Since entering the NHL in 2008, Kyle Okposo has played for six head coaches. Ralph Krueger is his third one in four seasons with the Buffalo Sabres.
What’s different about him?
“Uh … a lot?” Okposo said. “Where do I start?”
Krueger, a 60-year-old Canadian who played professional hockey in Germany, became a head coach in Austria and then with the Swiss national team that upset his home and native land in the 2006 Winter Olympics. After a brief stint in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers, he changed genres, left for the U.K. and became chairman of Southampton Football Club in the Premier League. He said that opportunity was less about soccer than it was about leadership, a virtue Krueger extolled during his time with the Geneva-based World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council, which focused on new models of leadership. He had a side gig in 2016 as head coach of Team Europe, a desperate collection of nationally unaffiliated NHL players whom he led to the championship round of the World Cup of Hockey.
Oh, and his 2002 book “Teamlife: Über Niederlagen zum Erfolg” (“over defeats to success”) has five stars on Amazon. That, too.
So there’s a lot that makes Ralph Krueger different than your typical NHL bench boss. That couldn’t be more refreshing for the Sabres.
“It’s definitely a different environment,” center Jack Eichel told ESPN. “He does a really good job with the guys in the room. Our opinions really matter to him. When you do that and you incorporate everyone into your decision-making, you get a really good response from everyone. So many things, in a short amount of time, to let us know that we’re all in this together.”
The Krueger Effect has been transformative. The Sabres are one of the league’s biggest early season stunners, with an 8-1-1 record out of the gate, unexpected offensive balance and goaltending ranked in the top five in save percentage (.926).
The changes haven’t just been tactical — though anyone who has seen the Sabres play with the puck pressure, quickness and creativity Krueger demands has witnessed those systemic tweaks — but are also attitudinal. This is Buffalo. These are the Sabres. The expectation of victory has been antithetical to the franchise, which has the longest active playoff drought (eight seasons) and has never won the Stanley Cup since entering the NHL in 1970.
Yet confidence is found here, in abundance.
“It starts with the guys on the bench. Everyone stays positive. There’s not a moment where we feel like we’re going to lose a game,” forward Zemgus Girgensons said. “It’s been like that all season. It’s great to see.”
Krueger knows that “all season” means, at this point, a minuscule fraction of it.
“The picture is so small that I’m not allowing surprise into my brain at the moment, he said. “We need to stay extremely humble with what’s going on here and have respect, always, for the league and opposition.
“It’s about constant improvement. Anything else would just be a distraction.”
Jason Botterill had to get this right.
Since being hired as Sabres general manager in May 2017 and taking over what could be correctly called “a rebuild inside a rebuild,” he had hired and fired his first coach in Phil Housley. His team had missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons. Fortune had smiled upon him in the acquisition of winger Jeff Skinner from the Carolina Hurricanes, whose no-move clause helped him orchestrate a trade to Buffalo, where he scored 40 goals last season. Fortune had frowned in the trade that sent center Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues, with whom he won the Conn Smythe and hoisted the Stanley Cup while Buffalo sifted through spare parts and draft picks.
When Botterill and his staff sketched out what they wanted in a candidate, NHL head-coaching experience was the first priority — something Housley didn’t have prior to the Buffalo job. Krueger’s head-coaching stint with Edmonton lasted only 48 games in a lockout-truncated season, but he was an associate coach with the Oilers in the two years leading up to it. He was also a consultant for the Carolina Hurricanes while serving as head coach of the Swiss national team. The Sabres liked his quick adjustments behind the bench for international teams and heard rave reviews of his communication style from former players.
Botterill inquired about Krueger in 2017 before hiring Housley, but the latter’s commitment to Southampton prevented a return to the NHL. This time, it was a different answer.
“With Ralph’s résumé, I know he had other opportunities. That’s what gets us excited that he wanted to come here,” Botterill said. “He’s a kid from Manitoba who loves the game of hockey and has a passion about being a teacher.”
Okposo says Krueger is the best kind of teacher: one who makes his assignments and his expectations clear.
“He’s got a concise, demanding but nonconfrontational way about him. It’s something that the team has gravitated toward. He’s been able to get everybody on the same page very quickly,” Okposo said. “It’s just honesty. If he doesn’t like something, he’s going to say it. And if we don’t like something, we’re going to say it and talk it out. You know where you stand with him. There’s no extra talk. There’s no needless meetings. There’s no wasted time. Everything that we’re doing, there’s a purpose to it.”
That includes, for example, not doing anything on the ice some mornings.
Krueger is an advocate of fewer morning skates. “I think it’s all about energy and understanding the different ways we can gather energy,” he said. “Making sure the quality of our execution stays high. What I’ve found is that if you’re practicing with a team that’s tired mentally or physically, your execution principles just fall away.
“That’s probably one of the things that comes out of my experience with the Premier League. Watching the way they gather or use energy on game days. You don’t see any pregame warm-ups or activities there at all. We played at 8 or 8:30 at night. It got me thinking, and in speaking with sports scientists, that pregame skates are often an expenditure of energy you don’t really need.”
Eichel supports it.
“It helps. With the opportunity not to be on the ice as much, you get more opportunities to recover, spend more time in the weight room,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of man games lost in the last few years to tissue injuries. It’s a long season. It wears on you.”
So does losing, if you’re the Buffalo Sabres.
Housley went 58-84-22 as head coach in Buffalo. There were peaks and valleys but not enough consistency to build confidence. Perhaps it’s the clean slate Krueger arrived with or his positive disposition bleeding into the dressing room, but this season feels different.
“Winning helps. It gives you that confidence on the bench, especially in tight games,” said Skinner, who committed to the Sabres on an eight-year contract extension last summer.
Is “culture change” too strong a label?
“It’s kind of a general word, ‘culture.’ It’s a feeling that you have. The kind of hockey that you play,” Skinner said. “I don’t really think that you can trademark how you’re playing this early in the season. We had stretches that we liked and stretches when we wanted to improve our consistency.”
What the Sabres have liked: a power-play that has scored 11 goals in its first 35 opportunities, with six of them coming from rookie winger Victor Olofsson. Krueger said the key is unpredictability.
“It’s about finding ways to surprise the opposition,” he said. “They’re pre-scouting. So you have to be creative in each game and take each game with a creative approach to neutralize some of that. What we have is an extremely skilled group when it comes to puck possession and the opportunities that lie within it. They bought into the principles. We allow them a lot of freedom to create within that.”
Olofsson, who led all rookies with six goals through nine games, has spent the majority of the season playing with Eichel. Krueger made the seemingly bold choice to break up the Eichel-Skinner combination that produced 53 goals last season and — if we’re being candid — helped the latter earn a $72 million contract extension.
“I didn’t really have a reaction,” Skinner told ESPN. “I’ve been doing this long enough to know that training camp happens, there are different line combinations that go with it, and then from there, you build off of what’s working. The lineup that you start a season with is never going to be the lineup you end with. There’s always mixing and matching. When I first got to camp, I had never played with [Marcus] Johansson before. So that was a nice surprise.”
Johansson was a shrewd offseason signing for Botterill, adding a veteran with experience playing with high-end talent to his forward group. So far, everything that needs to happen has happened with this group, from the emergence of Olofsson to a resurgent Casey Mittelstadt (six points in nine games) to the fact that 12 Sabres have goals through nine games.
“That’s the nice thing about having the depth we do. No matter where you play in the lineup, you’re going to play with skill guys,” Skinner said.
Two other offseason additions to the blue line — Henri Jokiharju from the Chicago Blackhawks and Colin Miller from the Vegas Golden Knights — have solidified the back end in front of goalies Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark, who are under the tutelage of highly regarded goalie coach Mike Bales, last seen transforming the Carolina Hurricanes’ journeyman netminders.
For Miller, who has been paired with burgeoning star Rasmus Dahlin, coming to the Sabres after spending two years with a veteran group in Vegas was jarring.
“A little bit of a young room,” he said. “There’s some stuff that the group hasn’t been through, like learning how to manage games to become that team that we want to be.”
Miller credits Krueger with helping to mature them.
“You could feel his presence right away,” he said. “Very good with breaking things down. As a player, that’s what you want: what he wants from you, to have that open conversation.”
Honesty is the policy in Buffalo. The players marvel at the open lines of communication between themselves and the coaches and how constructive those conversations have been.
“Guys really appreciate that — when they’re in on what’s going on,” Eichel said. “Everyone talks about how positive he is. Even when he’s critical, he makes guys excited to get better. He brings a lot of good energy to the rink.”
Krueger said those conversations started in the summer. “Some face to face and some on telephones,” he said. “I felt always, since day one, a willingness to buy in to what we’re doing here. To learn how to play the way we have to have a chance every night, so when we enter third periods, there’s an opportunity for points. That’s always been the case.”
The Sabres have collected points like this before. Last season, they won 10 straight games from Nov. 8 through Nov. 27. Then they went winless in five games. In March, they lost 15 out of 16 games. It was 10 steps forward and a tumble backward down a mountain.
That’s why Okposo believes you have to look beyond the team’s record. He has this season. And he likes what he sees.
“I don’t think we were playing very well when we did that,” he said. “Watch the games we’ve played [this season] vs. those 10 games, and there’s no comparison. The results are similar, but we’re playing complete games now.”
As Krueger said, the start of the season is a small picture. When does it get magnified? When does Krueger get a true handle on what the Sabres could accomplish?
“I know what the team is already. I know what our strengths are, and I know what we need to work on,” he said. “I think this group is also very honest, so players interact with us coaches in a very honest way and are working together on those deficits and working on those strengths. So the picture is actually full. Within it we see all the challenges that we have to be the team we want to be. We’re still a ways off. You never stop growing. You never stop learning in this league.
“The players are all-in. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s fun with hard work and sacrifice for each other. The spirit’s amazing. Nobody cares who’s scoring anymore. They’re all cheering for each other. There’s a general hunger to be a good team. That’s what we’re building on here.”