For all of the Sabres fans out there that are calling for Ralph Krueger’s job right now, I’m going to try and give some perspective that can hopefully help you relax. I’m not in the locker room right now and don’t know exactly what’s going on within the team, but from my outsider’s perspective maybe I can put some things into place.
I’m going to start by saying that this is not a totally unbiased post. I am a huge Ralph Krueger fan as I played for two years at Cornell with his son, Justin. We got to see Ralph only a few times a year as he was leading the Swiss National Team at the time, but every time we got to hear him speak I was literally blown away.
The biggest thing I remember was how passionately he spoke about culture. He had us on the edge of our seats and you could ask any one of my teammates – he made us all understand how important culture and relationships are to a team. In the few times he spoke to us, he had a big time positive impact.
Which leads us to the predicament the Buffalo Sabres are in right now – particularly with their star players.
Last year when I heard that the Sabres hired Ralph, I couldn’t have been happier for him…and for the city of Buffalo. Insulated in the hockey world and also living in Upstate NY, I’ve heard the rumblings about how the culture there wasn’t where it needed to be. It seemed like the perfect fit.
And that is why people in Buffalo and the greater hockey world need to relax with what he is trying to do with this team right now. Culture isn’t grown over night and it often takes a lot of ups and downs to figure it out.
Which takes us to their star players. Everyone is up in arms about Jeff Skinner being sat, Taylor Hall not producing, and Jack Eichel being perpetually frustrated by all the losing. And the funny part is that so many people seem to lay blame on everyone except for the star players.
“They’re not used in the right way.”
“They don’t have a good enough supporting cast.”
“Krueger doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
I’m going to shell out some cold, hard stats:
Between Buffalo’s three star forwards, they have completed 25 seasons total in the NHL (Skinner and Hall with 10 each and Eichel with 5).
In a combined 25 seasons, they have played in a whopping 14 playoff games. All 14 were played by Taylor Hall, and they include last year’s 9 games during Covid playoffs even though his Coyotes finished 11th in the West. Skinner and Eichel have yet to play in a playoff series. Skinner is 0-for-10. Eichel is 0-for-5.
Another sobering stat:
Coming into last weekend’s games, those stars were also a combined -238 in the careers. Hall (-52), Eichel (-66) and Skinner (-120!!!). I actually think that +/- is a pretty overrated stat on the whole, but for players of this caliber to be that heavily into the minus category…I have a hard time believing they’ve been bought in to playing the two-way hockey necessary to win consistently in the NHL.
And no, I’m not saying they need to become these grinding, bottom six players. Far from it. They have an elite talent that teams absolutely need to win hockey games. But there has to be a give-and-take in playing a team game as well…and these stats to me are pretty telling.
When building culture, one of the most important dynamics is having your best players as your hardest workers and most bought into playing the game the right way. Where they lead, others will follow. And when your top dogs don’t lead in those departments, it can cause a rift in a team…especially if the top dogs are given a free pass.
NHL coaches have to handle their star players with some finesse. They can’t suck the creativity and confidence out of them. But there has to be a level of accountability where nobody is bigger than the team.
Just look at some of the recent Stanley Cup winners:
Trotz and Ovechkin.
Cooper and Kucherov.
Quenneville and Kane.
Sullivan and Malkin.
It wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows for these tandems. But in the above relationships there was a willingness to find a common ground between being a star and sacrificing a little bit for the betterment of the culture of the team. Things ended up working out pretty well as they all now have their names etched on the Cup.
It’s time for this to happen in Buffalo. Ralph Krueger is doing the right thing. He’s creating a culture of accountability and that’s not always easy…and it always takes time.
It’s easy to use the coach as a scapegoat when things aren’t going well. But there has to be accountability on the side of the players too, and the +/- and playoff stats from Eichel, Skinner, and Hall to me are pretty telling.
To be honest, I actually think Eichel has taken a step in the right direction watching him play and he’s spoken very highly of Krueger. Hall played for Krueger in Edmonton and he wouldn’t have chosen to come to Buffalo if he didn’t have respect for him. And I watched Buffalo’s last game before Skinner got sat – he deserved to be in the stands.
Turning a culture around takes time. It takes a coach and management willing to do the unpopular thing to those outside the locker room for the long term gain inside of it. Unfortunately, coaches today don’t get the luxury of playing the long game in our results-now driven world of professional sports.
Oh wait. Jon Cooper did. And he just won the Stanley Cup.
Ralph Krueger is in his second season with the Sabres. Give it time. You may not like some of his moves now, but I would bet that those decisions will pay dividends down the road. He’s establishing the pillars to a successful culture. And once those pillars are firm, I think you’ll see the Sabres finally make their waves.