February 12, 2020
Howard and Jeremy (8:30 a.m.)
Howard Simon: Ralph, it’s Howard and Brayton. Good morning. Welcome to the show. Happy Wednesday, sir.
Ralph Krueger: Good morning, Howard. How are you?
HS: Good, I had to stop and make sure it was Wednesday, actually, because I hate wishing someone a happy wrong day. So, yeah, it is.
RK: Wednesday it is.
HS: So, listen, there are a number of players I want to ask you about, but in terms of the game, let me get a couple things in from last night. I’m not sure you could’ve started off worse than giving up a goal on your first shift. So, I guess, talk about how important it was to get the goal back on the next shift of the game.
RK: Overall, the storyline, we did make it tough on ourselves. We really had that difficult start, but you can see, there is a maturity in our group developing where we’re quite calm in those situations. It was good to get it back that quickly. We went down again [the] next period, dug ourselves out and then won the third, which was very important. We were tested last night, but I liked the resiliency of the group. The defensive structure was solid. Detroit had some fresh bodies coming back into the lineup, like (Anthony) Mantha and (Frans) Nielsen, (Mike) Green. They had some more offensive power than a week ago. We neutralized that, got the win. Overall, a good night. Our fans were fantastic last night too.
HS: What did you see that you liked from the line of (Marcus) Johansson, (Curtis) Lazar and (Conor) Sheary?
RK: Well it was interesting to move Johansson onto the wing and free him from his defensive responsibility. Curtis Lazar’s been a solid player for us in both directions, leading in our penalty killing group and winning big faceoffs and (Lazar) just kind of gives Johansson a bit of freedom. Conor Sheary and Johansson seem to have a little bit of synergy. We watched them, there’s some chemistry there and we saw that especially on the first goal and Johansson scoring the second goal was important for his confidence at the moment. Overall, a line that was good in both directions, able to play up against (Dylan) Larkin, their top line on multiple occasions. Yeah, we liked the look of that and we’ll probably giving it another look tomorrow.
HS: I can never remember “Jo-hansson,” “Yo-hansson.” Both of them are “Yo-hanssons,” Ralph?
RK: Yeah, don’t forget that I’ve been living in Europe most of my life. Over there we would say “Yo-hansson,” here people say “Jo-hansson.” I think it’s fine for the guys as long as we say their name.
HS: With Johansson, after the game you talked about how you thought he played a little more freely because he didn’t have to worry about the center responsibilities. He talked about feeling comfortable on the wing. For the time being, will you keep him there?
RK: It’s always something within the game, depending on how it’s going, if we want to push for offense, we can always move him there. It’s good to have that option, but at the moment, barring any injuries up the middle, we’d like to try and keep him there and let him evolve. We need more depth offensively with offense with (Victor) Olofsson and (Kyle) Okposo on the verge of returning, we’re expecting to be a more formidable offensive team, so hopefully Johansson on the wing gives us that power too.
HS: Is Lazar now, as you look down the middle on the depth chart, is Lazar now, you think, now your best option after [Jack] Eichel?
RK: We really just don’t rate things that way. If you look at what the Larsson line’s done, playing up and down, depending on what we need. They often match up against the top line of the other team for the entire game. It really has to do with faceoff situations, has to do with the flow of the game, has to do with the way the line is playing up against the opposition. We really don’t think that way; one, two, three, four. Clearly, Jack’s line gets the majority of the ice team. We all know that Jack Eichel’s our leader, both on and off the ice. Otherwise, it’s really nice the way we played a four-line game yesterday. It’s very rare this season where we felt that strength right through the lineup. We really could’ve trusted anybody to play against Larkin and/or give us something offensively, as well as being responsible defensively yesterday. So that’s the way we’d like to go moving forward. The good teams in the league have that power.
HS: (Jeff) Skinner, the goal drought is now at 19 (games). It’s a career-high for him. He gets the odd shift every now and then with Jack Eichel and with Sam Reinhart. I know last time we were on with you, we brought up the idea of him on the No. 1 power play and he eventually got some time there, but he still hasn’t been able to score a goal. When it comes to Skinner and usage, Ralph, I know all the fans are wondering about it — we are too — why not just give him a full game, a shot with Eichel with Reinhart? Not just a shift, but say, “Okay, you’re going on their line and let’s see what happens.”
RK: We wake up every here growing the team, and we wake up every morning here doing what’s best for the team. We do not make decisions here based on individual needs, we base our decisions on the mixes and the chemistry and the lineup that we think is strongest for the Buffalo Sabres. That’s the way we work, and that’s the way we’re going to continue to work. When Jack’s playing up against the top lines and top D-pairs of the other team, we need other lines to be able to produce against the second and third pairs of the opposition. We do not make decision for individuals, quite clearly, here. Everything is about the team; everything is about the team game. That’s the way the Buffalo Sabres are going to be built moving forward and that’s the way we’re going to become competitive in the National Hockey League. We’re going to hold that line. We believe in it, we feel confident in it, the guys are embracing it. What we have to learn is to finish games better. We have to learn as a group to manage our specialty teams better. We’re excited about what’s going on here behind the closed doors. We understand people aren’t happy with the results, and they’d like to see us with six, seven, eight points more in the standings. But, again, it’s all about the team here, and we will continue to work in that way.
HS: Couldn’t you make a case though, if you got Skinner going and he started scoring, that is best for — not only best for him — but it is best for the team? You’re getting more goals.
RK: Oh yeah, he’s getting opportunity. He’s getting opportunity. He’s trying and he’s working on it. When he gets one, he’s a bunch scorer, he’ll get a bunch. But I appreciate your opinion.
HS: Yeah, well it’s frustrating. And I guess, the other thing was, I coupled this with Olofsson being out. When Olofsson was there — and I know earlier in the season you had talked about it — you want to get balance, you don’t want to be a one-line team. Olofsson was producing, so why screw around with that line; he’s doing well. With him out, (Zemgus) Girgensons got a shot, (Jimmy) Vesey’s now getting a shot, and I just thought, to try and get Skinner’s game right, you didn’t have to leave him there, but Ralph, I think anybody will succeed with Eichel and Reinhart. Get him up there, get him some confidence. He puts in a few goals, you move him back down, Olofsson goes back in, whatever, and then maybe you’ve got a consistent second line of scoring going.
RK: Yeah, I appreciate your opinion, Howard. That’s good to hear. Thanks.
HS: In terms of ice time for Eichel: what’d he have? 20 minutes or whatever it was against Anaheim. I think last night in the third period, I think you maybe double shifted that line early in the third period. But he only had 20 last night, so how do you balance out, “That is my best line. That’s the guys I want on the ice. But I can’t play them 28 minutes a night?”
RK: Again, we are truly trying to work in a small picture here. There are a lot of distractions and there are a lot of things pulling us, at times, in the wrong direction in and around our development. Everybody’s got a right to their opinion, and they’re going to fight against our process as long as the results aren’t exactly what everybody wants. It’s the same with the way we manage minutes during a game; we do what we feel is right to the game. Yesterday was a good four-line game going. Against Anaheim, we did not have a four-line game going, we needed to reduce our roster really quick. Jack was playing either side of timeouts. We’re going to always do, on the day, what we think is going to give us the best chance to win. There’s not a day where we’re not going to go after the W. This group’s got no quit in it. We appreciate the way the guys are always fighting back. We have fallen behind too much of late, and we need to work on getting some leads here in the next games. But Jack’s minutes aren’t planned before the game. He dictates that, often, and the game dictates that. That’s what makes it fun. It’s the greatest game to be coaching. I just love coaching the game of hockey where you are really, truly submersed in the moment. Where you submerse with a feeling of who’s on today and who’s off. Do I always get it right? No way. I’m going to make mistakes. I always have, I always will. They’re there because you try, and you risk, and you attempt to do things. Jack’s just been fantastic in the process, whether he plays 20 minutes or he plays 28, he’s going to give his best every single shift. He’s as hardworking as anybody on the team. What a leader he is moving forward it’s exciting what we have here for core players, for young players that are all in and Jack is definitely at the lead of all that.
HS: I want to ask you about Sam Reinhart, Ralph, in the discussion of always doing what’s best for the team. So, Reinhart, he scored again last night. He’s on pace for career high goals. He’s on pace for career high points. He’s having a tremendous season. Do you think — is he good enough to the bigger-picture discussion of driving his own line? If you put him — and on the wing too, not necessarily at center — if you took him away from Jack and said, “Okay, I need to get more scoring form my offense,” could Reinhart drive a line by himself?
RK: I mean, why would you break up that pair right now? They’re as good a duo as there is in the National Hockey League. The way the synergize, also defensively, we just don’t see that as an option at the moment. Sam Reinhart is a very complete athlete and player. He’s a leader in our group and you’ve got to love the season he’s having. He’s working for everything. The way he complements Jack is outstanding. On the other [wing] with Jack, it’s very important that you have an extremely strong two-way player who is able to free Jack and Sam from defensive responsibilities. Jimmy Vesey’s done an excellent job of that the last few games and that’s the way Jack, for us, needs to be complemented. Sam has just done a fabulous job. Both of them are having seasons that we would like them to bang in year in and year out and what we need is the next layer of scoring to come up closer to them. Right now, Sam’s doing everything we ask and there would be no reason to move him from where he is.
HS: Couple other things, Ralph, before we let you go. One is about Lawrence Pilut. Scratched two of the last three games, a quick trip to Rochester and came back. I wanted to know, could you tell me the process, the thought process and what you go through weighing a youngster like that here — but not playing — versus is it better off for him to be in Rochester playing on a regular basis?
RK: The organization really does a good job of monitoring that. Jason Botterill, Randy Sexton, they’ve got a super feel and quite an experience with the development of players. I’m not nearly as experienced in those processes. I enjoy working together with them and how we manage these players, whether it’s the decisions that were made now around Casey Mittelstadt to make him the best possible player for the future for the club, or the way Curtis Lazar went up and down; the same is going on with Lawrence Pilut. We look at it every day. What’s best for him at the moment, we feel this experience of being in the group, practicing with the group, being in our meetings, feeling what it takes to compete in the National Hockey League in February, in March, in April; this is a different level that’s coming at us now. It’s learning to play good hockey at this time. He’s part of us, he’s here, he’s important for us and we feel comfortable with him jumping in at any time. But we do have to keep an eye on that, Howard. You’re right for sure. You don’t want him to go too long without playing any games at all. So it’s kind of a day-to-day basis. If we don’t need him in the next few games, yeah, he might play some games down in Rochester and then come back again. That’s where management has a good feel. If you look at the job that was done on Victor Olofsson, if you look at the job that’s being done right now on Casey (Mittelstadt), there’s different ways to get the potential out of a player. Lawrence has just been fantastic with us. He’s got a really professional attitude. He works hard on and off the ice. He brings a good spirit. Just adding to our depth on defense. You’ve got it right, we’ve got to make sure we get the right amount of games in too while he’s getting the experience parallel to that.
HS: I had an Olympic question for you before we let you go, but I also did forget injury updates, because you mentioned Okposo, you mentioned Olofsson and I guess also (Linus) Ullmark. What’s the latest on those three guys in terms of return to the ice for game situations?
RK: So Olofsson and Okposo joined us full on yesterday and will be full on in practice today, and they become day-to-day. They become day-to-day beginning today. Ullmark still has a few weeks though.
HS: The other thing I’m curious about, Ralph: I know you’re busy with the Sabres, I’m not sure if you’re following all this stuff that’s going on with the NHL and the Olympics and whether players are going to participate. You have extensive international tournament coaching experience — what are your thoughts on the idea of the NHL, I know it’s above your pay grade, shutting down the league and all that, but what about the idea of the NHL [sending it’s players to the Olympics]? I think the players are mostly in favor of it. I love it, I think the fans love it. What about the NHL and participation in the Olympics, from your perspective, having been there?
RK: Well I’ve been at four Olympic Games and if you see the experience that players make by going to the Olympic Games, it’s irreplaceable. It goes beyond the game of hockey. You become a part of something much bigger than your sport. To experience that with all the multi-levels of athletes from so many different nations in a true celebration of sports is an experience I wish every player would receive. Would I love to have Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart — leading players here — Dahlin, experience that kind of event? Yes, for sure. I think it makes them wiser and I think it’s an excellent experience. Now, I can’t make a decision on the business side and I would understand if it just doesn’t work for the National Hockey League, but I think it’s an experience that everybody that ever can be a part of needs to be able to have. So, yeah, I’m a big fan of the Olympic Games and what happens to athletes through that experience. It just deepens the journey. For me to be a part of Team Canada in 2014 and winning the gold medal, I know that every one of those players would treasure that experience as top of their career at the end. Hopefully we can find a solution there.
HS: Ralph, thanks for your time, thanks for coming on with us this morning and good luck tomorrow night against the Blue Jackets.
RK: Thank you very much, and really a big thank you to the fans. We’ve had a bit of a tough stretch of late. We got a lot of confidence out of the game yesterday against the Red Wings. We’re looking forward to a real good battle against Columbus tomorrow.
HS: We’ll talk to you next week, Ralph.
RK: Thank you.