Ralph Krueger Conference Call (10:45 p.m.)
Ralph Krueger Conference Call (10:45 p.m.)
March 11, 2020
Howard and Jeremy (8 a.m.)
Howard Simon: Ralph, it is Howard and Jeremy. Good morning. Welcome to the show, sir. How are you doing today?
Ralph Krueger: Good morning, gentlemen. Good morning to your listeners. Yeah, I’m doing fine, thank you.
HS: Hey, Ralph, before we get to the hockey team, we’ve been spending the show talking about what is now impacting the sports world and, of course, the regular world and that is the coronavirus story. You’ve seen in your league now, locker rooms closed to the media. I’m wondering, and I know you have some stories to talk about because you know people in Europe, but at this point what have the teams heard? What kind of direction, if anything, can you share that you’re all getting from, whether it’s coming to you from ownership or whether it’s coming from the league to all the teams?
RK: At the moment, there’s nothing different than all of us in society just being careful on our hygiene and following the recommendation of the experts. We haven’t had any disruption to our processes other than the contact in the dressing room with the media. For as an example, my life hasn’t changed because I’m doing press conferences on a daily basis and I’m still doing them. Our life would be similarly affected to anybody listening to the show right now. How it’s going to evolve, how it’s going to develop, we’re just going to follow the lead of the league and their recommendations. But thus far, getting ready for the game in Montreal tomorrow, nothing has changed thus far.
HS: You have a son who plays hockey in Switzerland. What has he been telling you about what’s going on over there?
RK: Everything’s gone on in a different speed there because of the breakout in that cluster in Italy. So the Swiss league, my son, his final two league games, which we’re two weeks removed now already, were played in front of empty stands and no spectators. I’m sure everybody here has picked up on the fact that most of the European leagues have shut down; the German hockey league has shut down. In Europe, they’ve had to take drastic measures because of the spread that was going on. Life has definitely changed there. Switzerland, they’re actually quite a ways into this process already. They closed the attendance of any events of more than 1,000 people already more than a week ago, so it’s almost 10 days. They’re going to wait until the 15th to the 17th of March before they make their next move. But there’s not really any fear in the society because it’s under control. They took those measures quickly and everybody’s just following good hygiene.
HS: You have, also, a previous working connection to soccer in Europe. I assume you’re aware of what’s going on with some of the soccer leagues, the UEFA games and how that’s been greatly impacted.
RK: The crazy one is the Manchester City/Arsenal game,; I’m sure everybody knows those brands. An owner of an opposition team came in contact with players, so they’ve had to quarantine the players. Games have been postponed and canceled. It’s very disruptive. With La Liga, that’s the Spanish soccer league, and the Serie A, which is the Italian soccer league, shutting down for the month, it’s truly causing stress in the sports processes there. It’s a situation that we need to respect, but you still don’t see a need for anybody to panic. Hopefully in Western New York so far, I feel people have been taking very responsible steps. My wife and I were out in the city of Buffalo last night, down in the core of the city and the theater area, and everything seems to be moving as usual, but we just need to be smart.
Jeremy White: Ralph, I wonder if you might have an opinion on this: I feel like there’s a little bit of push back on what’s happening. People are calling it a panic, but it does appear to me that there’s not a lot of panic, but a lot of precaution being taken by these leagues. If the NHL makes the next step, maybe the board of governors of the NBA makes a statement today, I don’t think precaution is necessarily panic.
RK: No, definitely not. What everybody did — and I experienced it through my home country, Switzerland — everything they’ve done has been very cerebral and with proper plan. Nobody is panicking in the country at all. There’s no rush on food, or clothing or anything in the country. It’s just functioning carefully and smartly to stop the spread; that’s what it’s all about. It’s certainly no panic in those countries. It’s quite calm, actually, day-to-day life over there. I think that everybody here needs to realize that all the steps being taken in North America right now, you need to take it seriously, but you don’t need to panic. Just take the steps that are being recommended right now.
HS: So your game the other night, a couple things I wanted to bring up: First off, the smile on Jack Eichel’s face when he scored his goal and broke his drought, and how much that probably helped him feel a little bit relieved, I assume.
RK: Well he definitely deserved that goal; the whole group had been working quite hard through a stretch where — we spoke about it last week and you guys were really fair in the conversation, too — we were in a lot of pain as we were playing some good hockey against most of the hotter teams in the National Hockey League but not getting any reward, and Jack was a part of that whole process, of course. He’s an important part of the process. For him to score — every goal scorer is going to go through phases like that — it’s good to see that smile and good to see his confidence returning. We need it now. We need some positive experiences here moving down the stretch of the season. Real pleased to see that goal. It was a beautifully executed one. I think it was the eighth pass in a row on that power play, so it was also very nice and well-deserved goal.
HS: You tweaked the power play look a little bit, if you could talk about that. Olofsson, typically on the wing, you had him in the high slot. It seemed like the triangle up top was very effective, not just on that goal, but overall pretty effective in creating things with Eichel, Dahlin and Ristolainen when they were in that form.
RK: The five of them just have so much skill and so much talent that moving them around can surprise the opposition. We might set it up a little bit different again tomorrow. I think that surprise and deception are important, also, strategically not only within the power play. What Dahlin, Ristolainen and Jack (Eichel) were able to do there was just a lot of real quick puck movement and through simple lanes. We need to keep that speed up on our power play. The power play is the offensive motor. To get our offense going, which is still not at the speed we need it to be, the power play is going to be a centerpiece, so let’s keep building on it. But we do have skill in that group and everybody’s so different and unique in the way they bring offense into it. I’s a lot of fun to work with those guys.
HS: You put Skinner with Eichel and Reinhart last couple games. What have you seen from that line so far?
RK: Well I’m sure you guys were happy. [Laughs]
HS: [Laughs] I was. I was. Thank you, by the way. No, I was curious, because Jeff (Skinner) was at least scoring and he seems like now he’s getting more shots. He seems a little bit more active. It’s not like they’ve had a ton of goals, that line, in the two games, but they look like they’re creating things, you know?
RK: That was able to happen because of the synergy that we felt between Johansson, Kahun and Olofsson. It’s always about finding combinations that we have. Two lines that are pushing more for offense, the other two taking care of penalty kill and our defensive responsibilities, but still adding offense. Yeah, we’ll see how it goes forward. But you know how it’s been this year: We’ve moved players around. Everybody needs to be able to play with everybody. At the moment, that’s a good look. We like the four lines the way they look at the moment. It feels good and we’re happy we were rewarded for it against Washington. Now we need a confirmation against Montreal.
HS: There was some controversy the other night with the Montour goal that was waved off. I don’t know if the league even makes referees available to pool reporters for an explanation, but did they give you an explanation as to what they saw live and why they decided to wipe out the goal?
RK: I never take it personally. Referees are standing at a certain angle; they don’t get to watch a reply. That was more what I was upset about, is that goals that can decide games like that down the stretch, last five minutes or wherever we pick the mark, should be reviewed. That would have been a matter of seconds for a referee to review that and see that it should be counted as a goal. I would prefer if they would just always count it if they’re unsure and then review it. It was the process that upset me more than the decision; we all make mistakes. He had a bad angle, he came over and said I couldn’t see a review, I couldn’t see a challenge on it, I had to make the original decision on the ice. I was upset under the circumstances that we were in. The team’s fighting to get out of a losing streak and needing some confidence. Watching that all evolve, I was proud of the guys being able to park that and still find a way to win the game. But the explanation, to me, was simply that watching it live, he thought there was contact, but the video review showed quite clearly that there wasn’t contact inside the blue paint. So, for us, certainly, it should have been counted as a goal.
HS: So you’re wrestling with the decision, and if you lose [a challenge], they’re getting a power play. But because of what you just said, you want to stop the losing streak and all this, you would have had, what, inside three minutes, whatever the time was, a one-goal lead. Why didn’t you just say, “You know what? I’m going to take my chances. I’m going to challenge this because we really need this goal”?
RK: Well I’ve challenged twice where we got turned down and we had a shorthanded situation, so I just didn’t trust it being overturned. I’ll tell you honestly that it has to be absolutely, 100 percent clear in the video for it [to be] overturned and I wasn’t confident that it was — it might have been 95 percent. So I learnt the hard way and there’s no way I was going to do that to the team, that we were going to finish a game shorthanded against Washington, because I believed in our chance of winning in overtime. We’ve been a really good 3-on-3 team and also believed that we had, with the home crowd, and they were fantastic in overtime. And in penalty shots, I was thinking mathematics was still on our side. It did work out in the end; if it wouldn’t have worked out, I’d probably be telling you guys a different analysis this morning. Under the circumstances, we just didn’t believe it was going to be overturned.
HS: Before we let you go, from the “just curious” department of questions: The shootout — I’m not sure if we’ve brought this up with you at all this season. What’s your opinion of the shootout in general? Let’s start there.
RK: My opinion in general is that Mike Bales, our goalie coach — it’s like a specialty team for us, it doesn’t come to play very often — but he’s generally in charge of setting it all up. So we do a lot of looping of information on opposition, and one of them is, of course, goaltending performances in shootouts. It’s running in the dressing room before the game so players can see it. Mike sets all that up, analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the other goalies, and he also is a major force in deciding who’s shooting on our team because he does watch them a lot in practice and tries to figure out who would work best against the opposition teams. So we do have a strategy there and, again, just like penalty kill and power play, we consider shootouts a specialty team that can be extremely important because of the points that are on the line, so that’s kind of how we build it.
HS: Do you like [the shootout]? It’s funny; when they brought the shootout into being, Ralph, I thought, “Ah, that’s a great idea.” Loved it. Drama. If I’m at a game in the building, everybody stands up for the entire shootout. The other night, you had sudden-death shootout. But I feel like it’s — over the course of time — it’s played itself out. I think overtime is far more exciting to me now than the shootout. Do you like shootout or do you think maybe we could extend overtime and just scrap a shootout all together?
RK: Well, guys, what’s happening with the 3-on-3, there’s so many more goals in overtime now. When we played 5-on-5 overtime at the beginning, it was boring. Teams would just shut it down. So the 3-on-3 is fantastic, but you can’t go any longer, because the best players are playing and they would be fried if you had a back-to-back, for instance, the next day. So I think the shootout — if you look at our crowd the other night and you look at how much fun they had with it, and it took the seventh shooter to score (the game-deciding goal), I think everybody went home feeling they got entertained to the top level here. It was against one of the best teams in the league, a serious Stanley Cup contender; to win in the shootout was a better finish than if we would have tied, left home with everybody getting only one point. So I think the way we’ve got it set up here seems to work; if you look at our schedule and you look at the pace, we couldn’t extend it any longer. In the playoffs, you get to go the whole [overtime] until it’s over, which is important. I think it’s a good addition to the game. It’s a lot of fun.
HS: Well, Ralph, as always, thanks for giving us time on the show. Appreciate you coming on with us this morning and good luck tomorrow night in Montreal against the Canadiens.
RK: Thank you for the call and I wish all of our listeners a good day today.
March 5, 2020
Schopp and Bulldog (5:30 p.m.)
Mike Schopp: How did you grow up, Jason? Did you grow up [in a] modest neighborhood? How did you grow up?
Jason Botterill: Blue collar family in Winnipeg. Both my parents — my mom was an elementary school teacher, my dad was a university professor. Grew up pretty much my entire life in Winnipeg. I was born in Edmonton, but spent most of my childhood in Winnipeg.
MS: And there’s a Ralph Krueger connection through your dad?
JB: Yeah, my dad, before he became a university professor, taught at St. John’s Ravenscourt. It was a private school in Winnipeg, and Ralph was a student there. My dad, I think, taught Ralph fifth grade math.
MS: Alright. My son is in fifth grade.
Chris Parker: While we’re on family stuff, I saw your sister is going to be involved in an all-female hockey telecast coming up on NBC. Is it this weekend?
JB: Yeah, so my sister was obviously, she was at four Olympics for Team Canada, had a great experience there. And I give her a lot of credit, she’s worked really hard at her public speaking [and] presentation. I also give a lot of credit to some of the corporations in Canada — Royal Bank of Canada, Rona — they’ve continued a sponsorship with her over the years, it’s been great. Last couple of years, she’s been working part-time with the Islanders. She does live in Toronto, has a young family, but has done some games with the Islanders and is now going to get more of an opportunity from a national scale. Very exciting for her.
MS: So Jason, last time we talked before the road trip, even maybe before the deadline, it would’ve been before the deadline. You talked about getting after it there with the standings and maybe feeling, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but feeling like you had a shot (at the playoffs). Maybe that’s different now, I don’t know. What are we looking at here with 16 games left?
JB: Well I think it certainly, let’s just be honest, it’s a disappointing road trip. We played well at times, but we did not get the results. I think going into the trade deadline, we’d won five out of six, I think our group was excited about the acquisitions of both Dominik [Kahun] and Wayne [Simmonds], bringing into our group there. I thought we came out with a lot of energy against Colorado, played a very good game there. Disappointing that we couldn’t find a way to get a goal at the end of that and at least push it to overtime. I think you go through the rest of the games throughout the road trip, there was positive moments, but at the end of the situation, we’re not capitalizing, we’re not getting the results that we want. Nothing’s changed from our perspective; it’s a situation where we have to continue to look at the small picture. Ralph has talked about that throughout the entire year. We still have to continue to find ways in each game to improve as a group, and that starts with trying to find a way to win a game here against Pittsburgh, who had a strong game on Tuesday. We’ve played well against them throughout the year, but to beat a team three times one year is going to be a challenge and we’ll try to do it tonight.
MS: What was deadline day like for you? And while I’d expect you to say that there’s always stuff, balls in the air that might have had some chance of happening, was it especially like that? Or was it maybe not? How many ideas were thrown around that might have been really close to happening?
JB: I think there was a lot more discussion this year just because of where our team was at. We had a couple, I guess what you would want to call, bigger things that we talked about for quite a while with different teams. Didn’t materialize. We’ve been on the show before, we’ve talked about trying to add to our forward group and some of these discussions have been about players that we’ve been trying to add for a while here. The time was finally right for the other teams, so we were able to get things accomplished from that standpoint. I think we had also talked about the potential of moving some of our players in other deals. We didn’t want to trade off some of our players of bigger magnitude. Some other players maybe we could’ve gotten mid-round draft choices for guys, but we also felt where we’re at as an organization right now, it’s important to keep this group together and continue to work on here.
MS: You were six points out at the time and now, is it 12? I think it’s 12. Is there disappointment, organizationally, that that happened? And is there even any regret that you didn’t do different things on deadline day or can you live with that?
JB: No, I don’t think there was regret just because of where we were at too. We look at, it’s not just how we played that last week against Pittsburgh and Winnipeg; you look at it as much as there was a lot of ups and downs in the month of February, I think from January 1 to the trade deadline we were ninth in the league in regulation wins. We felt that we were making progress there. We were excited about the potential of getting Linus [Ullmark] back into the mix here and where it could go. I think, certainly, we’re disappointed. I think you see that with our players, with their comments and with Ralph, there’s a disappointment that we haven’t been able to get more results in the last four games. Now it’s our challenge to respond. I think that’s one of the things that Ralph has done a very good job with this group, is when things have looked disappointing, when things have been very frustrating, whether it’s at the end of November, whether it’s after the loss on New Year’s Eve, whether it’s the way we started after the All-Star break, we’ve been able to respond. Now it’s going to be against difficult teams here in the next week or two. It’s important for us to respond.
CP: How much awareness is there with how March went last year? You guys won two games last March. I think it’d be understandable if the players sort of lost the plot a little bit. Are you talking with Ralph about that? Trying to make sure that players stay on point here, on message?
JB: I think Ralph’s tried to talk about that no matter what the situation is. But, yeah it’s certainly something we’ve talked as an organization and it’s part of the reason why we brought in a player like Wayne Simmonds. He’s been through a March, he’s been through — knows what it has to have success. No matter how that equates to wins this year for us, it’s imperative that our players understand what it takes to win games, especially on the road. Things like that come naturally for Wayne. His experience in those situations is something we wanted to bring into the mix. You also look at a lot of our numbers — I think a big area where we’ve improved compared to last year, the year before, is just puck possession. Depends on what metric you look at, but just holding to the puck in the offensive zone, we’re usually in the top five in the National Hockey League. Possession throughout the entire game, we’re usually in the top 10, but we’re not creating enough chances. We’re not getting to the net enough. We’re carrying enough in the high-danger areas. That’s where a player like Wayne, it’s natural for him to go there. We thought he could complement our group here very well.
MS: Are you talking about actual possession, like minutes and seconds? Or are you talking about shot attempts?
JB: Actual possession with the puck.
MS: Okay, so like a time.
MS: I don’t know that stat very well. What’s a good game? How many minutes is a good game?
JB: Well, I think more importantly is what we look at a lot is where our rank is throughout the National Hockey League from that standpoint.
MS: So what’s average? 30? You talk about offensive zone?
JB: Yes. Obviously that’s the biggest area. What we’ve tried to work on a lot is making sure we control the puck more. I think that’s one of the things that has helped up from a defensive standpoint, holding onto pucks more. You look at a player like Jack Eichel or Rasmus Dahlin, they certainly do it. It’s part of the reason we brought in a Marcus Johansson, just his smoothness with exits and entries into the offensive zone. What I think has improved a lot, compared to say two years ago where it was more of a chip-and-chase game, we’re holding onto the puck, but we’re not creating enough opportunities off of that. And that’s where you look at it from a situation where our expected goals, our opportunities around the net, we have to do a better job of getting there.
MS: What’s a good number, do you know? What’s a good number for minutes, because I’ve never looked at that. What I want to see, what I’ll look at is expected goals or the corsi and it used to be fenwick and those kind of numbers, the Sabres do not excel in those numbers 5-on-5 or close situations unless your using a certain method that I don’t know.
JB: Expected goals, especially, you’re going to have different people with different philosophies on what exactly goes into that number. We certainly feel we’ve improved a lot from an even strength — playing defense from that standpoint. Obviously what’s hurt us a lot on this past road trip too was just our special teams and our PK. It’s something that we have to drastically improve. But we feel we’ve improved from a defensive standpoint. We’re still trying to continue to find create more opportunities and more offense at even strength, especially.
MS: I thought — I’m sorry, one more small point if I could. I thought in the Winnipeg game there was some disagreement, like the analytics, the stats had expected goals under two and Ralph Krueger was talking about all these scoring chances. Scoring chances has always been sort of a subjective statistic.
JB: It’s a subjective statistic and also too expected goals is going to be subjective depending on different people’s models. So that’s what you also have to consider from that standpoint.
MS: I guess, yeah. That’s right.
MS: You know it’s sort of been frustrating for me as someone interested in all of that over the years that whether it’s the Sabres, or could be any team, wouldn’t just use an established, objective — not a league statistic per say — but just somebody who’s producing that.
JB: It’s also an evaluation of a player. There’s always going to be opinions a lot, and to make “Hey, this expected goals model is better than anyone else’s,” you’re never going to have everyone believing in the same model.
MS: Right, yeah. Objectivity would be key though to getting anything right. Sort of a cold — I would think if you had numbers that are proprietary and someone else, even the NHL, had different numbers, you’d want to know why, right? You’d want to know what’s the difference.
JB: Without a doubt.
MS: Okay, enough stats.
CP: So, the way forward here. What’s coming? I know the offseason, there’s going to be a lot of salary room, although signing some of your own guys will probably swallow up a good chunk of that. Maybe depending on what you plan to do with Dahlin; this is the first summer you can think of extending him. But as far as where are players coming from that are going to help you get more scoring chances?
JB: We’ve tried to have flexibility each year. No matter what happens, we’re trying to make sure that we’re not impacted on where the salary cap is going to go, that we have that flexibility of salaries coming off our roster. This year, we certainly have set it up where we have the opportunity to re-sign our own players if we want, or add players if need be. We’ve worked hard over the last couple of years of improving our defense. We feel comfortable with the defensemen we have here right now and the defensemen we have coming through the system. From a forward standpoint, we have to add more depth. We’re still a work in progress from that standpoint. We’re obviously extremely ecstatic about [Victor] Olofsson taking the jump this year. I think when he came out of the lineup in January, it certainly impacted our team. You look at Jack and Sam continuing to have strong years. And then also, too, I thought took a huge step forward this year just the camaraderie and the impact [Zemgus] Girgensons, [Johan] Larsson, [Kyle] Okposo have added just from a puck possession, wearing down teams, having the opportunity to play against other teams’ top lines at time, freeing up more of an opportunity for Jack to play against other lines. [What] we have to do, we have to continue to obviously find more scoring options. We’re excited about where Casey Mittelstadt’s at right now. We obviously want to get Tage Thompson healthy. Dylan Cozens is going to be a player that we’ll certainly give an opportunity to add to our lineup here next year. Ans it’s players that we think that can help out our penalty kill in the future, whether it’s a Rasmus Asplund or an [Arttu] Ruotsalainen who was in training camp with us this year. Those are the type of players we’re going to continue to look to add to our mix there. Then we’ll see what happens out from a trade standpoint or from a free agent standpoint.
MS: It feels to me like maybe free agency has always kind of been a trap, but it feels more like that to me now. Teams I think are doing a better job of protecting, signing their good players. If a player who’s accomplished something notable in the league is available in free agency, I almost feel like there’s a “buyer beware” tag there. How do you view that market?
JB: I think your intuition is certainly true and I think it’s a situation where you do have to be careful about that come July 1. I also think, let’s be honest, it’s part of — we talked about what Wayne Simmonds can add to our group here right now, it’s also a situation whether he fits in with our mix here. I think Buffalo’s always had a better opportunity to re-sign their own players. Once they get here, once they feel if there’s a mix here, once they get to be a part of the city, there’s always that better opportunity, so that was part of the reason we also brought in Wayne right now.
MS: You’re saying, maybe you’ve already said it, you’re saying about Simmonds I think, we thought this when you got him: I think you want him to sort of show either all your players, or the core players, a certain something, whether it’s — it’s not going to be the playoffs probably — but these games coming up or the games already, can you sort of speak to that a little bit? What’s an example, maybe, or a couple examples of the kind of things that you value in him that maybe you think your team needs?
JB: Well I think just you saw it right off the bat in the Colorado game: the physicality that he brings and in the forecheck. I also think, and as we’ve talked about before, he is a player that likes to play in front of the net, it comes natural for him, it’s not something that you have to remind him, he’s going to get there.
MS: How about in the locker room?
JB: In the locker room, he’s a personality, and that’s what we’ve talked to him a lot about is it’s always difficult coming into an environment right off the bat where you may not know a lot of players. But I think you’ve seen it even on the ice; he played World Championships with Jeff Skinner and you see some chemistry with the two of them already out there.
MS: At the deadline, I’m now remembering, I think a couple times you talked about him as a strong personality, or vocal, that kind of thing. When you assess the leadership you have here, if you looked at it and said, “There’s not enough vocal, there’s not enough strong personality,” then this logically would be a thing you would do. Is that pretty fair?
JB: I think a lot of our — Kyle Okposo’s been in our league a lot and he’s taken on a big role from our leadership perspective. Marcus Johansson’s come into our group, especially with the European players, been almost a godfather from that standpoint. Jack continues to grow as a captain. But over a course of 82 games, you can’t have the same voices all the time. You have to have more people supporting that, and that’s what we look at from someone [like] Wayne. To our group, what we’ve talked about before here on the show, bringing players in who have had success in the playoffs. Players who understand the grind of 82 games and what it takes to get to the playoffs. That certainly comes natural for Wayne and it’s natural for Wayne to talk to players about that.
MS: Do you think guys — Eichel is five years (in the NHL) and Reinhart is too — do you think it’s easier when you miss the playoffs for as long as those guys have and other guys on the team, [Rasmus] Ristolainen would certainly be this, is it easier to give up? Is it easier to think your team, or you can’t do something when you haven’t done it?
JB: No, I think it drives you actually more. You’re more pissed off. You’re more frustrated by that. But I also think from our guys, they’re open to it. They’re looking for communication from Wayne and what does it take? And I think you’ve seen it with our group. It’s not looking back on, say, how we played in October or December; you look back at how we played a week ago, a week-and-a-half ago, it was there, but we have to do that on a more continuous basis. I think that’s just what the preparation — I think our team has done a great job off the ice in what they have to go about to be prepared for the game. But as we go through a game, facing adversity, we have to be stronger from that standpoint. We’ve shown an ability after the games to come back the next game. Within a game, we have to find more opportunity to be stronger and to battle through and at least get a point and see where it goes from a win standpoint.
MS: Jason, thanks for coming over as always. Good luck tonight.
JB: Thank you very much guys. You guys have a good night.
March 5, 2020
Howard and 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, and good morning Buffalo.
HS: Ralph, tough road trip, 0-4, a big blow obviously. What was your message or maybe what is your message to the team as you gather and get ready for tonight’s game against Pittsburgh after the difficult trip?
RK: I definitely agree with you. It was disappointing to come back from that road trip — and from the investment of energy there and the way the guys played in phases — with zero points. But we’ve got Pittsburgh here today. As a game day, number one, it’s always an event here at the KeyBank Center, it’s always wonderful to have a home game, but especially when you’re playing [the] Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s a special day. It’s a good one for us to throw our energy into. We’re not in a happy place right now, but we are in a place where we’re continuing to try to confirm our game. It’s a challenge where we need to make the picture really small here, concentrate on the game and a good performance here for our home crowd.
HS: The Eichel line is pointless now in five games. Is there anything in particular that you’re seeing that you could kind of, maybe pinpoint an issue as to why they have not been able to produce any points?
RK: It’s mathematics sometimes. When we look at the two games that were critical at the beginning of the trip in Colorado and against Las Vegas, the line had, combined, 15 shots on net and no goals, which mathematically made no sense. It’s just keeping that kind of persistence of looking for shots, continuing to look for opportunity, and the mathematics should pay off for them. They’re of course frustrated. Our power play was frustrated, as you well know we went 0-for- on the trip and it’s something that is our offensive motor and they’re a major part of that. They play the major minutes on the power play. So we, of course, have been having conversations about solutions, getting more simplicity, maybe, in the attack, [looking] for more net presence and all the habits that lead to goals. It’s hard work when things aren’t going in the easy way, and that’s what we need to do is work hard to get those opportunities here in [March].
HS: You broke up [Jack] Eichel and [Sam] Reinhart the other night in Winnipeg; was that a in-game try and get a spark thing or is that something you would continue tonight with different line combinations?
RK: You know what guys, it’s something that in a game we have been doing off and on during the season, whether it’s that change or somebody on the left side and [Victor] Olofsson would go on another line. It’s just when a team is down zero-three, making sure we never quit, we never give up and we try to fight our way back in. Sometimes line changes work, and it seemed to give a little bit of boost of energy. That duo especially, Reinhart and Eichel, is one that’s been so strong for us all season long. We’re not going to give up on it that quickly. But going through the games as we move on, we might look for some different combinations and other looks. If we need offense, some changes fresh up the guys sometimes and bring some new energy. So we’ll see how that goes tonight. Beginning, we’ll be leaving our lines alone.
HS: Ralph, there’s some speculation that Jack is playing through some kind of an injury. I don’t know if that does or does not tie into his five-game point drought at this point. Any talk about — if he’s playing through some kind of hurts and where the season’s gone, where the standings are — of shutting Jack down?
RK: It’s certainly not an injury that has any risk [by] putting him in the lineup, or we would be dealing with it differently. We have multiple players with aches and pains at this time of year, that’s the way hockey is. It’s not an injury that we find is jeopardizing his game that much, but it’s there. He’s showing captain leadership by fighting through it. Our medical team is working hard with him, and we hope in the next few days that it continues to get better, which it is actually doing even though he’s playing. But again, he’s not the only one; I have to say there are some ice bags in the room, but that’s the nature of the game and we need to learn to fight through that as a group and we are right now.
HS: The fact that he’s been taking faceoffs again, is that the indication that he’s getting better?
RK: Yeah, for sure guys. We wouldn’t be having him in the draws if it was a risk. It’s always the question you ask, “Can it get a lot worse if a player plays?” We avoid those situations wherever possible and that isn’t the case, so right now we’ve got a healthy lineup and we need to show that power in the game today against Pittsburgh.
HS: You were talking about the power play, and it had a difficult road trip, but I want to ask you about penalty killing because it’s had its struggles this season. As the coaches break down that — I mean it could be as simple as you can talk to us about the goaltender who has to make the save — but as the coaches break down what you see on tape from the penalty-killing unit, are there any particular issues that you could bring up or discuss in terms of trying to explain why that’s been a problem area?
RK: What’s been strange, guys, is at home we’ve been mid-table in our PK and it’s on the road that we’re at the very bottom. It’s a strange phenomenon; I’ve never seen it quite like that because generally our team and our structure and the way we perform, the principles, we apply the same at home as on the road. Our power play’s running pretty well equal road and home, so it’s a strange one. All you can do in those situations is work hard on the fundamentals. That’s the only thing we know how to do as a coaching staff, to continue to drive those in. We have made some personnel changes. You will have seen that [Kyle] Okposo was doing some penalty killing on the road here the last few games. We really liked what we saw in him; his game’s been such a team game right through the season here and his work without the puck’s been strong. Using different personnel is something we are doing also on defense, even seeing Rasmus Dahlin get some penalty-kill minutes. He actually hit 26 minutes the other night just on pure performance. There’s all kinds of different approaches. There’s no clean, easy fix in this league, it is so competitive, and it is so strong and especially the power plays of every team have a lot of skill in them. We just need to continue to work hard on the areas we’re not happy with, and it’s certainly one. Keep the PK going the way it is at home. It’s been really strong at home lately and it needs to be strong tonight for sure to give us a chance. Pittsburgh has one of the best in the league.
HS: Since we last talked to you you’ve added a couple of players. Want to ask you so far about [Wayne] Simmonds and [Dominik] Kahun. With Wayne Simmonds, what have you seen so far from him? What do you think he brings to your team?
RK: Well both of them bring personality that is unique. Wayne Simmonds for sure has a reputation of being a tough player who brings automatic respect because he is a very good teammate and an excellent human being. He’s brought another strong voice into our room. He is a player who really is there for his teammates all the time, pushing guys in the right direction, but also with an experience that people will listen to him. And the game he brings, he looks for the net front, he looks for the blue paint, he looks for the confrontation that is needed there. It’s a great example for us. Dominik Kahun is a play that I know from his European past. He’s, at 23, already won multiple championships over there, has been to World Championships, won a silver medal at the Olympics. Now he’s learning how to play the NHL game. That is something. He’s in his second season, he’s definitely got the skill, he’s got the smarts. He was a centerman his whole life before, so he understands the game without the puck. He’s been a spark plug kind of player for us here and we look forward to seeing him grow into our group. The important thing is when we add a player, he brings something fresh, something different, something new, another tool that is exciting. And both of them do that. It’s been a good move for the organization, and we look forward to seeing him grow here.
HS: Ralph, I’m curious, when players join an organization this late in the season, and maybe it’s different because one guy is a veteran and one guy is a younger player, how do you get them acclimated to your system, your philosophy, where they’re supposed to be on the ice? When they didn’t go through training camp, they weren’t here for most of the season, how do you get them up to speed and is it easier with a guy like Simmonds than Kahun because he’s been around the league so long?
RK: They’re both very smart players. Donnie Granato will take the forwards if they come in, Steve Smith will take the D and of course Mike Bales working with goalies. They will do the technical specific coaching through video. We don’t overload them. We stay close to new players; we make sure they understand. I’ll work with the general 5-on-5 structure, the way they need to fit in to our team game with and without the puck. There are just nuances and little tweaks. The NHL as a whole has a lot of copy-paste going on. There are general concepts that are similar in all the teams, and it’s just the way we put the package together is unique, certain nuances within that. They’ve done really well at stepping in, and it’s not ever going to be perfect as the game of hockey’s never a perfect game, but their hunger to try and get those things right has been big. Their game intelligence, their hockey IQs have been high. It is always a tough process for a player at this time of year, but both of them have done a really good job of stepping in and doing their best to execute within our team game, which is what we need to do to be the best version of the Buffalo Sabres that we can be.
HS: Ralph, final thing for you this morning, what is update on Linus Ullmark?
RK: He’s back in the group, he’s looking at NHL shots here. We’re hoping to bring him in as a backup not today, but within the next couple of games. It’s a process that you need to just take one day at a time. He’s only been (back) with us a couple of days now and it’s just good to have him back. As always, our rehab team sends players back to us in game-ready shape. Hoping to have him back in the lineup here in the next few games. He’ll be a good addition back into our group.
HS: I know that the trip wasn’t going well, but you did get a chance to go back to Winnipeg. Did you get caught up with some people? What’d you do when you were back in Winnipeg?
RK: Thanks for asking. It is my hometown. I had 12 family members of different types, in-laws and so on, at the game in Winnipeg, so that was a special event. My 89-year-old mother-in-law was at her first Winnipeg Jets game ever and very proud of being there. Those are the human sides of the game that are a beautiful thing to be a part of. We would’ve preferred to have had the win. It was good to be back in Winnipeg. I’m at home in Buffalo right now. It’s a great place to be at home. I know our fans are not pleased with the road trip, and they shouldn’t be. We all can’t be, but they should be pleased with the effort the players gave and the fight that’s in this group right now. We’re hoping to reward our fans with a real good fight here tonight against Pittsburgh.
HS: Well, Ralph, thanks for the time on the show, as always. We appreciate you coming on with us. Good luck tonight and we’ll look forward to talking to you again next week.
RK: Thank you Jeremy and Howard for the good conversation. Thank you to the support we’re feeling every day from the Sabres community and we will work hard to earn that support in a positive way. So thanks guys.
February 24, 2020
Media availability (4 p.m.)
Hello, everyone. I would just like to start off by thanking Evan (Rodrigues) and Conor (Sheary) for what they accomplished with us in Buffalo here. Certainly wish them all the best in Pittsburgh moving forward. I would also like to thank Zach Bogosian for everything that he did for our team and our community here in Buffalo. Certainly wish him all the best down in Tampa Bay. Certainly open to any questions you have right now.
Jason, how would you characterize the moves you made today from an overall standpoint? (Adam Benigni – WKBW)
I think we’ve talked a lot about changing our forward group, adding to our forward group. Excited about bringing in a veteran player such as Wayne Simmonds. We’ve talked a lot about this group playing meaningful games. For Wayne, playing meaningful games in the month of March and April is something he’s very accustomed to. I think you’ve heard Ralph (Krueger) talk a lot about net-front presence, playing a physical game. I think these are things that come natural for Wayne. We also know that we have a young group. He has a strong personality and I think his leadership’s going to help our group out a lot. In Dominik (Kahun), excited to bring a younger player into our mix. A player that is very useful, can play both wings, has a very good skill set and also has a track record of success, both over in Germany — had the opportunity to win an Olympic silver medal and had numerous times playing in World Championships. Excited to bring Dominik into our group.
Jason, how much has the past couple of weeks and the fact that [the team is] on this 7-3-1 run, I think it is, how much did that change your approach going into today? (John Wawrow – Associated Press)
I think we talked a lot about different things that would happen. You’re always trying to prepare months in advance of what you’re going try to accomplish at the trade deadline. We’ve been very or proud of how our group has responded after a difficult start to the homestand. We understand in a young group, you’re going to continue to have disappointments and challenges along the way, but how we responded from that has been very positive. I think that’s just this past weekend with a difficult win in Pittsburgh and then also finding a way to grind out against a very good Winnipeg team. We’ve talked a lot about playing meaningful games in the month of March, and I think with some of the moves that we made today, we’re hopefully setting our team up to better accept that challenge.
How important for you was it to get an NHL player in a trade if you were going to subtract a pending UFA like Conor? (Lance Lysowski – The Buffalo News)
We talked about the situation of adding, trying to talk to different teams about what our value was for some of our players, get draft picks and then maybe moving draft picks in other deals. The way it worked out, we’re glad that we were able to make trades that actually get a National Hockey League player back into the mix here to help our needs, especially the physical element and, like I said, the heaviness of Wayne Simmonds. We’ve talked about it before, the development of our young players, our young forwards within our system, I think Dominik’s a player that has NHL experience but still is a young player that is continuing to grow.
Jason, I think a lot of people wanted to know would you be a buyer going into the deadline, would you potentially be a seller? And it almost feels like you kind of managed to do both. Do you think that’s a fair assessment with the moves you guys made today? (Matt Bove – WKBW)
As an organization it’s time for us to continue to build. Taking the next step as a group is to understand and, like I said, play meaningful games in March. It’s going to be a difficult challenge for this group. We’re heading on the road here now. When we come back our home schedule’s against some of the top teams. It’s going to be a challenge, but I think it’s going to be a challenge for our core players to go through with that. I know Ralph is extremely excited about working with these guys. Ralph has been very pleased at the response from the players and the interactions that they have. Look, I think it will be a new experience for our group, but we’re excited about it moving forward here. What we try to talk about as a coaching staff and as a management staff is, “How do we best prepare this group to face this challenge?” And that’s why we made the moves we did today.
Do you expect these moves to energize the team? Do you think guys will be excited about these? (Bill Hoppe – Olean Times Herald)
I hope so. I certainly hope so. I think especially with the personality Wayne brings to the mix, I think will certainly get our players excited. But I think you’ve seen that over the last couple of weeks, there’s been an energy within our group. With some of the home wins, I think the focus that they’ve had going down to the game in Pittsburgh, even the game a couple weeks ago in New York, I thought our players were very in tune with our coaching staff, stuck to the system that Ralph wanted to play and eventually, obviously, got results. Overall, I think there’s a good buzz and growth with our group. Now it’s important for us to continue to work on that and hopefully get the results we’re looking for.
Did it get far down the road at all getting some help down the middle? (Mike Harrington – The Buffalo News)
There’s always conversations going on, and we’ve had this discussion. Yeah, there’s conversations, but until something gets materialized, that’s it. We’ve certainly looked at a lot of different things for our group, but these were the moves that we felt the most comfortable with and what would help our team out the most right now.
Jason, do you feel pressure to get this team into the postseason? Does the organization feel a sense of pressure to take that next step? (Adam Benigni – WGRZ)
Look, I think there’s always pressure to win in this league. Without a doubt. You want to have success. We understand we’re not a finished product, and these moves here, we feel it helps our team right now going into especially this road trip and this upcoming week, but just facing the month of March. But we also think adding a player like Dominik (Kahun) is going to help us in the future too and trying to work from both ends from there. The experience that Jack (Eichel) or Sam (Reinhart) or Rasmus Dahlin or Rasmus Ristolainen can gain in the next few weeks is going to be important for their development here. The National Hockey League, you look at the parity in it, you’re not looking for the big jump, you’re looking to win marginal points here and there. That’s the ultimate opportunity to eventually get into the playoffs. We can look back on, “Oh, if we changed something there or change something there,” it’s small margins. And that’s what our group has to understand is for us to eventually get where we sort of aspire to, we have to do a better job in those small margin situations.
There’s been so much talk the last couple of years about changing the culture here. How important was it for you to move two players who were disgruntled and why was the timing of the Bogosian move, why at this point? (Lance Lysowski – The Buffalo News)
Well I would just say with the Bogosian move, we tried to find a solution. We tried to work with him on finding a solution. It didn’t materialize. I’m extremely excited that Zach has a new opportunity in an excellent organization in Tampa Bay. But from a timing standpoint, we tried to find a solution with him prior to that. I think there’s always going to be discussion on the players that might not be excited about being in Buffalo. But we have a player here in Wayne Simmonds who waived a no-trade (clause) to come to join our organization today. I think when talking with the bulk of our players, there’s an enthusiasm about what’s being created in our locker room, and just the dialogue that they’re having with the coaching staff. And I think you’ve realized in your interactions with Ralph, he’s a fairly upbeat and positive gentleman, and he’s excited about where this group is going. Now it’s important that we continue to keep that small focus on, “Hey, next step, game in Colorado on Wednesday.” We understand what Colorado did to us last time, we understand what a talented team Colorado is, it’s going to be a challenging effort for our group. But those small steps is what we have to continue to work on.
When it comes to making a trade with Pittsburgh, was there a sense — knowing how the Metropolitan Division seems to be bulking up on players — did you sense that you could make that deal with Pittsburgh and did the fact that all these teams were bulking up on players in the Metro, did that help you make that deal with Pittsburgh? (John Wawrow – Associated Press)
I think there’s just obviously a familiarity with Conor (Sheary) from there. I think it was a situation where they weren’t looking to move Conor in the first place, but it was more of a salary cap situation and stuff that they had to work with. So there’s always that familiarity about possibly bringing him back into the mix. But we certainly had other teams and discussions with other teams on those players, it just worked out to be the best fit from getting a younger forward back into our mix.
Jason, how tough has this week been for you? You always try to keep an even keel. We all saw the TSN shots in Ottawa. That was probably one of the toughest losses you’ve had since you’ve been here. You go from that [and] maybe the season might be over and you’re totally selling to last weekend, where it clearly changes what you’re doing. What has the emotion been like for you for the last six days or so? (Mike Harrington – The Buffalo News)
Well look, let’s be honest. The game in Ottawa, I thought it was a great start. I thought we were building off of what we’d done the week before and especially the win at home here against Toronto. I loved how, in that game against Toronto, we faced adversity in the third period there and responded extremely well. (After a) great start in Ottawa, our response wasn’t good. That was certainly a frustrating moment. Just like Ralph (Krueger) and the players, I’m into it. I want success for this team and for this organization. But I loved how our team responded (in the following games), and I think that’s what Ralph has done a great job with this year: When things haven’t gone well, we’ve been able to find our game again. You look at the fact I thought we played extremely well after a disappointing November; the start of December I thought we played extremely well. I thought it was a great job after the New Year’s Eve loss to Tampa Bay of getting our group refocused there again. And let’s be honest: The home stand here didn’t start off the way [we wanted] and Ralph was able to get the group back on track from that standpoint. So it’s been great o see that resolve. You’d like to, now, see more consistency throughout the whole process. But we understand that there’s always — we talk about parity in this league — there’s always going to be a lot of emotions, especially around this time. With this group, you see the potential. I see the dialogue that our players are having with our coaches and our staff, and you want to see them have success. I’m happy today that we were able to make some moves that I think put us in a better position and now we’ll see how we progress here for the next month or so.
Is anybody going to the Amerks, from a transaction standpoint? (John Vogl – The Athletic)
From a transaction standpoint, our goaltender, Jonas Johansson, we made him available (to the Americans for the AHL playoffs). And then also John Gilmour.
I know you shaved some money (off of the team’s salary cap limit) with these deals. How does this affect the cap going forward? Do you expect to be under that overage spot? (John Vogl – The Athletic)
The way we will look at it now is — so, with our injuries that we had throughout the year, we talked a lot about what we were going to do from that standpoint. We will have an overage at the end of the year. From our standpoint, we didn’t want to break this team apart; we just didn’t feel it was the time, from that standpoint. We looked at different scenarios in our planning perspective, but we know we’re going to have an overage for next season. But on the positive side, the overage is coming because our young defensemen continue to develop. To be honest, we hope our young defensemen hit all their performance bonuses, because it means that they’re going in the right direction with their games.
As Mike (Harrington) had said, Jason, it has been a tough stretch. Kind of a rollercoaster ride of a season. A lot of fan frustration in this marketplace, a lot of it directed, quite frankly, at you. Do you understand where that comes from? (Adam Benigni – WGRZ)
I can understand where it’s coming from. I understand the history here. But it can’t interfere with how I make decisions for this organization` and it can’t interfere with my interaction with Ralph and with our players. That’s why it’s good to have executives around me, such as Randy Sexton and Steve Greeley, who have a very good perspective on things; especially someone like Randy who’s gone through things in different stops where he’s been. Everyone looks at my previous time in Pittsburgh and thinks you win a few Stanley Cups there and it’s all good. But [I] also went through processes there of coaches being fired and disappointment in not meeting expectations. So [I’ve] been through different things like that. The bottom line is, in the National Hockey League, it doesn’t matter which market: There’s going to be pressure and there’s going to be high expectations. As a group we have to continue to focus on what Ralph has talked about: improving every day. I think our group has done a very good job with that, and that was our focus today on making the moves that we did. We think this will help our group.
Can (Dominik) Kahun also play center? You said he plays both wings, but can he play center? (Bill Hoppe – Olean Times Herald)
It’s possible that he can. I would say that right now I view him more as a winger than a centerman, but it does give options to Ralph (Krueger) to play him in different spots throughout the lineup.
There was a report out there that Wayne Simmonds might be interested in signing a contract extension. Has he broached that with you, or do you broach that with him, and what is your interest in that level? (John Wawrow – Associated Press)
I talked to Wayne just briefly when he came to the organization. I talked to his agents, just about the situation before, and our understanding is certainly there’s no contract in the mix or anything like that. The focus right now is on sort of what our plan was for the next few weeks here and what our sort of focus was going to be for today. You know our numbers; we certainly have openings at forward moving forward here. We’re certainly going to have opportunities and roster spots available. I think that’s what he’s looking for: He’s looking to play meaningful games and he’s also looking for an opportunity. If he plays well, there might be a future. But our focus right now with Wayne is just what we have going on here right now. Just as Ralph likes to keep things small, we’re able to keep it small with Wayne here.