The Instigators (10 a.m.)
Andrew Peters: How’s everything going? How’s the welcoming party been? Let’s call it that.
Ralph Krueger: It’s outstanding. We had a dinner last night where also the size of the organization, together with the Bills and the Sabres and all the other families and sports that are here, gives you an exciting feel, where you know you can access information and find peers in other sports that you can interact with. So it’s, yes, the NHL and the Sabres are the center of everything, but what a professional organization. So much passion here. A lot of good people I’ve met already. Specialists, which are important. You know, all four of us are specialists at something. You guys have to let me know what you’re specialists at. (Laughs)… I just spent breakfast already with Chris Taylor, our head coach over in Rochester. I had him out here at 6:30 this morning and we had a good breakfast. He wasn’t that hungry yet but had a good chat. I just spent an hour with our head of performance, Joe (Collins), and it’s so exciting for me to see the support I’m going to be having as a head coach and the people I can access and the information that’s here. There’s been a lot — I said it at the press conference yesterday — there’s been a lot of really good groundwork done here over the last years, so I know I can go right to work, guys, and I think that’s important for all of us.
Martin Biron: You mentioned the Bills, and you came from a soccer background in England, so how much do you want to learn or rely on your experience with other sports. We see Jason Botterill, he’s in the draft room at One Bills Drive when the Bills are drafting a couple of weeks ago. How much do you rely on your experience with other sports to bring into hockey?
RK: It’s a time where hockey, we have to agree, that for multiple decades, many things were just done, copy, pasted, and people were afraid of change, thinking it was going to take their jobs away, instead of looking at it as an opportunity to take our sport to another level. I’m going to bring it in in a careful way. I’m not the kind of person that likes to surprise players in the wrong way. I want to make sure they understand why we’re doing things when they do them and if they buy into it on the way, and that when we’re doing it we’re all in together, it’s not like, “Okay, here, our pre-activation is going to have this element because I saw it on the soccer field.” No, it’s going to be, “The pre-activation is coming in here because we’re going to make you a better hockey player on the ice. We’re going to activate better into our practices and we’re going to avoid soft-tissue injuries.” This sounds a little bit like World Economic Forum talk now on medical care, but you know what I’m getting at.
Craig Rivet: When you’re talking about spreading your message, you’re going to have to bring in people that are around you. You know, you’re only as good as the people that work beside you. You’ve spoken about going out and kind of filling your staff together. How long do you think before you can do all your due diligence on all the people and have your staff?
RK: We’re running interviews here right now. Again, Jason and I really want to get this right. I’d rather start with a quality staff and possibly add later on, as I see, because as a head coach, I think, at the very beginning you need to be the primary voice and make sure that the culture is set in the first few months and then use your assistants all the time in special situations: [power play], [penalty kill], and so on and so forth. But the main message and the main drivers will come from me initially. We will probably have a staff in place, I would say, by the end of June, where we then, again, can spend two or three weeks. I’ve been overwhelmed by the applications we’ve received; people that I didn’t expect would be interested in coming here. You can see that there is a buzz around the potential of the Sabres. Now we’ve got to turn that around and make sure it happens on the ice. But getting those people right, you mentioned it also in the show last time when you spoke to me, and getting those people right culturally is going to be important. I met with Chris Taylor today; in Rochester, I know it’s a check mark. Culturally, he’s an excellent head coach there. He’s got everything going in the direction that I like. We just had such a natural conversation this morning. I can see why I’m here is that I was hired fitting into the culture that’s been built, and now it’s up to me to get the right staff in place so the players feel that strength in our room.
MB: What do you like on the bench? Because we see Boston and St. Louis in the finals, they have like five coaches on the bench and everybody’s got an iPad. When I played for the Rangers with Torts, there was John Tortorella, Mike Sullivan, there were no other coaches on the bench. What do you like on the bench? Having multiple assistants or being in charge? How does the bench work for you?
RK: For me, simplicity is always important. Within that, I find that if it’s simple and clear for the players, then we can be spontaneous and we can adapt. But I like a simple, clean bench. I think three on the bench, max. Possibly, in this modern era, you might have a video support off to the side, who then can bring iPads into play if it makes sense. But I think we need to keep our players moving in the game, in the moment and forward. It’s not worth it, if you’ve missed five scoring chances, to look at those right at that time. We can work on that maybe tomorrow or in practice or whatever, so let’s keep flowing within the game. You have to make sure we’re not over-coaching. I’m not an over-coach during the games. I think the off-ice work that I like to do and the non-game days are where most of my teaching would happen. Within the game day, I like to live that day, let it flow, let the players’ minds be free and not overload them. So I would see three on the bench right now.
AP: How many mistakes do you let a guy make in a game before you say something to him?
RK: Yeah, that’s always a question of whether the mistake is honest or dishonest. If a player is trying hard — I like players to play on their toes here in the Sabres. I think playing on your toes means that you have the courage and also know that it’s okay to make a mistake. For me, it would be worse if we go down losing games where we haven’t tried and we haven’t given it our best shot. So making mistakes, it’s important that we keep our body language positive and healthy even if we have adversity within the game. How many mistakes? I don’t know, Andrew.
AP: There always seems to be a longer leash for the guys that play more — understandably so. But I believe every player — I don’t care if it’s your star player or your fourth-line guy that plays five, six minutes a night — if they’re afraid to go out there and make a mistake, you’re not going to get maximum performance from them at all.
RK: No, for sure there’s room for error. It’s part of the game. I will use the word “connected” a lot. If you’re watching our games and you feel, with and without the puck, we’re moving in a connected way, that’s how I’d like to set up the team. Within that, if we make mistakes or there’s breakdowns, I stay very calm during games. I think that’s something that’s going to be part of our process and it’s part of the sport. But I don’t get caught up a lot in that. I don’t get caught up in us going up or down during a game. I like to be supportive on the bench. Obviously, if you’re playing well and you’re giving your best and you make a mistake here and there, let’s deal with it if it’s necessary, but often I don’t even like to speak about it during the game. Let’s do it the next day.
CR: A player here in Buffalo that’s kind of been under fire a little bit because of his analytics and some of the things that he did: We had a player on our team last year — Rasmus Ristolainen, that was minus-41. People look at that and say, “He had a terrible season.” Well there’s a lot of things that he did exceptionally well last year. This is a player I think is a huge part of the Sabres moving forward. He plays the game with passion and with grit, and has a lot of positives, but there are parts of his game that he needs some guidance in. How do you feel that you can help out a player like Rasmus Ristolainen that has garnered a lot of the workload for a lot of years on this team?
RK: Well first of all, the plus/minus statistic, as all three of you know, is a dangerous one. You have to be careful; if you’re playing against the best players on the other team all the time, game in and game out, and the team is having a tough stretch, then you’re going to pay the price for that. It is a team game. So I’m careful with statistics and they can always be manipulated. But I think when you look at [Ristolainen], the skill set, the passion, like you’ve already said. For me, it’s really important we become an excellent team, also, away from the puck. He loves that part of his game and wants to bring an aggressive element to it. We need to be an aggressive defensive team. We want to get the puck back as quick as possible. We can only do that with an aggressive mindset.
AP: He has both of those things that you mentioned, the necessities: the grit and the bite in that game of his.
RK: I’m excited together with whoever leads our defensemen, that coach, of course, will have the main role of the one-on-one coaching and teaching. For me, it will be more, as a head coach, working on the concept, like I’ve told you, to connect these guys and to bring them together and give him the support — and everybody else — so that we lower our goals against, period. I think the shots against last year were too high. We need to tighten up and increase our productivity. For the amount of scoring chances that we created last year, the finishing was an issue. That will help [Ristolainen]. But he’s definitely a centerpiece in this. Look at the minutes he chomped down last year; that’s quite astounding.
MB: Not only were the shots high against the Sabres last year, but the slot shots, the quality shots from the scoring areas, were very high. Because, we all feel here — and we’ve been watching for many years — that the connection in the defensive zone was not the right one. Guys were caught out of position, there were guys wide open. The game has changed. Twenty years ago, it was a strict defensive zone coverage. You had your quadrants, you stayed there. Now some teams go more to that man-to-man, try to create the turnover right away and get the transition game going. Where do you feel your philosophy in the defensive zone is? Because it’s something that the fans have seen kind of slip away in the last few seasons.
RK: I think definitely it’s, again, creating pressure at the puck. And then as you move away from the puck and your role drops from second, third, fourth, fifth player, you will have more of a zone than a man, possibly, focus. But at the puck, the aggressiveness is going to be important. And what that does is stops those long cycling shifts. When we moved the blue lines, it changed the game. You need to, first of all, be much, much more aggressive than you used to be at the blue line so that entries become difficult. You don’t want to give simple, soft entries at any point in time, so it begins all the way up in the offensive zone, of course, is where defense starts. It’s six, seven things that need to happen before a goal falls. I think that being aggressive before we even get into the [defensive] zone will be the beginning of everything. But in the zone itself, it’s the aggressiveness at the puck and the support, then, that occurs behind that, with less of a man focus as you move away from it. So it’s not complicated, but it’s hard work and you need to be always active and willing to work for your gap away from the puck. The other support guys will be critical.
MB: How long does it take to teach? How long do you give yourself, you’re coming into September to camp, and you say, “Okay, by November 1, I want everybody to get a good understanding”? Or is it January? How long does it take to get everybody on the same page?
RK: Well like I told you when we spoke the first time, guys, until you’re actually on the ice with the team and you’re working with them and you have a game, it’s hard to read where the group is at right now. I’m going to spend the next three months trying to figure out over some video footage — and I’ve got a lot of games on the laptop loaded right now — to visualize that. But really, I’ll find out when I’m on the game. You will feel, hopefully very quickly, a certain structure within the game that we’re playing. I don’t believe it should take too long. We have a lot of smart players in the room. We have a lot of skill, we have a lot of passion. We have a lot of hunger to want to win. I’m expecting that we should see some results right off the hop.
AP: If we’re new players and we’re watching your press conference — because not all new players can be here but they’re all dialed in and paying attention. Some of them, maybe a majority of them, you haven’t spoken to yet — they’re going to wonder, “What is the coach’s standard? What is the standard that’s going to be set to help us set an identity?” We talk about team identity all the time. What’s Ralph Krueger’s (identity)?
RK: The most important thing will be our level of communication. I think that keeping everything open and honest, flowing all of the time, emotions real. So if we’re angry, let’s be angry. Let’s not act it. Above all, though, within all of the emotions we experience during the year, I expect a solution mentality. I expect a constructive mentality in everybody’s behavior. I was asked yesterday about the past, and I really don’t spend a lot of time there. As soon as I get my lessons out of the past, boom, let’s go.
AP: You said “let’s not act it.” Can you tell the difference between the guys that are acting angry and the guys that are really angry? Because I’m going to tell you: I played with some guys that used to throw their helmet at the perfect time when the coach was walking in.
RK: If there’s one thing that I believe I have a skill at, it’s feeling and reading the emotions of the room and whether they’re real or not, or honest. Looking at 20 players at a pre-game talk, I can feel if one guy’s not there or not on. I’m very, very intuitive that way. In the end, I want an honest locker room and I want guys to really be real.
AP: We saw some clips of you in Edmonton. (Talking) about changing the culture, and guys want to be on board, and addressing a conversation you had with Shawn Horcoff about “Horc, we had a conversation about playing meaningful games in March and April.” If the times are tough, is that what the players will see from you?
RK: I don’t hold grudges at all. So if you really piss me off once during this year, don’t worry. [Laughs]
AP: Well will you tell me on air so everybody knows? So at least if there’s some kind of awkwardness between us, it’s out there?
RK: But really, I think let’s just have honest conversations. I don’t hold grudges, but what I will do is be really straight and honest with the players at all times. I’ll pick the spots when it’s in the team environment or when it’s a one-on-one. You have to have a feel for that too. There’s situations where you have to pull it out of the team environment. In the end, it’s about getting the best out of the players and it’s creating an environment where they can perform and where they have an excitement coming in, whether it’s a practice day or a game day, or even a meeting. Let’s construct the meeting so they’ll look forward to it and not go, “[Gasp] Another meeting.”
CR: You expressed yesterday that you had some discussions with Jack (Eichel) and Sam (Reinhart) over at the World Championship. You said that you were more of a listener and allowed them to speak, and get things off their chests. Were there any certain things that you can let us know that bothered them, or things that they felt that this team could improve on?
RK: What I was impressed about was they both didn’t spend any time complaining about the past or speaking about the past in a negative way. Without any prompting from me whatsoever, these guys want to speak about, “How are we going to do this? How are we going to fix this? How are we going to become competitive?” So I enjoyed that part of it. Coming out at the end when I processed the time together, I would say that was my major takeaway: There were no negative comments made. … That would have been the best part of it. You guys know yourselves: There’s nothing worse than walking into a space and somebody’s sitting there trying to make you feel empowered by saying everything there was bad, right? Because it wasn’t; everything wasn’t bad. There’s a lot of good things that we’re going to take with, and I’m picking and choosing those things. There’s been hard work done here. Your coaching staff gave everything last season and they were a good coaching staff. They stuck together as a team, they stayed positive and they stayed on topic. The results just didn’t come. So let’s take those good things with us and build on them. This isn’t a rebuild, guys. I told you that when I took over. It’s not a rebuild. It’s a build-on. Let’s find those five percentage points to increase the [wins].
MB: I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask you about goaltending. Obviously, we’re looking at the finals right now. You had (Tuukka) Rask and (Jaroslav) Halak in a split with Boston all season long. You have Jordan Binnington, who came in late. We don’t see a lot of goalies playing 65-70 games anymore. Where do you see the work with (Linus) Ullmark and (Carter) Hutton going, and how is that partnership going to work for you making this team successful?
RK: I feel very comfortable with both of them and I think, also, the relationship of age is healthy. It’s a healthy mix. Their actions will decide and dictate that. The goaltender coach, whoever that will be — we’re still in the process of analyzing — I think that coach will have a big responsibility in managing his part. I like to empower the people that I bring in. What I know is there’s a huge upside for both of them. I think with a good structure and solid team game in front of them, it’ll become a different situation for them too. I don’t have a real big plan there, Marty. You’ve got to go with the flow sometimes and your gut has to feel whether it’s right. Sometimes leaving somebody in for a longer run can be the right thing, but mixing it up — I’m big on energy, and I think when you look at the pace that we’re going to have next year, using both in a 60/40, possibly, kind of split would be probably my first tendency, but then let’s see what happens.
MB: What about back-to-backs? I know some coaches don’t like to play the same goalie on back-to-backs. Some goalies like to play two games in two days. What is your philosophy on back-to-backs?
RK: Again, generally, usually in the past, during the regular season, that would be a split situation, depending on who the opposition is. But you need to be spontaneous. You need to feel what the group needs on the day and you need to be ready to give up on maybe what your core philosophy is, which mine would be separating the energy between the two goalies.
AP: Before you go, you were here in Buffalo going around town and checking out the sights, if you will. You were bar hopping.
RK: [Laughs] Mineral water bar hopping.
AP: That story really took off. What did you learn about Buffalo in your time when you were undercover, incognito?
RK: I think the way the city is coming around is amazing, if you look at Elmwood Village and Allentown. So much of the architecture here and buildings that are 100-plus years old, how proud the community has been in renovating, whether it’s a house or it’s a commercial building, I think there’s a soul here. I like the size of the city. There’s pockets of really good restaurants. There’s nature, if you look at Delaware Park. I’m a bit of a cross-country skier, so I can enjoy the winter. Things like that. Like is always what we make of it, and I see a lot positive things here that my wife and I will have pleasure enjoying the city.
AP: Most interesting person you’ve ever met outside of hockey?
RK: I would say Tony Blair at the World Economic Forum. One of the best orators, speakers I’ve ever met in my life. That was quite an experience. He’s not a politician, really, although everybody would seem that way. That was a good experience. I think the best experiences we have are in hockey. I remember meeting Scotty Bowman about 20 years ago and he asked me a few questions and know when I see Scotty next, we’re going to have an amazing conversation. I’ve been running into him over the last 20 years many times, and I just love the passion and the learners I’ve had with him.