January 15, 2020
Howard & Jeremy (8 a.m.)
Howard Simon: Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger is standing by to talk a little bit more about last night’s win over the Vegas Knights. Ralph, it’s Howard and Jeremy. Good morning, how are you, sir?
Ralph Krueger: Good morning, Buffalo. Good morning, Howard and Jeremy. I’m fine. Always better after a good result.
HS: Well us, too. Hard-hitting question to start things off: Do you have a nickname?
RK: I do not, no. My wife actually finds it nice that people just say, “Coach.” That’s who I am here in Buffalo. I do not have a nickname, no.
HS: For future reference, if the team’s not playing well and the fans are booing, you can just think they’re saying “Kreugs,” so just use that if it makes you feel any better.
RK: When I was a player, people would say “Kreugs.” It’s definitely a good blend and the fans have been fantastic here in rough games, like the finish against Vancouver, or yesterday, where we had a bit of a dip in the second period, the crowd has been unbelievable. I have a feeling they really feel what’s happening in our room and in our process, and it’s been a lot of fun so far.
HS: Last night — we’ve brought up, specifically with you before, certain plays by Eichel and the “wow factor.” I know how I reacted watching the game at home, and you could hear the fans react in the building. As a coach, and you’re watching on the bench, he makes that dash up ice and scores; what are you thinking? What’s your reaction over there?
RK: Well I used the word last night in the media conference, “genius.” It is what Jack has in him and it’s so exciting to be coaching that and be a part of it. But what people don’t see is the hard work that he puts in away from those events. He’s going 100 percent all the time, whether it’s in the gym, or his nutrition, or off the ice or working with his teammates. That’s why those things happen. It’s not luck, or by chance; Jack Eichel works for everything that he gets. When he does show those moments, it’s a beautiful thing to be a part of as a coach. Last night, we needed brilliance. Vegas is one of the top teams in the league and to see Jack take the game under his control and to decide it with an event like that is why he is so special.
Jeremy White: Ralph, we’ve seen really good play out of Jack Eichel before. This is definitely a next level. Yesterday, Jason Botterill, the GM, gave you credit as one of the reasons he has kind of taken a step forward. Would you also — not saying would you take credit yourself, but — what is it, do you think, maybe that you’ve done to help him reach that next level?
RK: Well I think if you look at Jack and I, we’ve come together — both of us — at a good time in our careers. I’ve come to Buffalo in a time when I felt that I had the experience to deal with the situation and I could put all of my life lessons into play, and I’m enjoying that. And Jack, also, has been coached by many different people through his life, whether it’s his family or his hockey coaches. Everyone’s been chipping in and everybody can take credit or responsibility for what’s happening. But, above all, Jack has the most responsibility in that process. I’ve stepped into the club at a good time, where we’re still in a development `phase; we’re still in a place of growing and learning. And Jack is the same. We aren’t near our potential yet, which is something that should excite us all.
HS: If you give a — yeah, I guess it’s kind of a “State of the Sabres” — but you’ve won four of six after the stretch of losses that ended with the 4-1 lead against Tampa. And there are some rough moments in the stretch, too — your St. Louis game, whatever. But as you look at your team right now, you’re trying to hang in there in the wild card race as you get ready to go into this extended break. How, generally, do you feel your team is playing right now coming off that losing streak?
RK: Well we’ve really managed the changes in lineup quite well, which is directly connected, of course, to injuries. We’ve continued to show that we have depth. We’re pleased with the effort. We’re pleased with what the players are all about right now, and that’s buying into a concept that we need to get more consistent with. That’s all that’s happening right now, is we’re slipping out of being the team we want to be, and then we get back into being the team we want to be. It’s normal. The habits we are trying to develop here are hard to consistently execute, and they take a lot of dedication and commitment to making them something that we can bring on a nightly basis. If you look at the top clubs in the league — if you look at Washington, if you look at Boston, or now Tampa Bay — they’re doing things on a very consistent level day in and day out and they didn’t just start doing those overnight either; they had to work on those. Some players for years and years, and then the team as a group. So that’s where we’re at right now, guys. Jeremy and Howard, I would say we’re continuing to develop, we’re continuing to grow and we’re just looking for that consistency. But I believe our fan base can feel the game we want to play: We want to play on our toes, we want to be aggressive, we want to play attractive hockey here in Buffalo. But we want to do it day in and day out. We’re not doing it yet; we understand that. But everybody needs to know we’re working hard to get that consistency. It’s going to come over time because of the attitude we have in the room right now.
HS: So following up what you just said, in the last hour we were talking to Paul [Hamilton] about, “their home record is very good.” Your struggles have come on the road. In light of what you were just talking about, that consistency in your game, do you tend to see those drop-offs, more likely, on road games than home games for any reason?
RK: You know what, guys, I don’t feel the same way as the statistics are showing. I don’t feel a change in preparation or focus or intensity. I think what happens on the road is the opposition raise their game. We need to be able to deal with all the distractions that happen when you’re not in your home building and you don’t get that push. But as far as the general prep is concerned, we don’t make major adjustments in our game on the road; we want to be consistent in whatever building we’re playing against. Whoever we’re playing, we want our game to be pushed down their throats. I just think that everybody needs to get more confidence on the road. We probably have more confidence in our home building, which is natural. That would be, for me, the final piece. As coaches, we don’t feel a big drop-off. I thought our first period in Detroit the other day was one of our better ones of the season, for example. We’ve had some excellent games on the road. Even against the top teams, like Boston and Tampa, we’ve showed up, we’ve started well. We just couldn’t be consistent through the game with that. So it’s, again, finishing those games on the road when we get the good feeling and believing in ourselves in other buildings as much as we do in the KeyBank Center.
HS: Your power play was key last night; had a couple goals. It’s been much better the last five games: six power play goals in that stretch. What, specifically, are you seeing that has led to the improvement in that?
RK: More movement. It’s less predictability. And, quite simply, the hunger to get shots to the net is increased. Rasmus Ristolainen going net-front creates a new stress on the net presence and pressure on the opposition, and it’s freed up Jack and our playmaking ability quite a bit. So it’s a combination of factors. The guys have been working hard at it. I just finished using the word “confidence” on the road and power play is all about that. You get the mojo — you get that feeling — and it starts to click, which it has been lately. Now we need to keep that going. We had this kind of a stretch early in the season. We dropped off. It’s our offensive motor. It’ll decide how we do offensively. It’ll decide how effective we are in our 5-on-5 game because some of our key offensive players can get their confidence there. You’re right on; it’s been hot of late and we need to keep it there.
HS: I want to ask you about your goalies in a second but — two injury updates, because I just want to see if there’s anything new on either guy or a timeframe. What about Jeff Skinner? Let’s go there first.
RK: I can put them in a package, guys. You know, Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson. To see them in suits after the games instead of hockey equipment is tough, but the guys have been working hard to fill those spots. I think that the same thing is going off-ice right now. Our rehab team is so positive and optimistic that we’ve got them on track, which means in the weeks following the break coming up here we’re expecting their return. But I really cannot tell you right now on either of those injuries will it be right after the break, will it be a few weeks after the break? We just have to let these processes, whether it’s upper or lower body on these guys, run their course. We’re optimistic we’re going to have them back as we fight in this difficult division and this difficult race that we’re in. We like where they’re at right now; that’s all I can tell you. Both of them are developing in the right way on the right timelines in their respective injuries.
HS: Wasn’t Skinner’s timeline shorter than Olofsson’s, Ralph?
RK: If you’re going to go out and bet, guys, then I would probably bet on that. [Laughs]
HS: [Laughs] Alright, I’ll go find a few bucks.
HS: The other thing I wanted to ask you about were your goalies. You were talking about confidence of the team a moment ago and, obviously, Carter Hutton must be dealing with a confidence issue right now. He’s had some struggles — I know it isn’t all him — but he’s gone through a long stretch without winning a game. What can you do, what do you do about Carter Hutton right now, because it’s not been good when he’s been starting the last, what, 10, 11 games?
RK: We just continue to work hard with him. Those results are not only the responsibility of Carter; they’re the responsibility of us as a group. Having played — if you just look at the last game against Vancouver, we left our game. He gave us a chance, actually, in the first two periods to stay in that one. He just needs to continue to work the way he is. Mike Bales is doing an outstanding job with our goalies. There’s nothing else to say; it’s hard work, it’s belief in your fundamentals. Keep focusing on those and when the next ball comes his way, the team also understanding the situation he’s in and helping him to get his confidence back and his belief. It’ll come. He contributes to this group in an amazing way every day, every practice. There’s nobody cheering louder for Linus [Ullmark] when Linus is in the net and we need to do the same for Carter to get back his feeling that he had earlier in the season. We know it’s in him. The practices and the off-ice work is important to get you back on track.
HS: And, finally then, with Linus, you’ve had to lean heavily on him in the last month or so. I think he’s started all but two of the games. Do you worry at all about workload, fatigue? What can you track? What do you look at to make sure that Linus is holding up okay with the heaviest workload of his professional career at this point?
RK: I think you can look at Linus and you can look at our top-minute guys and say the same thing: What are we doing between games, how are we working to maintain our energy? That’s, again, where our off-ice staff is doing such a good job, whether it’s in the gym or in our rehab rooms and the physio, all of that — the nutrition that we have. We are all about quality and not quantity as far as practice and ice is concerned. So Linus is in that category of high-minutes guys and thus far it’s all of that other work that’s being done that’s helping them to stay on track and to be able to find the energy that the NHL asks for in this grueling pace that we’re on. It’s what Linus has become; he’s taken another level this year. The top goalies in the league do play the minutes he does. The top goalies are able to play the games he does. He’s on course and on path to be one of the top goalies in the league if not there already. Again, it’s what he did in the summer. It’s what he’s doing in his mind. All of these things come together and we feel confident that he can handle the load. And again, Mike Bales, at the lead of that responsibility, has been doing an excellent job with Linus.
HS: What have you got planned for the dads on this trip, Ralph? Anything special as a group?
RK: You know, I hate to be a party pooper, but I as a head coach just keep them focused on the difficult tasks we have in Dallas and Nashville. I really think the fathers are an important part of this process and I look forward to meeting them all. We’re going to have some meals together, they’re going to be a part of our processes, they’re going to see how we get guys ready for the games in Dallas and Nashville. I’m sure the guys are going to get some energy and be excited to have them all there. Probably the most important, with the mothers together, the most important two people in their lives to get them where they are here today, so we’re proud to have them aboard. We’re proud to have them on the trip. But again, I’m going to need to make sure that we understand — all of us together — how focused we need to be for the game. So it’s a combination of having fun but also letting them see the hard work that the guys need to do to be successful and to stay competitive in the National Hockey League.
HS: Well good luck in Dallas and Nashville, Ralph, and as always, thanks for giving us your time.
RK: Thank you and thank you, Buffalo, for the support, speaking for the team. We continue to fight on together here to have everyone proud of the Sabres.