After Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill relieved the overmatched Phil Housley as coach of his hockey club last month, the names that were bandied about to replace him were a who’s who of up-and-comers and retreads.
Despite all of the rumors that flew around, the Sabres didn’t hire any of them. They decided to entrust a man named Krueger.
No, I’m not referring to Freddy Krueger, the serial killer from the A Nightmare on Elm Street films, nor am I citing Mr. Kruger, the incompetent employer of George Costanza on Seinfeld. I’m talking about Ralph Krueger.
It’s an interesting hire, for sure. The 59-year old Krueger isn’t a typical retread nor is he a younger coach on the rise. Described by most as an intelligent man who is an excellent motivator, gets the most out of his rosters and has a jones for analytics and advanced statistics, he led Switzerland for 12 years – helping them reach berths in three Olympic games (1998, 2002, ’10). Krueger also coached Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey and ran the Edmonton Oilers’ bench in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Lately he has been the chairman of Southampton football club in the Premier League.
When the news was first reported by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman late Tuesday night, the reaction it got came from both ends of the spectrum. Some liked the hire, others greeted it with skepticism – and rightfully so. The Sabres’ fanbase has every right to be jaded and fed up, what with the constant rebuilding this team has undergone since 2012 and transactions that haven’t panned out.
But for those who automatically think this is a bad hire because Krueger’s resume isn’t that impressive – a little perspective, please.
When Krueger coached at the World Cup nearly three years ago, despite boasting some good players no one expected that roster to do much – especially considering the traditional powerhouses they had to face (Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland, etc.). Faced with bringing together a hodgepodge of talent within a short time span, Krueger took arguably the least-talented team in the tournament and led them to a second-place finish.
During his time in Edmonton, the Oilers were arguably in a worse position than they are now. Even though their lineup was littered with some young talent in Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Justin Schultz, the rest of that team was mainly comprised of long-in-the-tooth vets (Ryan Smyth, Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff) and busts (Nail Yakupov, Sam Gagner, Magnus Paajarvi). All Krueger did was have them play near .500 hockey for most of that season – which is something the Sabres have rarely done over the last eight years – and nearly got them into the postseason. His being canned after two years as an assistant and one as a head coach was widely believed at the time to be a misfire by the Oilers’ brass, and one that they would come to regret – which proved to be true, given their lack of recent accomplishments with two of the world’s best players in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
Another fact to chew on is that even though the best finish his Swiss men’s team had was fourth at the World Championships in 1998, he was, after all, coaching Switzerland. How in the world can anyone expect to have a modicum of success with such a small pool of talent to work with? To put it mildly, Switzerland isn’t exactly a hockey hotbed. They were always trumped in talent by other countries, but were still competitive thanks to one constant – Krueger.
Personally, I don’t love the hire. There were a couple of candidates who I felt deserved the job a bit more than Krueger – namely Dave Tippett (a proven coach who is likely to join the Oilers), Rickard Gronborg of the Swedish men’s national team, Sheldon Keefe of the Toronto Marlies (who isn’t likely to leave unless it’s for a perfect situation) or even Nate Leaman of Providence College. But I also don’t hate it either, because there were guys who were connected to the job who likely would have been worse choices.
Rochester Americans coach Chris Taylor isn’t ready to lead a big-league club yet. Todd Richards? A good assistant – currently in Tampa – but a mediocre head coach with both Minnesota and Columbus. Lindy Ruff? Been there, done that. Former Florida Panthers coach (and Sabres player) Bob Boughner? The Sabres have a long history of hiring former alumni – and have gotten mixed results.
Jacques Martin? Aside from a miracle run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010 with Montreal and winning two Stanley Cups as an assistant to Mike Sullivan in Pittsburgh, what exactly has he done as a head coach since 2005? Nothing. Martin’s best days were in Ottawa more than 15 years ago. Bob Hartley? Basically a clone of Martin – his recent teams with Atlanta and Calgary were underwhelming following a very successful tenure in Colorado nearly 20 years ago.
In my opinion, the signing of Ralph Krueger is a “meh” hire. But I commend Buffalo for thinking outside the box and not going with the tried and true method of finding a head coach.
Since Ruff was let go in 2013, the Sabres have had four coaches – none lasting longer than two years. Housley and Ron Rolston were both first-time head coaches and looked like fish out of water. Ted Nolan and Dan Bylsma had experience, but both were stuck in their ways and weren’t willing to change. Krueger is a guy who will be willing to try and utilize new concepts, and who knows? Maybe he will breathe some life after all into an organization that is desperate for fresh ideas.
Botterill’s hiring of a man who hasn’t led a hockey team – much less an NHL franchise – since 2016 is a gutsy one. If it ends up being a stroke of genius by the Sabres’ brass, then Krueger will lead Buffalo back to respectability. If not, Jerry Seinfeld could always bring his show back and recast Krueger in the late Daniel Von Bargen’s old role.