Ralph Krueger Introductory Conference Call (12:30 p.m.)
Q: Talk about the factors, from your perspective, the main ones that led to your decision to accept this job. (Adam Benigni – WGRZ)
A: First and foremost was the very natural communication together with Jason Botterill. I think when you look at this point in my career, it’s extremely important the people I’m going to be working with and for. When Jason and I began the conversation a couple of years ago, it just had a natural flow to it. When we picked it up at that point, when I was deciding to move back to the game of hockey, he really embodied a lot of the things I care about. His culture that he’s driving into the Sabres was important. When I then met Terry and Kim Pegula a few weeks ago, the culture at the top was confirmed; the path that they would like to go down, the way people are treated and the passion they have for the city of Buffalo, but also for the game of hockey through the Sabres. The key reasons would be those three people that really made me feel passionate about taking this responsibility.
Q: What is that culture that you speak of? What kind of things do you want to see — and I’ll say that you and Jason want to see? What are you trying to develop in the locker room and with this team? (Paul Hamilton – WGR 550)
A: First and foremost, we want to earn respect and be difficult to play against every night. I think that Buffalo is a market — first of all, it’s passion and the history are clear to me — but it’s a market that respects hard work. The unity that I will be working on putting together not only off, but on the ice, it builds from off the ice onto the way we play, that you feel us connected when we’re out there. It’s certainly a hard-working culture. It’s a culture that treats people right with giving everybody a voice, but quite clear who has the responsibility in the end. I think that it’s an open and honest culture, but one that strives to find out what everybody’s made of. First as individuals and then finally us as a group. Those are driving elements for me in the culture we’d like to build in Buffalo.
Q: One of the things that seemed to be a problem under the Pegulas when they made the change in hiring Jason and eventually Phil Housley was a lack of communication, a lack of character. They talked about those things back two years ago and Phil kind of even noted that he underestimated how much the culture needed to be changed in Buffalo. How do you go about addressing that? What have you seen from the team and how much can you not underestimate how important that factor is? (John Wawrow – Associated Press)
A: First and foremost, the most important communication for me here early on will be to listen. To communicate with the players and the staff and to learn about what has been going on and where the opportunity lies to take the club to another level. I know that I’m a good listener and I like to process that. Before we draw up our final plan, which we will kick off with training camp in September, we have four months of communication in all directions. I definitely like to keep those lines of communication open all the time. They never get shut down in good times or in bad. Let’s make sure that we’re continuing to strive for an environment where everybody knows what the expectations are. That’s what communication does: It clears what we expect from each other and what we expect from the way we want to play, eventually, on the ice. The only way that works is if we permanently work on clearing those paths. I find that’s certainly one of the strengths that I have that I’m going to be bringing to this job.
Q: You wanted to come back, you said, in more of a management portfolio, whether that was team president or whatever. Why did you decide, then, that you would come back to coaching? There are some people (who) probably say you haven’t been around the NHL for so long, how can you step back in when you’ve been running a soccer team? (Jim Matheson – Edmonton Journal)
A: I think it’s a really valid question that I would be asking too. I have to tell you first and foremost that when it was clear that I was stepping away from Southampton and that I wanted to come back into hockey, I opened up my viewfinder and a lot of opportunities started coming in my direction, which was nice, but there was nothing that lit a fire as much as my conversations with Jason. I could just feel the coaching magnet pulling me back. I believe that I’m very fresh, is certainly the case, but I’ve stayed very close to the game. All the friendships that I’ve built over the years are warm and I’ve been in contact with multiple head coaches over these last years. It’s always been my start-up site, NHL.com, and watching games or observing the way the league is operating has always been important to me. So I feel that in these next four months, I need to work hard to get up to speed. I need to build an outstanding assistant coaching staff around me to help in that process and to also add value to our leadership group from the coaching standpoint. I know there’s going to be some hard work ahead, but I personally look for opportunities where I’m going to be challenged and where I can continue to grow as a leader. I know this one will be one of those and I will build a team around me to help in the process.
Did you know Jason, then, from when you turned down the Pittsburgh job a couple years ago?
Well that was Jimmy Rutherford that was my primary contact.
Because Jason was working there then.
Yeah. I know Jason was in the background. He mentioned to me that that was the first time he was really aware of me. So I’m grateful to Jim Rutherford. We spent five years together; I was a consultant for him in Carolina (with the Hurricanes) until 2010 and it was the beginning. But our first good conversation one-on-one really happened in the summer of 2017.
[Botterill] wanted you to coach his team then?
We just had conversations. There was no way I was leaving Southampton at that time. We got to know each other at that point. My commitment — I’m a project person and that one wasn’t finished there, and now it is. So at that point, I wasn’t available to coach.
Q: What did you learn from your one lockout-shortened season as a head coach in Edmonton that you’re going to apply going into this job? (Lance Lysowski – The Buffalo News)
A: Well first of all, it was interesting to be an assistant coach for a couple of years, because moving from the international scene and my 18 tournaments and Olympics/World Championships/World Cups into the National Hockey League was definitely a learning curve. The head coaching year was the lockout year, which we all know was a difficult one for everybody involved, but I thought that it gave me a platform to understand better what I needed to develop, as far as a plan was concerned, if I was going to be a head coach. The partnerships that I then developed through the Olympic full year that I spent together with Lindy Ruff, Mike Babcock, Claude Julien and Ken Hitchcock, that was really an interesting year of growth and development. Adding the experience with Brad Shaw and Paul Maurice at the (2016) World Cup — all of those have helped me. You basically come out of that one year understanding what you need as a plan from beginning to end, and I’m ready to do that and put it into play now.
Q: As you look at the Sabres’ roster, and I understand you want to get here and obviously delve in much more deeply as you move forward, but what do you see and how far away is this team from — you know, they have the 10-game win streak this year, then things went south after that — how far away are they from true competitiveness and what do you think you need from a roster standpoint? (Adam Benigni – WGRZ)
A: Well one of the things, in my experience, when I was in Edmonton, that was a rebuild phase completely with nothing but youth. This is a really good mix; if you look at the young core, with some experience now, if you look at Jack (Eichel), Sam (Reinhart) and Casey (Mittelstadt) up front. The two Rasmuses, Dahlin and Ristolainen [on defense], Brandon Montour that’s been added now. Especially the younger players, there’s some good experience also in and around that group and I think that, above all, this group is ready to become a contender and to compete with anybody on any given night. I’m confident that we can become that kind of a team quite quickly. I like the way Jason has been putting this group together and they way he thinks. He understands the necessity of being strong with and without the puck and developing a team game that’s dynamic and allows this core group of players to develop and show their skill, but at the same time, find the discipline as a group to defend properly. That’ll be high on our agendas to put that game plan into place quite quickly to become a contender and competitor right into April. That’s where we want to be hanging around and I’m confident we can get there.
Q: I know “analytics” is a buzzword, especially these days, with coaching hires and I was just curious [about] your viewpoint on analytics and how you think they can help you learn more about the game, and what your stance is, just in general. (Matt Bove – WKBW)
A: Well I think it’s just another tool in our kit today and it’s one of the things in our box. It’s something also on the sports science level and the analytics level in these last few years at Southampton I’ve been able to learn many, many, many things that I’d like to put into play here in the National Hockey League and in Buffalo. We had quite a lot of opportunity to develop that area and I believe it’s an important part. But above all, it’ll come down to not overusing the analytics. I believe you need to create a space where the players have certain guidelines and a framework, but within that space, I like them to be able to be creative and also to let their instincts play. Finding that balance is the challenge that we have as a head coach. But I, again, will say that the analytics will play a role. Most of it will stay with the coaches and we’ll put it into play without handcuffing the players.
Q: Could you talk about, I guess you were able to come into Buffalo a couple weeks back, walk the streets, you popped into some bars, you were kind of doing your own reconnaissance work. Tell us that story. (Leo Roth – Rochester Democrat & Chronicle)
A: Well first and foremost, my wife and I are not “huge city” people. We love the type of city that Buffalo is. It’s very real; there’s a warmth there, and a passion for especially hockey that is important to me. There’s a history there that I, as a coach, have always found important to be working in an environment where there’s a responsibility; we matter in Buffalo. And that matters to me (as) the head coach. I want that pressure. I want that responsibility if I’m going to work in an environment, where an important part of what Buffalo is all about. When I went for my walk, I was able to tap in; I watched two NHL playoff games a few weeks ago and I changed bars every period, so I didn’t stay too long, but it was quite interesting. I’d sit beside Sabres fans and have conversations that I won’t be able to have with them now, but it was very enlightening. I certainly could feel the spirit of the city. I loved the history, the architecture and just the size. I could feel it’s a hard-working community and it’s a place that my wife and I feel very comfortable coming to live there. But, of course above all, the environment that I’ll be working in will be a match to what I was looking for.
Q: You spent six years in Southampton and had an interesting start there. Your owner was Katharina Liebherr. What was it like working for her? How was she as an owner and was her selling the team two years ago a reason for you to depart? (Michael Pachla – Hockeybuzz)
A: First and foremost, it was very refreshing to work for a woman. I enjoyed the dialogue. I enjoyed the priorities (which were) often different, in a good way. It brought a healthy balance to the club and that’s why I actually went there. The goal was definitely to sell the club and to allow it to develop at another level. Quite certainly, there was a commitment there for two more years when the owners took over, that I would remain and hand over in a proper way, and that’s happened now. But certainly, when I met Kim and Terry, the Pegulas, we had our conversation; it was outstanding in the balance that they bring as owners. I just felt very comfortable with them; extremely positive and passionate people, and I could feel that we’re going to have a very constructive journey together here, which is important for the fans to hear in the end, that it’s all about getting this group back on track and winning.
Q: When you think back — we’ve all seen the reports of how your job ended in Edmonton via, apparently, a Skype call. Do you have any, I’m not saying any bitterness toward the Oilers, but is there any feelings that you never got to finish what you began and just how abruptly things ended, do you know how much more you have to prove in some ways? (John Wawrow – Associated Press)
A: That’s a really good question, because it’s part of the energy and the passion that I have for this role right now. I have no hard feelings from my time in Edmonton. I never did. I was grateful for the opportunity, I was grateful for the experience that I had, and I moved on quickly after that. But now, to be able to re-enter, where I feel I’m walking into an environment that is ready to go to the next level, and not in a building-from-scratch phase. It’s certainly a reason why this became so interesting so quickly and why I feel a really high energy level here to throw myself into this job.
Q: What did the World Cup experience almost three years ago do for your career? (Bill Hoppe – Olean Times Herald)
A: Well that definitely confirmed that in my heart of hearts I’m a coach. My kids have been telling me ever since that that’s the happiest I’ve looked in the last six years, was when I was coaching in hockey at the World Cup. It was also having a group, at that level, very many top-level star NHL players with experience in one environment. If you look at (Marian) Hossa, and (Zdeno) Chara and (Anze) Kopitar, the players and the team that we had at that point, with (Roman) Josi back on [defense] and so on — I can go through the whole lineup — it was quite a surprising group, but it also confirmed the way I’d like to operate as a coach in the National Hockey League. I think when I was in Edmonton I was still searching for the proper style and it was an opportunity, at the highest level against the best players in the world, to test a system of play which will be the core of what we will be implementing here. I’ve seen no reason to adjust that core plan of wanting to have a team that is aggressive in regards to the way it pressures the puck and uses speed in the attack as a balance to that. I think that the World Cup was an important experience also from a building standpoint. We built an organization there from scratch over one year. There was no federation or team in place. We had to think of all the different roles that you need within a group to have a chance to be successful. Making it up against Canada in the final really confirmed our process. So it certainly helped me a lot to have that experiment.
Q: Earlier in this call, you talked about the team being ready to be a contender. This team was last in the NHL after January 1, has not made the playoffs in eight years — the longest stretch in the league right now. The fan base is frustrated. Most people are disbelieving this team has what it takes. What makes you think the team as is can be a contender, and how do you approach the cultural problem with this club and this organization? (Mike Harrington – The Buffalo News)
A: Well the parity in the National Hockey League is what makes the league so great. Where Buffalo has been and where we’re going to go, it’s percentage points that make the difference. It’s getting those percentage points right. I believe that all great players and developing players need some pain to understand the complete game that’s necessary to be a success in the National Hockey League. I think the players I mentioned before, especially the young ones, have had that experience, whether it was last year or over the last few years. I’m at heart, of course, an optimistic coach and an optimistic person, but I don’t believe I’m a dreamer. I believe I’m a realist and I’m looking at what I see here. I know we’re going to work hard through the summer to add some pieces and to make some adjustments in the roster. Only time will tell; I don’t want to make any big promises here. There’s only one that I will make, and that is that I will do everything within my power to find out what this group is made of very quickly and to get us into that competitive space for much longer than the team was able to get into last season. Again, I looked at this roster very deeply and I’m going to begin by meeting Jack (Eichel) and Sam (Reinhart) next week (at the IIHF World Championship) in Slovakia and continue the process of getting to know the players through the summer. It’s up to me to figure out how I can help them to add percentage points to their individual games. If we get those right, I think the next step will be there for us.
Q: I have two questions. What approaches and ideas which could be useful in the NHL have you picked up through your years in English football? And the second question is that you were maybe the only NHL coach who had a positive experience with Nail Yakupov in Edmonton. He had a good season last season in Russia and now he’s a free agent in both the NHL and KHL. Would you be interested in signing him? (Igor Eronko – Sport Express)
A: The biggest thing, internationally, that’s interesting is when you look at World Cups, and Olympics and World Championships is that your competition is forever changing in the way it plays. So every night, you have a completely different opponent with a different playing style. So you need to be really good in-game to be successful and you need to be able to adjust and adapt quickly, and I think that’s something that I’ll be able to bring from the international tournaments that I was a part of. Overall, from Southampton, my experience would be off the ice, I’ve already mentioned the sports science. The way the athletes work, the opportunities we have there to tap into will be quite a few. With Nail, I enjoyed my season with him. He was our top scorer that season in Edmonton. But the player personnel decisions, we’re only into our first day here and Jason will drive that process and we’ll be having discussions as we move forward on anybody who’s available.