December 31, 2019
Howard and Jeremy (9 a.m.)
Howard Simon: Ralph, it’s Howard and Jeremy. Good morning, sir. How are you?
Ralph Krueger: I’m very well. Good morning, Howard. Good morning, Jeremy. Good morning, Buffalo.
HS: Appreciate your time with us today. Dalton Smith purchased — or signed, I guess — yesterday for the remainder of the season. Let’s start there, Ralph. Why Dalton Smith? What does he bring to your team?
RK: Well, he’s definitely, he’s in here now for us to get to know him. He’s improved quite a bit down in Rochester. They’ve enjoyed his physicality; he’s definitely someone who gets in on the forecheck and is a spark plug for them. He’s been a good leader, as far as what he’s doing in the room. You know, it’s a player who was drafted quite high in 2010, he was early second round and he got stuck in a little bit of a role as an enforcer, but he has become a better hockey player and he’s working on his skills and we just want to get a look at him and there’s no promise to how he’s going to play or if he’s going to play, it’s just an opportunity — because he was not in training camp — for us to get to see him.
HS: Did you feel then your team in respect to forechecking and physicality that your team was lacking in those areas?
RK: No, we’re definitely not lacking. The guys are playing hard and we’ve been extremely disappointed with the results of late, but we’re giving up very little defensively right now and it’s our offense that needs to get firing again. And to play good defensively, you have to be physical and you have to be aggressive as a group, and we have been that. But it’s something that you can possibly build on in certain situations, add a little bit more grit, but it’s not that we’re not pleased with the way the group is evolving in that respect. There is a team toughness there. We’re hard to play against. Boston had eight scoring chances 5-on-5 the other day. That doesn’t win you any hockey games, but it starts setting a foundation that we can win more games in the future. We just have to get our offense firing again here to finish it. But Dalton’s the kind of player that is somebody that is a spark plug, but again, there is no promise that he’ll be playing today or how many minutes he’ll be playing. It’s just right now, he’s in our roster and we’ll see how we use him.
Jeremy White: Ralph, there is immediately a little bit of speculation that Smith might be the kind of guy that you bring up to be as a deterrent, to perhaps dissuade other teams from taking liberties, cheap shots, whatever it might be. The last couple games against Tampa, there have been some unfortunate cheap shots, some hits: [Rasmus] Dahlin, [Vladimir] Sobotka both knocked out against the Lightning.
RK: Well that’s not our focus here in the coach’s room this morning. Our focus is to get the points here tonight, that’s what we need to do and figure out the best way to do that. So, again, that’s a few percentage points of our thoughts is what happened there, but it was more the three losses that we have against thus far that are frustrating and we want to answer here in the last game against Tampa Bay in the season with an A-game and give ourselves a chance to get the points. And that is part of the equation, but it is certainly not the major reason for us to prepare for something today.
HS: You brought up the offense. For the most part, guys not named [Victor] Olofsson, [Jack] Eichel and [Sam] Reinhart, have had trouble producing consistently. So as a coaching staff, Ralph, what can you do? What are you seeing, how do you try and get the offense going?
RK: Well, I said it right from the start, that we’re number one learning to be a solid, consistent defensive group of players working together without the puck. And it does always take away slightly in the evolution of the team and the learning process from your offense and the guys are all in there, they’re working so hard, you know, to take away time and space from the opposition. They’re working hard as a team, on and off the ice, to take care of that part of the game. What we need to do offensively is just stick with the plan. We are creating plus scoring chances, we are getting more and more net presence. It’s just little percentage points now, we need more confidence in that area. We need more, probably, more shots out of prime scoring chances, where we giving it up sometimes still for the pass and create secondary chances out of that. You know, it’s not a lot that’s missing here. The power play, of course, remains the motor for us offensively. If it’s going, it seems like our game 5-on-5 game goes, so that’ll be a primary focus also tonight here against Tampa. They’re running the No. 1 power play in the National Hockey League, so we’ve got a powerhouse coming at us there and what we need to do is try and find a way, for sure, to defend against that, but also be an excellent power play ourselves.
HS: You’ve mentioned that before this season, I wanted to ask you about the power play being the motor that drives the 5-on-5. I would hear that and think, ‘How can you do that when, you know, there is no way to predict how many power plays you’re going to get on a given night.’ And a lot of times coaches always talk about the power play is cyclical. In October it’s red-hot, in November it cools off. How can you count on that to drive the 5-on-5?
RK: That’s a really good question because it’s not about the results on the power play, it’s the way the power play is executing. What we like to see on the power play is a lot of good, solid Grade-A scoring chances coming out of it. Now, whether we score or not is not really relevant; it’s about those players who are usually our lead on offense, quite logically, that they are getting confidence on the power play. They are feeling good about the way we’re playing on the power play. If the power play is frustrating, they often carry that, then, into the 5-on-5 game, which, like you just said, we might get one power play in the 32nd minute of the game and if it’s a bad one, those players might carry that energy with them for another five, six, seven minutes into the 5-on-5. So you can kind of feel what I’m saying: It brings momentum into the 5-on-5 game, whether we’re scoring or not. That’s what we’d like to see tonight, is a confident power play, moving the puck around, creating good scoring chances and that usually will carry into the rest of the game.
HS: Is there — to follow up on that — the power play I think is 0 for its last 10. What is it, in terms of what you guys have seen watching the tape, your message to the power play units, the top two units, what would it be to do something differently to get it going, for scoring?
RK: I can’t say everything because we are tactically going up against Tampa here tonight and we are trying some minor adjustments. But like you said at the beginning of this discussion on power plays, power plays do go in surges. That’s just for everybody in the league, whether you go into these 0 and 10 situations, then you go 4-for-7, suddenly. That’s the way they function. You know, again, it’s still about holding the course. We’re not making massive strategic changes now; we have a clear plan, we’re sticking with the plan. It’s learning the nuances within the plan and the individual roles that we have; we just got to get a little bit better at them. Whether it’s finding a one-timer versus an over-handling of the puck, take a shot, a double-pass to a shot. There’s little things you work on the power play. The guys are all in here, you’ve heard it from me before and you’ll hear it again: I like the way the team is working and if we hold this line, I’m quite confident the results will follow here again quickly.
HS: The other night in Boston you had Sam Reinhart off the Eichel line, at least to start the game, and I think in practice he was back on the line. What did you think of Reinhart coming off that line and do you just think he is the best fit with Olofsson and Eichel for your team?
RK: Well there’s no question that’s not only been our most productive line, it’s one of the most productive lines in the National Hockey League this year. They support each other in both directions. They’re offensively strong, defensively outstanding playing, often, against the best lines of the other team. But Sam is just one of those players that can, whoever he’s playing with, he can make them better and we still feel that option is there for us, to split the line up and/or bring it back together even within a game. So we’ll see how we go tonight and what we feel is the best for giving us a chance to get the points here.
HS: The other guy I want to ask you about is Marcus Johansson. Where is his best fit? He was on the wing the other night, he’s played center, do you think there is a best spot for him?
RK: He’s a player that hasn’t been getting the results he deserves for the way he’s been playing. He’s a good voice in the room. He’s also an example on the ice without the puck; he works hard and he’s been creating chances for himself and for others. But Marcus has that flexibility now playing whether it’s center or wing, we can move him around depending on how much we’re going, we want to free him up to play offense or how much we need him as a center to solidify us down the middle. That flexibility gives us a good tool in him and, again, we haven’t seen the best of him, yet, offensively, we think that’s going to come for sure if he continues to work. He helps our power play, he’s very good with the puck and down the stretch at the end of games — 6-on-5 or 5-on-6, he’s helping out on the PK, so he’s quite a versatile player which is good to have in the lineup.
HS: I forgot the other guy I wanted to ask you about is, and it circles back, Ralph, to the discussion of overall scoring. I mean it’s really, it’s not like one guy isn’t scoring, there are multiple issues, but Conor Sheary is a guy I think you would rely on to get you 15-20 goals, whatever, he’s got offensive ability. I think he’s only got goals in one game in the last month or so. What have you said to him, what are you seeing in his game, I guess, and what are you telling him in this scoring slump?
RK: Well, he’s a spark plug kind of player. When he’s skating and energized, he’s a gritty player that is, for the opposition, difficult to play against. It’s something that we need from him and we’re expecting him — the opportunity is there, you know, with Jeff [Skinner] out now for a few weeks, somebody’s going to be getting that ice time and Conor is certainly in a lead position to get a bigger ball, an opportunity here and we’re quite confident that he’ll be able to pick up that slack. It’s all about, for him, getting into those gritty areas. He’s got quick feet, he’s got good hands and he can play up the lineup, which we’re expecting him to do tonight.
HS: Well good luck tonight against Tampa, have a Happy New Year, we’ll talk to you again next week after the New Year and thanks again for your time on the show.
RK: Howard and Jeremy, thanks a lot, always fun. And I wish everybody from Buffalo a nice smooth trip into 2020 and a good finish to the year and a good start.
HS: Appreciate it. Thanks for your time, Ralph.
RK: Okay, thank you. Have a good day.