BUFFALO – Ralph Krueger spent the last five years running a soccer team in England, so on Wednesday, his first full day in his new city as Sabres coach, he was having NHL games loaded on a laptop.
“To look a little bit deeper,” Krueger, who was hired May 15, said during a news conference in the KeyBank Center atrium.
In addition to getting up to speed on the Sabres, Krueger, 59, must examine how the NHL has evolved since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, his lone season coaching the Edmonton Oilers.
Other than a successful stint leading Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, Krueger hasn’t been behind a bench in six years.
Studying the rapidly changing game – hockey keeps getting faster and faster – is imperative for Krueger, who most recently served as chairman of F.C. Southampton, an English Premier League team. While he kept in contact with some NHL coaches during his time away, that can only help so much.
“While we’re building, I need to be clearer on the way we want to approach the game and what’s best for the final roster that we have and how I can put those pieces into play,” Krueger said.
Krueger, who arrived here Monday, earned his new gig, in part, because of his strong communications skills, which he demonstrated Wednesday. Sitting alone at a table, he sounded energetic and looked comfortable fielding questions for 20 minutes.
“I’ve been able to close off my past life, which needed to be done,” said Krueger, who spoke to reporters on a conference call from Europe when he was hired.
The Sabres’ sorry past – they haven’t made the playoffs since 2011, the NHL’s longest drought – is of little concern to Krueger.
“It’s much more important on what is here today,” Krueger said. “I need to find out that.”
Krueger spoke glowingly of the franchise’s history and the appreciation he developed for it growing up in Winnipeg and from his close friends, former Sabres Uwe Krupp and Miroslav Satan.
“I’ve always felt the passion for the game here in Buffalo and I’m excited to tap into that,” Krueger said.
Krueger started tapping into his new players while he was still in Europe. He recently met with Sabres captain Jack Eichel and winger Sam Reinhart separately at the World Championship in Slovakia.
Before Krueger spoke to Eichel and Reinhart, he said he could feel their passion through their text messages. When they finally got together, Krueger said the meetings ran longer than expected.
“It was very natural, the conversations were strong,” Krueger said. “They have a very experienced mindset from their young age because of the years they now have under their belt. There was a clear understanding of what needs to be done here. I thought in the conversations, we didn’t just speak about the weather. We spent a lot of time speaking about what needs to happen off ice, on ice. …
“I think all of us came out of the conversations wanting to start playing tomorrow.”
Krueger, who has also spoken to 40-goal winger Jeff Skinner, said he will finish chatting with his players in the next few weeks. He said he will have talked to about half by the end of this week.
Krueger, of course, has only spent three years in the NHL, two of them as an assistant with Edmonton. He made his name on the international hockey scene, coaching Switzerland in the Olympics, World Championship, World Cup and other short tournaments.
For a guy who has been coaching nearly 30 years, Krueger is a bit of an unknown. He has a reputation for being different. He has never coached an NHL team over a long, grueling season.
“Whether that’s unique or different, I think that’s probably one of my biggest strengths is to create an honest locker room and an honest dressing room and an honest atmosphere and to work within those boundaries,” Krueger said. “I like to keep that space. I’m conscious of energy and the energy that’s needed through 82 games and how to best put that energy into play, which also means they need to find spaces to gather energy and to help them understand that and to do that.”
Krueger said he wants to have his coaching staff in place by the end of the month. He is speaking to former coach Phil Housley’s assistants and other candidates.