chicago Blackhawks and was head coach of the University of Wisconsin in the NCAA in the 2016-17 season.
Granato spent seven seasons with the St. Louis Blues organization as an assistant and was head coach of the AHL’s Chicago Wolves for two seasons. The Sabres are hoping his lengthy resume translates into a positive impact in the locker room.
Adams Signals More Change Is on the Way
When asked about what the team’s mentality is as the NHL trade deadline approaches, Adams quickly replied that “[The Sabres are] open to anything and everything.” Fans had to be encouraged by that unmistakably clear messaging since it shows he’s willing to take everything into consideration in order to make this hockey team better than they are now.
Selling at the deadline is just one way the makeup of this team could change in the coming weeks and months, but there are plenty of other areas that Adams pointed to, as well. One of those is finding a new head coach.
Several former coaches with huge name recognition and years of success in the NHL are currently out of a job and looking for work. The names we’ve heard most often in recent weeks are the likes of Bruce Boudreau, Gerard Gallant, and Claude Julien, who was also fired earlier this season as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens.
Some have said it wouldn’t be surprising if the Sabres stuck with Granato as interim head coach and Ellis and Girardi as his assistants for the remainder of the season, but Adams also indicated that were the right candidate to come along, it wouldn’t be out of the question for them to pull the trigger.
One thing to note is that the NHL, AHL, and NCAA seasons will all be wrapping up not too long from now, and the team might be able to generate a wider search from a deeper pool of candidates if they stay patient. One big reason Adams said he is unsure of what the hiring timeline will be is simple: he needs to get this right.
One last change that Adams told the media was on the way was beginning a search for an assistant GM. This would be a welcome hire, as it’s most always better to have a couple of voices beside you when making tough calls in the NHL.
Assistant GM, New Head Coach, and Player Moves to Come
The hunt for an assistant GM will begin immediately. Per Elliotte Friedman, the Sabres apparently have permission to speak with Jason Karmanos, most recently a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization and someone with whom Adams has a “long history.” Some synergy in the front office might serve the Sabres well, as that’s something they’ve appeared to lack for quite a while now.
Likewise, the search for a new head coach will begin immediately, too. Adams shared some traits he is looking for in the next coach of the Sabres, namely, someone who is able to build trust and good relationships with the players, but also someone who is able to be accountable when needed.
“There will be a lot of people that I will speak to,” said Adams on the coaching search. “What I don’t want to do is rush into anything . . . This is about getting it right.” Besides the names I mentioned earlier, word is there can be a couple more candidates added to the list, a few of them still current coaches in the NHL.
Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella is one, the Arizona Coyotes’ Rick Tocchet another, and Nate Leaman, head coach of the NCAA’s Providence Friars, is a third. Leaman is an interesting, out-of-the-box candidate who just so happens to have coached Team USA to a gold medal at the 2021 World Junior Championship a couple of months ago.
Sabres’ Outlook for Second Half of the Season
Changes are coming, and there is a lot to be excited about. This place that the Sabres are in right now is not a new one for fans of the team; this is the sixth head coach that has been fired since the Pegula family purchased the club in 2011. However, there is something that being in this position again evokes, and that is a sense of optimism. It’s never fair to rule out that things will be done the right way this time around.
In the meantime, the Sabres look to end their 0-10-2 skid, play with some pride, and show that they are not pushovers to be toyed with on the ice.
“We have to be better in every single area of this organization. It starts with me. I need to manage better,” Adams said this morning. “I need to be better in every way. We need to coach better, we need to scout better, we need to develop players better. I mean, you name it, we need to do it better. Period.”
Hopefully, a change as drastic as firing Ralph Krueger can send a message that it’s time to kick things into gear and show the world what it means to pull a Sabres jersey over your head every game. The players have all 28 games remaining on the season to prove it.
Brandon is a Buffalo Sabres Contributor for THW and Co-Host of THW’s ‘Sabres Scoop,’ who received his Master of Science in Sport Administration from Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, and founded his website, Seltytending, in 2017. He is an avid hockey writer and podcaster with prior work experience in the OJHL, NWHL, and NCAA. Twitter: @BSalts15