Introductory Press Conference (10 a.m.)
Good morning. So, for me, it’s wonderful to be sitting in front of you. I heard some of your voices on the calls, and here we are now face-to-face. We begin a journey together. I had a wonderful morning walking through the building, walking through the spaces that we’re going to be working in in the next months and years. I can tell you that I’m full of energy and ready to begin what should be a journey of growth for everybody, not only for myself as a leader, but for the people and the staff surrounding me. Of course, the most important thing in the end, the players, that we find out what they’re made of as individuals as we build what we find out what we’re made of as a team. I’m excited to do that. Here I’m willing to take questions from you — I think that’s more important than holding a monologue — what’s on the top of your minds and what you’d be interested in hearing.
Q: When did you get into town and as you were touring the building and seeing, whether pictures of Gilbert Perreault or Dominik Hasek, did you get a fuller — not to say that you didn’t know what the background of the franchise is — did you get a fuller appreciation of what the history of this franchise is? (John Wawrow – Associated Press)
A: Well, I think to grow up in Winnipeg, you know all about the history of the Buffalo Sabres. It’s an organization that, coming in in the top 14 teams has left an amazing footprint as far as having personalities come through here. I also have many close friends that have been a part of this organization, whether it’s just recently working with Miroslav Satan, Uwe Krupp, who is a good friend of mine, speaking about his seven years growing up here in Buffalo as a kid and saying that it was the best place that he could be. Whether it’s all the way back to Danny Gare — Tom Renney, a very close friend of mine, is married to Danny’s sister. There’s just been contact to multiple alumni through my life. I’ve always felt the passion for the game here in Buffalo and [I’m] excited to tap into that.
Q: When did you get into town? (John Wawrow – Associated Press)
A: So I got into town yesterday. They’ll be some bouncing around as we go to Vancouver back for development and so on through the summer. But, really, today is the first official day in the office.
Q: Just wondering what your early discussions with players have been like, specifically Jeff Skinner? (Lance Lysowski – Buffalo News)
A: Well, I had the opportunity to communicate with Jeff (Skinner). He was training out of state, so it was a long phone call. For me more than anything, the conversation was about how I as a coach would like to utilize his skillset and his talent. I work on the basis that Jeff Skinner is a Buffalo Sabre, and as a result, that’s how our conversation went. Everything else, Jason has complete control of that process. It’ll happen for what is best for the Sabres in the end. But I enjoyed my conversation with Jeff, I could feel his unbelievable passion for the game and I see a skillset there that is unique and that can still be built upon. Overall, really good conversation.
Q: When we talked to Jason (Botterill) when he announced your hire, a lot was made about your international experience and how you dealt with pressure situations with your teams and how that might translate to the National Hockey League on an 82-game basis. Can you elaborate on how you think that might work moving forward? (Adam Benigni – WGRZ)
A: I think you know the numbers; I worked 17 World Championships, Olympics, World Cup. Seventeen different tournaments where they were capsules, little capsules of time, compared to a National Hockey League season. The build up to tournaments like that, and then the three weeks within them, those are such intense spaces. It’s playoff hockey, it’s always seventh game best of seven. That’s what your life is about in those tournaments, especially with a country when I was with Switzerland where it was about survival and pushing forward. Just playing meaningful games was really was what my life was about and dealing with that pressure together with the players and finding ways to perform under that pressure. I think that’s what the National Hockey League season is all about, is being able to deal with that for 82 games in a row and to continually push yourself into a mindset that is comfortable there. I spent my leadership life really trying to figure that out. There’s no perfect path, but I feel very comfortable to go right at that feeling off the bat.
Q: During the conference call you said you were going to speak with Jack Eichel and Sam (Reinhart) over at [the IIHF World Championship in Slovakia]. Since then, how did those discussions go and what kind of stood out to you from talking to those guys and getting to know them? (Ted Goldberg – Spectrum News)
A: In a very modern way, it began with a whole string of text messages. It was interesting how strong those conversations were before we actually met. I could feel the passion within both of them. Because they were on separate teams, I kept them apart and met with Jack one evening and Sam the other. I have to say that both of the meetings ended up running much longer than expected. It was very natural. The conversations were strong. They have a very experienced mindset for their young age because of the years they now have under their belts. There was a clear understanding of what needs to be done here, I thought. In the conversations we didn’t just speak about the weather; we spent a lot of time speaking about what needs to happen off ice, on ice and through. Many good things have been done here over the past few years. I really respect how hard everyone has been working to getting the players to where they are now. I’m happy to be stepping into a team that has a foundation and has a basis that I can build on. I can feel that in the conversation in both. I really look forward to going to work. I think all of us came out of the conversations wanting to start playing tomorrow.
Q: A little bit of a unique situation here as you’re hired over in Europe, but from then until this morning, what has been your biggest priority as the new head coach of the Buffalo Sabres? (Matt Bove – WKBW)
A: Well, more than anything, it’s conversations together with Jason to take our time to build the best possible supporting staff around me — to have a really strong team in place there. I’m all about quality and not quantity, so let’s get it right and take our time doing it properly. Also, getting up to speed on the communication slowly with more and more players. I will go through the whole roster in the next few weeks. I’ll probably have almost half of the players by the end of this week. It’s important that, at the same time parallel to that, I’m getting laptops loaded with NHL games to look a little bit deeper. I’ve been communicating with a lot of NHL coaches over these last five years. Although I haven’t been a head coach myself, it’s given me the opportunity to have a lot of conversations about processes that are going on, the speed of the National Hockey League and how it’s increased, and the flow of the game, how it’s opened up a lot more. I think that’s going to be important. While we’re building, I need to be clear on the way we want to approach the game and what’s best for the final roster that we have and how I can put those pieces into place. So multiple things going on. Of course there’s logistics of I’ve been able to close off my past life, which needed to be done of course, logically, and do it properly. From here on in today I’m 100 percent the Buffalo Sabres’ head coach and I look forward to putting all the pieces together.
Q: We’ve had a lot of players that we’ve talked to that you’ve coached, either with Team Europe or with the Edmonton Oilers, say you’re a different kind of coach. What do you think makes you a different kind of coach compared to what everybody else does when they coach? (Joe Yerdon – The Athletic)
A: I think every coach — every leader — on the planet is unique. It’s important to be authentic; to be yourself. I’m going to compare myself to anybody, but you’re always just going to get the real deal. There’s not going to be any games or anything, we’re going to speak about the truth. I think that’s what I like to do with the players and the team: have a very open communication in both directions. You’ve probably heard me say this already, but communication is also about listening to your players, to your environment, to your supporting staff and processing all of that, not just speaking. Whether that’s unique or different, I know that’s probably one of my biggest strengths is to create an honest locker room, an honest dressing room, an honest atmosphere and to work within those boundaries. I like to keep that space. I’m conscious of energy and the energy that’s needed through 82 games and how to best put that energy into play, which also means they need to find spaces to gather energy and to help them understand that and do that. I’m big on off-ice fitness. We’ve got excellent people here that are already in the background passionately supporting the process, where we need to be the fitness possible team we can be because the game we’ll be playing is up tempo and high tempo, whether with or without the puck. I like to have an active team on the ice, but we need to be fit to be able to do that consistently game in and game out. Lots of different thoughts of who I am, but I’m not going to be the one to compare myself to anybody else. I don’t think that’s important.
Q: The game and the players have evolved so much over the years — even recently. Players are different now than they were. How have you evolved as a coach or even as a “hockey man” so to speak, even when it comes to analytics? That’s into the game now. Or the eye test compared to analytics. How have you evolved? (Paul Hamilton – WGR 550)
A: I challenge myself to try and get better every day as a leader. You have to have an open mind to do that. As all of this information is flowing to us as coaches, in my experience in England, it was definitely the investment in sports science and analytics was large. The way it was processed was interesting for me to observe. I’m really, really curious on how we can bring it into the front without disrupting the free flow and the talent of our players. That’s one of the things as a coach, is to find that balance of a strong, compact game away from the puck where you can feel that unity, but still allowing the skill, the amazing skill we have on our roster, to be able to be creative and to be able to be free. When we take analytics, when we take videos, when we take all of that information, I think the important thing will be to process it in a way that really, we don’t do it just for doing its sake, but we do it to really make a difference in the individual players. We’ll see how open certain players are to it, but I’m extremely open to gathering the information and to even GPSing players sometimes in an ice session to check maximum speeds. You could possibly watch for fatigue before it occurs and avoid injuries and so on and so forth. There’s so many examples where it might never get to the player in the end, but we might be able to track in a way that we can keep our man games lost down, as an example. If we can use analytics to do that, let’s find a way. But let’s make sure that in the end we don’t forget that a sport like ice hockey, whether 50 years ago when the Sabres were founded or today, when the puck is dropped the same basic elements will still make a difference on which team wins and which team loses. I’m never going to become over-modern and computerized in a way that we block the way the team plays and flows. I think you can understand what I’m trying to get at. It’s something I’m extremely interested in, but we have to be the best possible leadership team in using it properly.
Q: Have you started working at filling your coaching staff and do you have a deadline that you want to have the staff filled by? (Bill Hoppe – Olean Times Herald)
A: As I mentioned, we would rather get it right than rush it. We are speaking to the coaches that were here and other candidates and if we could by the end of this month have announced the staff to you, I think it would be ideal. There’s so many strong candidates out there, it’s getting the mix right and making sure that we have a staff that’s really, culturally, a fit. The players will feel that and will build and grow confidence off of that if our staff is extremely strong and our coaching staff is tight. So that’s really important, but at the same time we need to have the skillsets on a different level to help the players grow and develop because of our average age too. But I’d say the end of June.
Q: You mentioned earlier, you’re operating as if Jeff Skinner will be a part of this team. What allows you to feel comfortable to operate that way? (Jon Scott – Spectrum News)
A: His tone and his voice when it came to the past and the future. He was comfortable on that line. I initiated the call in that way and it never went another direction. Jeff had the opportunity to change direction if he wanted to. It was really just the flow of the conversation that made me feel comfortable. I felt he really loved to be here and that he was happy to be here.
Q: To follow up, you said he never changed direction on that conversation. While acting on the belief that Jeff (Skinner) is going to be here beyond July 1, how might you need to adapt if he’s not? If that possibility isn’t? And how much do you have to fill a big void that could be in the lineup? (John Wawrow – Associated Press)
A: I don’t spend one minute on a player who is injured, for instance. So if a player is out of our lineup, we will move on with the same courage with the group we have and we won’t spend time there. It’s the reality of sports. So whether a player changes teams or is traded because it’s the best for the Sabres organization, I as a coach will always then look at what the new mix is and work with that. This is all about us maximizing our potential within the framework that we have. Sometimes the movement of players in necessary in different ways. And, again, I compare it to an injury. The Boston Bruins have to deal with their present situation and not spend time on the guys that aren’t in their lineup for Game 5. If they want to win Game 5, they have to do it with the group that’s there.
Q: You talked about, you’ve looked at the franchise, that there’s a foundation that’s been built here. At the same time, since the conference call with you, you’ve had time to assess more in the entirety of what’s transpired here. Where has this franchise, in your opinion, fallen short? What are your plans to correct that gap? How quickly can you restore true competitiveness to the product on the ice? (Adam Benigni – WGRZ)
A: I’ve mentioned that, I think I mentioned it on the conference call too, I’m not the kind of person that spends a lot of time on the opinions of the past. So whether it was spending my first meeting with Jack Eichel or looking at where the Sabres are today, it’s much more important what is here today, and I need to find out that. Everything else is not the space I need to get into. I need to get into a space where I see what we have, what our potential is, what our present toolbox is filled with and I need to put those pieces into place. I think everybody here knows one thing and that’s that we have an extremely passionate environment. People are treated right in this organization; don’t take that for granted, that’s a really, really special thing to have a foundation of that nature. Now, we need to get the grit and the bite into the group on the ice to stoke the fire that’s here. Why not, in the 50th year of the organization, get that going? I truly mean it that for me now to analyze one year, three years, five years, 10 years, 15 past would be a waste of time in my opinion. It’s more what do we need to do? And I’ll focus on that.
Q: Circling back to your conversation with Jack (Eichel), over the weekend there was a video where he said your first conversation went really well and he kind of expressed that you guys had talked about a true fresh start with this franchise. Knowing he’s still a young leader on this team, what was your message to him that really kind of maybe instilled more confidence in him that this thing can turn around? (Nick Filipowski – WIVB)
A: I think he was speaking to me more than I was speaking to him in that meeting. I don’t think I gave him the final solution. What he could feel is what the process will look like. And as I’ve already mentioned to you, that there will be a transparency in the process and that everybody will be involved, and that includes the players, what they think and how they feel. Now, my job as a head coach is to make sure is that all of what maybe the players would like is actually enforced, because they players will know what it takes and then it’s my job to make sure it happens. He understood that. My message more than anything is that his skillset and his ability is tops in the league. Now, the second season as a captain will be — not easier — but it will be more comfortable for him, it’ll be more natural. The first go-round for any captain, especially at that age, will have its challenges because suddenly as a leader you have to take on the responsibility over and above your own self, and I think that Jack is more comfortable with that. We spoke a lot about the leadership and less about hockey, actually, in that meeting. So that was my main message, was how to develop his leadership skills I find are natural, are there. The game, I believe, on the ice will follow.
Q: As far as Rasmus Dahlin goes, have you had a chance to talk with him yet?
Q: We obviously all know what a unique talent he is, there has to be some excitement to know that he’s going to be part of your blue line. (Paul Hamilton – WGR 550)
A: To have a world-class defenseman of that caliber in your lineup is always exciting as a coach. For Rasmus, coming into his second season, there’ll be a lot more comfort, I think, with the process. Everything seemed to go a little easy at the start of last year, and then the challenges of the second half of the season allowed him to grow. As we all know, adversity is a good thing if you use it properly. Winners are always born in difficult times, depending on how you react. When I feel his reaction to the second half, he wants to go right back at it. In the conversation with me, he wished the season was going to start tomorrow and that’s a really good sign. He loves being in Buffalo and believes in the future of the club. I understand the Swedish players, I understand the European players very well, as well as the North Americans, so I’ll be tapping into that as best as I can.