The pain and anger, as Ralph Krueger called it, is a good sign. The Buffalo Sabres coach believes it’s healthy for captain Jack Eichel to vent his frustrations over losing.
Of course, Eichel, who said on a Zoom call Thursday he was “fed up,” is not alone in his disappointment. He’s just the most visible member of the team.
The Sabres’ biggest star and the team’s young core haven’t come close to cracking the playoffs.
This season, the Sabres started 9-2-1. While they fell off, they stood just two points out of a playoff spot at the trade deadline in late February. Then they imploded before the season suddenly ended March 12, losing six straight games.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the NHL to officially cancel the rest of the regular season Tuesday.
The Sabres finished 25th overall, missing out on the 24-team qualifying round the NHL plans to utilize this summer by one win. They’ve missed the playoffs nine straight seasons.
“Across the board, we are frustrated,” Krueger said during a Zoom call Friday from his home in Switzerland. “We are … emotionally angry and frustrated because we all know that more than halfway into the season we were expecting to be a playoff team and we slipped out of that. …
“Our core has a youth that they’re willing to reach for higher standards. … I like the anger. I have no problem with people outing frustration on the past. But then let’s move that conversation forward real quick and let’s figure out what we’re going to do about it.”
He added: “I take responsibility for where we finished.”
Despite missing the playoffs, Krueger accomplished some positives in his first year, most notably earning his players’ respect and installing a system they enjoy playing.
Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen said the affable Krueger is his favorite among the five coaches he has played for in seven years. He said Krueger connects with his players – “He wants to get to know you,” he said – through his personality.
“He was the coach we needed here in Buffalo,” said Ristolainen, who reshaped his game under Krueger. “I wish he would’ve come here a few years ago. I really enjoy working with him.”
Barely a year ago, it appeared Ristolainen wanted out of town. On Thursday, he acknowledged he could be traded if the Sabres make significant moves.
But Krueger called Ristolainen “a centerpiece of what we’re doing here.”
“The National Hockey League is a world of moving pieces,” he said. “I want to coach Risto next season. I would enjoy coaching Risto next season. So that’s probably all I need to say to you.”
Krueger, 60, also seems to have established a stronger relationship with Eichel, 23, than his predecessors. Eichel lauded Krueger on Thursday, saying, “He does an amazing job of bringing us back in and narrowing our focus and getting us back to where we need to be mentally.”
Krueger said his “natural relationship” with Eichel “is one of quality, not quantity.”
“We don’t need to speak hundreds of words,” he said. “Often it was just eye contact on the bench in the third period and there was a connection. I was leading and he was taking his responsibility without even saying a word. We would sometimes run into each other in the hallway and it would be five, six sentences or enough to get the whole group refocused on the task at hand because we had a horrible game the night before.”
The Sabres often struggled following their torrid start, mustering only 49 points in their final 57 games, the NHL’s second-lowest total.
Their five-on-five play improved under Krueger. For example, the Sabres’ Corsi For – the percentage of shot attempts by a team five-on-five – ranked third in the NHL, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
But the special teams were awful under Krueger. In the opening weeks of the season, it appeared the power play might be the Sabres’ greatest strength. It ended up finishing 20th, converting just 18.9% of its chances. The penalty killing, meanwhile, ranked 30th, stopping only 74.6% of the opponents’ opportunities.
Krueger said his coaching staff will return next season.
“There’s a lot of power in continuity,” he said.
Krueger brought in assistant coaches Mike Bales and Don Granato last year and kept Steve Smith, an assistant former coach Phil Housley hired. Smith also served under Krueger when he coached the Edmonton Oilers.
“Who would have thought 11 weeks ago that we’d be having a press conference of this nature at this time?” Krueger said of chatting on Zoom. “There’s so much change and so many distractions right now that I believe continuity is important and actually will strengthen us, and this coaching staff really did a good job of helping to build the culture on and off the ice that we need.”