November 20, 2019
Howard & Jeremy (8 a.m.)
Howard Simon: Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger with us right now on the West Herr Hotline. Ralph, it’s Howard and Jeremy. Good morning. Thanks for coming on with us today. I understand your voice is not where it usually is, so we’ll do our best to get you on and off.
Ralph Krueger: Yeah, no, I’m fine, I’m fine. Just a little bit deeper today, that’s all. How are you guys?
HS: Good, good, good.
HS: Look, a lot of issues we want to try and get to in the time we have you. The 8-1-1 start has now turned into 2-7-2 since then. As you look at trying to identify the problems, the issues, what’s changed from the first 10 games to the last 11 games with the record noticeably down?
RK: I think it’s primarily — there’s always multiple things you can look at. When you had the winning streak going, there were things that we were working on, we weren’t happy with and we tried to change. Now, the things we’re not happy with, we’re working on, we’re trying to change or magnify. But it comes down to details. There’s little moments in games where we’re giving up what we were good at, slight changes on the way we’re forechecking and defending. Also, especially in the offense, we’re frustrated right now on the power play, which has gone quite cold and we’re just not creating the offense that we did. So again, we knew it was a project, we know we had a lot of details to work on to make them into habits. We’re at a frustrating point right now, but nobody’s got their heads down, the guys have their heads up. They’re working hard and we believe we’ll find a way out of this.
Jeremy White: One thing, Ralph, I heard from last night, I think I heard you mention it, I think I heard Jack Eichel mention it: the idea that we’re not talking about last year. Is that a message that this organization wants to send that it’s not related at all to last year?
RK: Well I’m not using that language at all because I can’t use it, because I wasn’t here. It’s for everybody else to compare to last year, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, whatever, it’s not really relevant to our story that we’re building this year. What we’re building is a story with a new group of players, some returning, some that we’ve just acquired through the summer. And I think that it’s about developing the best possible version of the Sabres this season. We feel there’s a lot of good things happening. We feel there’s an upside to the group. We’re going to get some bodies back here in the next few day; some key injuries, that are not an excuse, but it’ll be good to have them back and it’ll help solidify the game we need to play again. But right now, we’re working on now, we’re working on today, what can we improve to get better for Boston tomorrow and that’s it.
HS: You weren’t here last season, of course, but the majority of the roster was. Do you believe, you know, whether it’s, “Oh God, here we go again,” or, you mentioned something last night about maybe some fear creeping after a goal against. There are some issues or some things we see from the team that all are similar to what happened last season. So, while you weren’t here, these guys were. Is that a problem?
RK: Well it’s a problem if everybody keeps talking about it, but we’re not talking about it in the room. They’re being asked, obviously like I am here this morning. The only way you can make things better now is by taking care of things that are manageable and what’s in your control. And what’s in our control is to improve on our game again and to get back to the very best version of ourselves. We’ve drifted slightly. It’s only percentage points in this league. We’ve been in every one of these games. There was a couple that got away maybe midway through, but most of them went down the stretch. We need to turn this on our own, we need to work hard; that’s what I know what to do in this situation is to continue to work hard and stay focused. And again, the language from outside, any noise that’s trying to distract us from this, we need to leave it outside and inside the room we need to focus we can control and change and that’s our next challenge, which is Boston.
HS: Rasmus Dahlin was benched for the entire third period against Ottawa and he just doesn’t look like the same player from his rookie year. Is he lacking confidence? What do you see are maybe issues in his game that led you to sit him for the entire third period against the Senators?
RK: Well, you have to remember that that’s about six or seven shifts that he didn’t play and everybody’s making quite a big deal of it. Rasmus didn’t make a big deal of it. We had excellent meetings. We thought he’s responded extremely well. It was not against him, it was for the score and for the players we thought were going to bring the game home on the day, and we’ll continue to do that in the future. It can hit anybody. Important is how he came out of that and his game in Chicago and last night against Minnesota was strong. His play was improved over the game before and I thought it was a process of accountability that he responded well to, and that’s what we like to see. He’s going to continue to improve every day and the Sabres fans have to be very excited about what we have in Rasmus Dahlin.
JW: You dressed seven defensemen, you had a defenseman playing up on the wing as well. You clearly have an overflow of defensemen in the organization. How much — and Jason Botterill spoke yesterday about the need to look for a forward. He’s actively making calls trying to acquire a forward to improve the team — how often are you and Jason talking about what this team does need and what can be done to help things?
RK: Well we’re speaking every single day since I signed, which is an excellent process. Jason and I are strongly connected and in the end it doesn’t affect what I do when I go into the rink and that’s work with the players that are healthy, work with the players that are there and work with the lineup that we have and do the best with this group. The big picture is being run by Jason and his management team, and I’ve got a coaching staff dealing on the day-to-day. But we are strongly connected. Through training camp, all the way through the season. Every day we’re speaking about where this organization wants to go and how we can get there and which players can do it for us. That’s part of the league that, again, he’s dealing with that and I’m dealing with getting players ready on the day.
HS: Do you expect to get [Marcus] Johansson back for tomorrow, Ralph? Or another forward available for tomorrow? Or would you still be in the 11 forward, seven defensemen lineup?
RK: So Johansson and [Johan] Larsson are both day-to-day and are both possible for Boston. Again, we’re doing evaluation this morning and we’ll decide this as the day progresses. Whether they join us in Boston or whether they enter in Florida, but we’re expecting both of them back quite soon.
JW: Ralph, as you struggle to score I’ll probably ask this question every time we talk until it happens — and that doesn’t mean that it ever has to happen — have you given more thought to Jack Eichel with Jeff Skinner on the top line?
RK: Well they’ve played quite a few minutes together on the power play. To spread out our scoring over two lines or three lines is definitely important in the National Hockey League. Everybody is set up that way. The Eichel, [Sam] Reinhart, [Victor] Olofsson line has been the most productive over the last five, six games. Prior to that, the Johansson, Skinner, [Vladimir] Sobotka line was our most productive line in 5-on-5 play. So we had two lines going through a period there. So Sobotka and Johansson out had changed that mix. But Skinner gets quite a few shifts or a lot of minutes with Jack in primary minutes. Yesterday we made some switches on the power play, but that hasn’t been an option for us yet.
JW: When you say it’s not been an option. It’s an option, you just still want to keep the balance.
RK: Yeah, I mean, Jeff he sees the odd shift there with the end of periods. Again, it’s about trying to create two lines of power, which any team competing in the National Hockey League needs to have.
Brayton Wilson: Ralph, Jason talked a little bit during the offseason about Sam Reinhart and how he has the potential to be able to carry play on his own line even when he’s playing on the wing. Have you and Jason talked about that at all with having Reinhart, splitting up Eichel with Reinhart and giving him his own line, and maybe spreading out the production a little bit?
RK: Yeah, I mean, it is what we’re doing, spreading out production. Sam and Jack are just, for us, like twins the way they synergize and the way they communicate and the way they operate offensively, defensively, supporting each other. I’m a coach that generally works in pairs. We had the Johansson-Skinner pair for a while. You had, then, others playing with both of those pairs. So it’s an option, of course, moving forward, but at the moment, we need to find ways over the power play to get things going. That’s going to be the key to our offense against Boston and on the weekend and then in Florida. I know that our power play’s our motor, our engine offensively. We get that going and our 5-on-5 game will follow.
JW: Ralph, two quick ones here. Jack Eichel gets in a fight last night, do you feel like the team should’ve done more to respond?
RK: I mean, he responded, they responded. Anybody that was in the building last night felt, you could feel the fans behind us through the last 30 minutes. There was an attempt to get ourselves back into the game. We tried taking different ways, but when you get down three goals in the National Hockey League it’s not easy to come back. It was our lack of being able to score on the opportunities we had early is really, really what burdened us through the end. Jack responded and we felt we responded in the third, it just wasn’t enough to turn the game and when we did score it was too late to actually make a difference.
JW: And then one other thing I’ve got for you, which is, you know, this team didn’t go through a lot of big changes in the offseason. I would venture to say that you are the biggest change. So for Sabres fans that are watching and as we started the conversation talking about, we’re not talking about last year. Sabres fans are talking about last year, because while you weren’t here, they were and they’ve been here for a long time. We’ve been here for a long time. So you’re the difference. And I think it’s a little bit of pressure on you from the fan base because we’re looking for anything, to be frank, anything that’s going to turn things around and that it’s not going to mirror last year and be just a drift to the finish because we’ve seen that a few times. So I guess what I’m asking is, I don’t know what I’m asking. I’m asking what’s your plan? How are you going to fix this? What have you got in the bag of tricks? What club do you play? What do you do to make sure that this doesn’t go the way that too many teams here have gone?
RK: Well there are things happening internally that aren’t public knowledge that don’t need to be spoken about. The way we operate on the day-to-day basis, some things have to stay inside. But we’re very open in our discussions with the public and with the media and we tell things straight up, whether it’s the players or myself. The most important thing is everybody needs to know that the room is working hard and is connected. Like I started the call, it’s about details. It’s about some breaking old habits, which doesn’t happen overnight and you have to grind yourself through certain processes. The players are doing this together. The coaching staff is connected well with the players. There is a lot of communication going on and there is hard work going around trying to turn this. Games come at you quickly here and if you get a negative run it’s hard to break it and if you have a positive run it’s sometimes easy to carry it. We need to get a positive run going, that’s all I can say. There’s no magic here, it’s roll up your sleeves and do what we can on a daily basis. Get back to outworking the opposition and having our fans feel that kind of a fighting spirit is what we need to do. That’s where we’re at right now.
HS: Ralph, thanks for the time as always. Good luck tomorrow night against Boston and we’ll catch up with you again next week.
RK: Thank you very much. Enjoy your day and I’ll try and find my voice here for the next call.
HS: Feel better.