February 20, 2020
Howard and Jeremy (8:30 a.m.)
Howard Simon: Ralph, it’s Howard and Jeremy. Good morning. How are you doing today?
Ralph Krueger: Good morning, good morning. Back at ‘er. We’re good, we’re good here, thank you.
HS: We had Marty Biron on, on the last segment, Ralph. We had a long conversation about Jeff Skinner. So let me start from there. We talked about his drought and line combinations last week, so I guess one thing we’re curious about now, in terms of Jeff’s effort, is it still there or do you believe his game has dropped? He’s having some issues; maybe the weight of the drought is now affecting him in his on-ice performance?
RK: That seems to be a topic that you like to discuss. There are always different levels of solutions that go on here. When a player is looking for his best game, you go through video, you go through the psychology of it, you go through multiple levels of teaching and coaching. We’re doing this with multiple players at the same time; that’s what coaching staffs do and that’s what we do. We try to improve as a team every day. Some of the buttons we try to push, we speak about, and some of them we keep internal. There’s no question that everybody’s working hard at trying to find the right solution. It always has to happen in combination with what’s best for the team. The scoring chances are there. When his shooting percentage is down, it’s four percent from a career average, you try to work on why is that? What are the better ways to do it? For us, it’s just continued hard work at solutions. That’s what we do as a team, whether PP’s not working, whether we’re taking goals on the rush, or whether and individual player’s not producing to the numbers he’d like to, you try to work with them on pathways that they can get there. That’s what we’re doing with Jeff.
HS: I know you talk a lot with — not just Jeff, but any player on your roster — about how they play away from the puck and how that is a very important thing you look for as a coach. In particular with Jeff in this instance, how is he doing? I know you said you break down video with everybody. What is he doing in terms of play away from the puck and how would that affect maybe an overall performance in your eyes?
RK: Well I have never, and I will not discuss individual tactic in the public. That’s not something I do on any other player, so I’m not going to do it around Jeff. Of course, when a player is not producing, nobody’s happy. The player’s not happy, we’re not happy, and we’re trying to find the solutions and we work hard at it. There are internal things and analyses that, in respect of what we do here to try to make the whole as powerful as possible, we need to keep inside. We keep it inside. I enjoy every day that I coach the Buffalo Sabres. It’s always a challenge. I enjoy the individual challenges. I enjoy the team challenge, as the whole staff here does. A lot of the work we do stays internal, and on this one it stays right there.
HS: Sixty games into your first season, in terms of the overall performance of your team, are they playing the game the way you want them to play? Are you seeing it more consistently? I guess I’m asking you how much work still needs to be done to get to where you’d like them to be.
RK: I think everybody know we’ve won four of our last five games, or had points in five of the last six games, so we definitely have had streaky moments, through the season, of success. And we’ve had moments where we would like to have had more points and needed to get more to be in the position that we’d like to be in right now, which we’re not. We’re not happy with where we’re at right now and we’re fighting to keep contact. We’ve got opportunity here, if we can get points in five of the next six again to edge closer to where we want to be. But overall, we’re pleased with the group’s engagement in attempting to learn the game that we need to play on a consistent basis. Are these habits 100 percent ingrained already? No. Are they working hard to have these habits part of our normal execution? Yes. Again, we have gone through a good phase here. We’ve got some bodies back now. We’re really, really not pleased with what happened in Ottawa the other night. We have a chance to react now against Pittsburgh on Saturday. We do and that’s what we’re going to work towards, to get another good phase going, another good streak going here because we’re going to need a few of those in the next few games. But overall, we love the work of the players. We love the engagement of the players. And the understanding of the kind of game we need to play, I think, is quite clear and it’s just the mental strength and the ability to do it on a daily basis in the National Hockey League takes time. We feel much more good than bad right now.
Jeremy White: Ralph, going back to the previous conversation a little bit, not specifically about Jeff Skinner, but about your top two lines and your efforts to find goal scoring. One of things we talked about with Marty there was that when it comes to your scoring forwards, you do have three pretty good scoring forwards on one line in [Sam] Reinhart, [Jack] Eichel and [Victor] Olofsson. Jeff is a little bit odd man out with that. With regard to Sam Reinhart, Jason Botterill has said on this station before, he believes Reinhart can drive his own line. Have you and Jason talked about that? About the idea of maybe Reinhart gets a chance to do that, because if you’re looking for scoring from two lines, I think most would say anybody can be productive with Jack Eichel, for the most part, maybe not anybody, but Reinhart’s an important part of that. Have you thought about Reinhart getting a look at trying to drive things the way that Jack drives a line?
RK: First of all, definitely not anybody can be productive anywhere in the National Hockey League. You need synergies. The Eichel-Reinhart-Olofsson line is one of the elite five lines, for me, in the National Hockey League. We’ve got an unbelievable asset there with Victor Olofsson back scoring three goals in his first two games back off of a one-month injury. He has synergy there. Sam having a career season, Jack having a career season, there’s no question that you do not take something that powerful and throw it away. It’s something that we can build a future on. These players are 24 and younger and that’s exciting for us. What we need is we need secondary scoring like the elite teams in the NHL have that ability. We need to find a way to create some power in behind that line and that’s what we’re working on. There’s definitely arguments to look at different formations when we’re not in a playoff position, which everybody out there is reaching for and wants us to be, but we also have to see the powerful nature of that line and their 20-plus minutes on the ice together and what that gives us. We have enough skill in our other forwards to get something going and we’re working on that as hard as we can right now.
HS: I know you think we’re going to belabor the Skinner point, and we brought it with you last week, but the power of the line…
RK: Now why would I think that?
HS: [Laughs] Because we brought this up last week.
JW: I was off last week.
HS: You mention the power that you have, right. Because I asked you last week about maybe moving Reinhart, you basically said the same thing, “Why would I want to break it up?” But now I’m going to factor in the third guy: With Olofsson, Ralph, Skinner with Eichel was a powerful thing. Jeff Skinner had his highest season in goals, I know you weren’t here, but he had a career high in goals. So that was a powerful combination.
RK: And you were happy with the team’s results last year?
HS: Well I’m not happy with the team’s results this year. You’re probably not making the playoffs, Ralph. No offense. You have a guy that’s making a lot of money to score goals and is having a career-worst year, would Olofsson as good? Is he talented enough to say, “Okay, let me flip it. Olfosson’s okay away from Eichel. He can succeed. It’s not a matter of ‘he’s only scoring because he’s with Eichel, he would be talented enough if I moved him away'”?
RK: We can philosophically discuss this. We spend four hours every morning before even before even the players arrive at the rink here as coaches looking at footage and analyzing everything in and out. We don’t have time to discuss all of those experiences with everybody. Somewhere there needs to be a trust in what we see and how we’re doing out best here to try to maximize what we can do as a group. Again, I want to refer to the run of late and the energy that we have. The Ottawa game definitely dampened the spirit in the surroundings, but we need to take courage from what we did against Toronto here at home and games of that nature and how the game that we want to play on a consistent basis showed up there to neutralize one of the best offensive teams in the league. We can discuss — there’d be hundreds of different decisions that we make here that we can try to tear apart in detail, and the way we put our lines together is certainly one of them. It’s difficult to explain all those details and I can only say we are trying to maximize the potential of this group. We are not there as yet. We will continue to work on that.
JW: One thing in terms of maximizing results, Ralph, I think something that’s gone very well I think: Early in the year, Rasmus Dahlin had a little bit of a — maybe a sophomore hiccup. I think fans observing him wondered, “Is Dahlin struggling?” There was a little bit of time and then he kind of figured it out. I would say he’s playing pretty well, he’s pretty darn good. He’s been great. For you, you look at a player, you’re only getting your hands on any player so far with this organization for 60 games. You talk a lot about habits, and positive habits. With Dahlin, is that an example you would say where you tried to instill some habits in him and it took a little bit of time but then, boom, it clicked and you’re seeing the positive results of that?
RK: Rasmus has been a pleasure all season long. We see the brilliance of his offensive ability, but for us as coaches, we’re so excited how he’s embraced what he needs to do defensively and how hard he works at creating pressure on the opposition without the puck and how proud he is of his one-on-one battles and he wants to win those. Steve Smith has done an unbelievable job of coaching him in individual sessions and while he was injured, spending a lot of time with him going over video and footage. He is, as a 19-year-old, simply an amazing player. His future, he’s still far from his potential. When he fills out physically and we get some more pounds on him as he just naturally will grow and he gets that strength, the sky’s the limit on him. We can all see what he does to the power play and how he’s able to manage the puck up top there at his age; where is that going to end? His shot will become harder, his physical play will become more aggressive and his offense will just continue to find opportunity for the players that he’s on the ice with. We’re extremely excited about how Rasmus is developing here.
JW: The other big story, the trade deadline is approaching. You talked about synergy and how important it is. For you and Jason Botterill, the synergy that the two of you have, do you ask for things at the deadline? Like, “Hey, I’d like a this or a that”? Do you guys talk every single day, especially in these days approaching where roster decisions are probably, I would think, some roster decisions are going to come; maybe big, maybe small.
RK: That always looms in the air in the National Hockey League since the beginning of the season. Of course we’re discussing everything daily. That process is very interesting; it’s a lot of fun. We are always looking at potential options that can make us a stronger team. Yes, we feel that in the air but in the coaching room here, I have to tell you, we are fighting to still make something special out of this season. We haven’t given up on anything that we’re doing here. Our picture remains small in the coaching room and with the players, but with Jason, of course, I drift into the bigger picture on a regular basis. We will continue to try to improve the roster if we can and to build the group that can get us to where we want to go in the future. But it’s kind of a mix in the coaching world; you have to leave that hat outside the room when you walk in with the players. When you leave that space you get into those discussions. We’ll see what the week brings. It will be an interesting week, I think, throughout the league. But for us specifically, we’d like to get stronger.
HS: Hey, Ralph, last thing on the trade deadline, since this is our first deadline with you as the coach of the Sabres: Stuff is out there on social media, I don’t know how many players go on Twitter, stay off Twitter this time of year. Names get mentioned in the rumor mill. How do you handle that as a coach? Do you talk to a particular player or players if you hear names in the rumor mill to make sure they’re staying focused?
RK: No, I think the most important thing is to have them feel our focus on execution, learning, growing like we’ve been trying to do here daily. We don’t discuss those situations. The NHL players are aware that that’s always in the air. Players that don’t have the no-trade, no-move clauses realize that that could happen to them at any point in time. You basically try to concentrate on the task on hand, which today is going to be a good practice and some learning out of the Ottawa game. Tomorrow, the preparation for Pittsburgh and the 1:00 start on Saturday. We do not see those as anything other than part of the normal life of a National Hockey League player. But it’s not really discussed, and we try to keep that noise out of our locker room.
HS: Thanks as always for your time. Thanks for answering our questions and we’ll talk to you again next week. Good luck this weekend against Pittsburgh and Winnipeg.
RK: Thank you to the fans for the last three home games. Those three wins were outstanding and [I] really, really enjoyed the energy in the building. We’ll bring some good energy back from Pittsburgh for a good game against Winnipeg, my hometown, where I was born actually, on Sunday. So it’ll be a fun one.