December 4, 2019
Howard & Jeremy (8 a.m.)
Howard Simon: Ralph, it’s Howard and Jeremy. Good morning, welcome to the show sir.
Ralph Krueger: Good morning, Howard and Jeremy. Good morning, listeners.
HS: Let’s — quick injury update. [Evan] Rodrigues [is] back at practice, so would he be playing on this trip then? Is he cleared to play and would he play on this road trip?
RK: Yeah, Rodrigues is definitely back up to speed and it was good to see him in the group yesterday, but it was his first skate so we’ll be integrating him gradually. But he should be available. We’re going to do one more practice again today, which is a beautiful thing — two practices in two days. We’ll know more after today, for sure, but he’s very close.
HS: And what is the latest on Kyle Okposo?
RK: We’ll we’re so happy to see Kyle back on the ice yesterday. I mean, we all know how much was on the line here with another head injury. We’re pleased to see him back. He felt good yesterday in practice. We’ll be taking it slower with Kyle for sure, but he’s very close, which is good. I mean, these are experienced guys who help in the maturity of the process that we’re in right now. We were all happy to see Kyle on the ice yesterday practicing with us.
HS: And with Rasmus Dahlin, is there a timeline with him? Is he even going on the trip?
RK: Rasmus is not going on the trip. That’s one, also, where we need to be careful on. We’re happy with the progress that he’s making and we’re optimistic that we’ll have him back soon, but we’re going to leave him here for rehab one more week and hopefully he can reintegrate next week.
Jeremy White: Ralph, when it comes to your defense pairings, how do you decide who’s going to go together? Do you have a rhyme or reason? Is it a feeling-out process for you being a coach that’s still just on the job for a few months?
RK: Well when you look at us playing seven (forwards) and 11 (defensemen), which is very rare in the National Hockey League, we’ve had a lot of success with that in this past week. For your listeners, that would mean seven defensemen rotating in seven different pairs. So each player actually has two partners that he goes with, so you can get a seven-pair rotation, if that makes any sense. It’s worked really well for us. It’s kept the group energized. We played an NHL-record five games in seven nights last week and I think that that was testing our fitness and our ability to adjust to that. Getting points right through the week was an extremely positive sign for where we’re at. But it’s definitely, looking at the, you know, right [and] left sticks, but also mixing the offensive and defensive components in those pairs as they come together. The 11 forwards has been interesting too. It’s difficult to match against us because we have a line with [Rasmus] Asplund and [Zemgus] Girgensons that’ll have anybody injected in there. Jack [Eichel] will play with them or you’ll have [Jeff Skinner] in there or other players. So the opposition coach has a little bit of trouble reading us. On the road this week we might stick with that strategy, but we’ll just keep in in the pocket for now.
JW: Yeah, it’s like load management’s a big-time buzz phrase in the sports world, and we’ve talked about it with you about morning skates. You feel like this 7-11, while it might be rare and maybe not ideal or maybe it ends up working out, could it be something that you do employ if it continues to work? Could the NHL largely move this way? There’s some talk about positionless games, where defensemen move around a little bit and the evolution of the game. I just — I wonder about the load management because, as you mentioned, the numbers, the minutes for each of your defenseman has come down.
RK: Well you’ve nailed it right on the head there because the game is evolving in a way where if you watch us play, we work in a group of five all the time and if a defenseman does get ahead of the forwards, [the forward has] got to cover for [the defenseman] and take his spot, and vice versa. A forward could be the first one back in the D-zone and the D-man has to cover up. I think that’s what’s making so exciting right now and so dynamic. It’s brought a lot more speed into the game. In the old days, the D weren’t allowed to go down below the top of the circles and the forwards wouldn’t come back. The wingers would never come back and play down low in their own end, and that’s all off the map now. It’s part of the beauty of the game and it never stops evolving. We need to evolve with it now. The only team that’s used that 7-11 quite a bit, that was Tampa Bay last year, actually, and they ended up with a record season. Watching that example in how Jon Cooper was doing it was one of the things that I thought was interesting. And I’m glad to see it’s one of the tools we have in our box now. We’ll definitely have many games of six (defensemen), 12 (forwards), but dropping back to that depending on injuries and depending on the need and the pace of the games, we can do both, which is good to have different looks going, especially on the road.
HS: It’s interesting, because in years past, Ralph, when it comes to D-pairings, right, we always would be told or hear, “Well you want to be able to lock those guys in. They get to know each other. Communication is better.” All these different things. And yet, when you play seven, I was saying, I haven’t tracked it. Are you — you’re rotating all seven guys? You’re not taking one pairing and saying, “Okay, you two are going to stay together.” What happened to the whole, “Hey, it’s good for these guys to play together”? You’re constantly changing up the pairings in the game.
RK: Each player only has two partners, right? It’s not as complex as it might sound. But in the end it’s about playing within our principles and within our desired structure. We’ve been speaking weekly now right through the season and we’ve had some ups early on, we had some downs, we’ve kind of settled into a consistent game now. Over the last seven games we feel we’ve been playing quite consistent compared to the first 21, which is a good feeling to have. But a lot of it has to do with when you do have different beside you, your fallback is what the team needs and what the principles and concepts of the team are. I think that this variety at the moment is actually helping us to play more of a team game and eventually you do look for synergies. Now Eichel, [Sam] Reinhart and [Victor] Olofsson have been playing almost the whole season together as a forward line, so we are looking for synergy in other areas or on the power play, which struggled quite a bit lately and is starting to find its legs again. We have been moving bodies in and out. But you’re right, over time you will end up with pairs and lines that have that synergy. But at the moment in our evolution, I think it’s a good thing to be doing.
JW: You mentioned that top line, Ralph. Your patience paid off — Victor Olofsson scoring at even strength. Have you seen anything different in his game that has led to that or did you really think that if everything stayed the same, it would just come eventually?
RK: Yeah, it was just the habits he has are outstanding and he is extremely responsible defensively, too. And what that does is he often is above the puck. When it becomes available to us, Jack and Sam are so good at puck possession, Victor’s outstanding at finding the holes. His shot is a lethal weapon that we’re seeing more and more. It’s his first season in the National Hockey League and we all know that that takes time before you reach your peak, and his peak is still a long way to go so we’ve all — everybody in Buffalo’s got to be really excited about that.
JW: The driver of that line, Jack Eichel, I think a lot of people have noticed this year might be his best year defensively. Maybe buying in a little bit more, doing a little bit more of a 200-foot game. Is there anything specific that you did with him or your conversations with him brought about this change and this, perhaps this next level in that part of his game?
RK: Well, I would go beyond a little bit more; I’d say a lot more. He just really is maturing quickly and understanding what we need in the game. And his offense actually is profiting from it. He’s so well positioned defensively. He’s as quick back into our own end as anybody on the team and understands what his responsibilities are. A lot of our offense comes out of the good defense that we’re playing at times and we can explode the other way with the defense involved, and Jack is just as, again, as strong and as quick as anybody in the league. He uses that now on both sides of the puck and he’s having a lot of fun with it, so we’re really pleased. He’s a leader off the ice, but he’s definitely also an example and a leader on the ice. It’s hard sometimes to believe that he’s only 23 years of age.
HS: You referenced the power play a moment ago. You got a goal the other night, but it had been at, like, a 1-for-37 or something funk. What have the coaches — what have you been telling the power-play units in terms of, is there anything you want to see them do differently to try and get it going again?
RK: What you actually have to stop talking about is scoring because then they squeeze the sticks and think about the end product versus the process to get there and the habits that we need. We got away from some of the habits that are fundamentally important for a good power play and we’re concentrating on those. In the end, it all begins with hard work. If we have struggles in any area of our game, we need to work hard at it, we’re doing video, we’re doing on-ice, we did a couple of practice sessions in the last two practices. We had one goal in the last game that fell two seconds after a PK ended. The power play got some confidence back last game for sure. It always comes back to the fundamentals, guys. It’s about working on those and keeping those in check. We drifted a little bit away from that, but I feel confident that the power play will have a good run here in Canada this week.
JW: One last question for me, Ralph: The sport’s kind of going through a bit of a reckoning when it comes to coaches. I saw the NHL Coaches Association issued a statement about respecting players and maintaining a healthy environment.
HS: And it sounds like the Board of Governors is going to address this Monday at their meeting.
JW: If I may, I would say all that we hear about players that play for you is how much they enjoy playing for you. I just wonder what your feeling is on the culture of the sport, on what it’s like to be a coach, whether it’s a generational change or if it’s the style of person that becomes a coach changes or any of that regarding what the NHL is kind of going through right now.
RK: Well what it’s going to definitely do is influence coaches from here forward and in the future; the accountability will be high. I can only say from my side, I have said a clear statement that I don’t know the facts or the individuals that well, having not been in the NHL over the last few years, so I’m not in a position to judge. All I can do is try and hope that coaches — especially that are coaching kids in and around the Buffalo region — in any sport think about the importance of, number one, respecting the individuals that we’re leading and the importance and understanding of the influence we have on them. I think everybody should be out there trying to catch players doing things right. Whether it’s male or female athletes that we’re leading, let’s try to catch them doing things right. Let’s inspire them to be better. And when we criticize them, let’s make sure it’s part of a sandwich. Let’s give them examples of how they should do things and in between you might make some corrections and then give them support morally again because in the end, I think, treating people right is the most important thing that leaders need to have. If this whole situation now leads to more of that happening, especially with children or with younger athletes, then even this adversity that we’re going through right now will end up being a good thing. We try to create an environment of respect here. Everything’s on the table. We tell the truth, which isn’t always friendly. We don’t just sit in our locker room and tell the players everything is right all the time, and it’s the way we do it that counts in the end. We will continue to work for that environment here in Buffalo with all our hearts in the coaching room.