October 23, 2019
Howard and Jeremy (9 a.m.)
Howard Simon: Let’s go right to it. Ralph Krueger joining us this morning here on WGR. Ralph, it’s Howard and Jeremy. Good morning, how are you, sir?
Ralph Krueger: Good morning. I’m very good. Yeah, we’re already moving on to another game, but it was a good one last night. All is good here in the Sabres life.
HS: Yeah, it is. I was curious, I guess, to start with Ralph, you’re learning things about your team as you go along, right? From the first day of camp through the preseason, through the first 10 games of the season. Last night, down 2-0, they come back and rally. Don’t hold onto the lead in the third period, but win it in overtime. What did you learn about your team from last night? And is there anything you saw last night that is a continuing theme that you’re learning about your hockey club?
RK: Well you learn something in every game. Every game has its own storyline. The most important thing is we’re digging down in tough situations and finding ways to keep ourselves in the game, and giving ourselves a chance to win is what we’re trying to do here. We’ve been able to end up on the good side of the scores, and it’s the character of the group that you have to have a lot of fun with right now. They certainly never give up and are always, always, you know, almost energized by a fight like yesterday, our first real adversity here at home. I loved the reaction right through the game to get the win. We’re learning in all facets of the game, there’s always something to improve on and we find something every day. So far, the energy of the group’s been outstanding.
HS: Your team, among things it has done in terms of positive so far through the first 10 games, they lead the league in goal differential. Defensive play, and I don’t mean just defensemen, but the overall defensive play, their play in their own end was a big mess that you had to clean up. What do you see so far? How do you feel about the defensive structure and the team’s play in their own end so far this season? What stands out?
RK: Well that’s an area of the game where there’s not too may statistics, really. It’s a time when you sacrifice the most for your teammates and for the team. The buy-in to playing without the puck and the speed that we have without the puck is every bit as high as it is with the puck right now and that’s something we’re really excited about because playing team defense in the NHL with the pace that we’ve been under, playing 10 games already in this short period of time, it’s been our foundation. It’s been the reason why we’ve been in every game. The guys are understanding the value of that effort and, you know, we have to make it a habit. It’s months before these things become habitual. The guys have to work at it really hard right now and hopefully we can make it a normal part of our game, but we’re on the right track to do that.
HS: Both of your goalies are playing well through the first 10 games of the season too. How much of that is what’s going on in front of them and whether or not the team’s defensive structure’s allowing the guys to get clear shots or be able to track the puck a little bit better because, again, because of what’s happening in front of them?
RK: Well it’s always critical how many second chances are you giving up and how much chaos is there around your net versus shots hitting the net where the goalie has to make the initial save, and we’ve definitely worked hard at eliminating those second chances. If you look at the L.A. game, where we were really on our heels for the second period and [Carter Hutton] had to play and excellent period for us, but we still — even in a bad period — were able to eliminate the chaos that often ensues from shots. And the players are doing a good job of marking their man early and boxing out. And it’s something, for sure, that save percentage is a combination of the goalie’s performance and the team’s support of him, you know? It’s like faceoff percentages, they’re also not just all on the centerman; it’s so much the way the group reacts or jumps in or helps out in certain situations. So it’s very exciting the way the guys have put that effort in on a nightly basis. And I’m sure the Sabre fans are having fun with the work ethic right now, which is something that’s very important for us to perform on a regular basis at this level.
HS: To use your word ‘chaos,’ how are you guys doing on the offensive side of that discussion? I know you mentioned last night after the game, you don’t tell your guys to shoot for the sake of just getting pucks on the net if there’s nobody around the net what’s the point? So, chaos, confusion, how are you doing offensively with that?
RK: We’re still working on that. We have so much skill in our lineup that sometimes the guys want to make the perfect play, whether it’s on the power play or 5-on-5, and we do need to accept sometimes to put teams under pressure with a little more simplicity. But it’s good that we’ve got things to work on here. And as you can see, we certainly can score. We’ve got unbelievable skill in that regard. It’s the defensive part of the game that will be important for our stability, but I trust this group will find ways to score and we will get better at some of those ugly goals too.
HS: One of the stories last night: Jack Eichel had a big game, gets the two goals, two assists, had a couple other goals he could’ve had and couple other plays where he passed up what looked to be prime shooting opportunities. What do you — I don’t know if you’ve even had this discussion with him because he’s such a good passer, but he’s got a tremendous shot — what’s that balance? Or what’s the fine line? How does a guy like Jack Eichel… how should he approach when to pass, when to shoot because he’s very good at both of those areas?
RK: One of the things I’ve spoken about since the beginning is [creating] a system here where the players can let their genius roll and let their genius execute. We definitely don’t want them thinking too much. Jack is, you know, with his world-class skill set, you want to give him some parameters defensively and we need structure in both directions, but there are spaces within that where he needs to make the decisions that he feels is right. He’s finding that way. I mean, just yesterday within that game he realized he needed to take some more shots himself, scores two goals and really drives the net hard for the winner. He’s such a good leader for us and even in games where he doesn’t get any points, like out on the last two games on the [west] coast when we did get the wins, he stayed the biggest cheerleader on the bench and is pushing the guys in that respect. So, [Eichel is] maturing before my eyes. It’s a good thing to see, but we won’t put too many ABCs on him when it comes to offense. There’s not too many players better than him in the world.
HS: The other guy I want to ask you about for sure is Casey Mittelstadt, who has been playing better of late and made, really, a tremendous play both defensively and then turning things up on offense with his pass on the game-winning goal. You talked about maturing with Jack; what do you think from Casey, because it feels like in the last couple weeks his game has improved. Are you seeing that too?
RK: Well he’s improving daily. I mean, with Casey there’s so much learning at that age to do. Second year in the league and the responsibility that you have as a centerman in both directions, taking care of things in your own end, there’s a lot coming at him and we’re teaching on a daily basis. What’s exciting about Casey is he works as hard as anybody in this group. And what I mean by that is not just on the ice — off the ice he’s processing really well. What an exciting future he has. He’s picking up something new every day, so the sky is the limit with Casey, for sure. We just have a lot of fun working with him from the coaching perspective.
HS: One of the other young guys I’m curious about is Rasmus Dahlin. I don’t have the 5-on-5 numbers in front of me, but his time on ice five-one-five I think is either fifth or sixth amongst defensemen. Overall, his time on ice is down a couple minutes from last season. Are you being mindful of minutes with him? Or is that more so maybe third period where you’re protecting a lead and you’re trying to be careful with his minutes? What’s your approach with Dahlin’s ice time?
RK: Well he’s leading our first power play, which is important that he has good energy for that. Otherwise, again, similarly to Casey, there’s a lot to learn away from the puck, there’s a lot to learn defensively in this league. The challenge of defending every single day needs energy. We’re just being mindful of that. We have an experienced D corps, where everybody’s chipping in depending on their role and right now his 5-on-5 role is important to support us offensively but also to take care of the pressure we have within our own defensive structure and he’s going a good job. But I think people speak way too much about the minutes. We do what we think is best within a game every day. We’re not thinking about individual player minutes, we’re thinking about what the team needs in every given situation within in the game. We live each day one day at a time — each game, one game at a time — and the minutes are definitely something that will fall in his favor as he develops and grows as a defenseman in the National Hockey League.
HS: The way you’re coaching right now, Ralph, how much — if at all — have you had to take into account the schedule? Because of the Sweden trip and the week off you’re going to have without a game. So you play 15 games in the first 31 days of the season. You go to Sweden, when you come back you’re going to have 10 games in 17 days. Does that factor into minutes, ice time, strategy, anything that you and the coaching staff have to take into account?
RK: Well I’m just about to walk into a high-performance meeting here where we’re discussing exactly the next three weeks and the spaces we have in between those games and the travel. So yes, of course, we’re within our staff — extended staff — we’re always looking at the big picture and how that can affect our players and what the best pathway is. You can see that we often are doing things off ice to supplement our overall physical fitness and not everything is done on the ice. So, for sure it’s a tricky period for us. It’s a big price the teams have to pay to go to Europe. We look forward to the challenge. We’re going to enjoy it, but it’s also physiologically a test for us as a group how we can manage and use those spaces in between and recover properly and be powered up for that crazy second half of November, which is going to be a big challenge for us. But again, the coaching staff, we’re so strongly supported here with what we have and we’ll put a good plan together.
Jeremy White: How about you personally? How are you enjoying the return to the NHL grind, the NHL schedule?
RK: Well you just get up in the morning, I mean the pleasure is large when the team is performing like this, but at the same time you need to wake up, like I said at the start of the call, and get ready for today, have a super practice day. We travel to New York and we have the back-to-back coming up here. Just keeping the picture really, really small, enjoying the day-to-day work with the players because their interest and engagement is just at the highest possible level. We’ve got a group that’s harmonizing off the ice and what you see, how connect we are on the ice, is beginning with a lot of other things that are going on. So as a leader you enjoy it, but you also know you’re at the very beginning of a long, hard footrace where you can never let your guard down in the National Hockey League. We’ll just continue to keep that picture small. We’ll continue to try to improve daily. That’s our mantra here and we’ll hang on to that.
JW: How about your strategy, Ralph, as you talk about ‘one game, one day’ as you look forward, do you set aside time to look back — five-game segments, 10-game segments, a month — for an individual player, for the team overall? Is that part of your evaluation process?
RK: Yeah, I mean we do look at those things, but we don’t, I don’t spend a lot of time in the past. We do some pretty quick analysis like today of the game yesterday and some of that footage will be shown to the players and/or discussed in smaller groups. We move on pretty quickly. I think that the way things have gone here in the first 10 games, there’s not a lot really… you don’t want to spend too much time there or feel too comfortable or let your guard down. Right now, for us it’s really more about the future and about today and about just getting better. But yeah, we will take peeks back once in a while. I think after 20 games we might take a peek back, after 40, 60 and 80 and hopefully we’re planning for something more.
HS: Ralph, again, thanks for your time with us each week and good luck tomorrow night against the Rangers.
RK: Thanks for your discussion, lots of good questions. To all the Sabre fans out there, thanks for the support and let’s keep enjoying the ride here.