BUFFALO – Throughout his career, Ralph Krueger has refused to number lines. The Sabres coach said it’s one of his core philosophies.
Krueger believes everyone, no matter how small the role, contributes to a team’s success. Ranking forward trios or defense pairs would take away from that.
“I just (have) the respect for the depth that teams need to be successful and the role players that I need,” Krueger said after the 2-0 Sabres prepared for tonight’s road game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
So on Sunday, Krueger replied to a question about the “fourth line” by asking, “Which one is the ‘fourth line?’”
Krueger, of course, was joking a bit. Still, at least publicly, he won’t label lines.
“There is no first line,” he said inside KeyBank Center.
Really? The top line isn’t, say, comprised of leading scorer and captain Jack Eichel, Victor Olofsson and Sam Reinhart?
In Saturday’s 7-2 home shellacking of New Jersey, the trio combined for five goals and seven points.
“Jack is our captain on the ice and our captain in regard to creating offense or running the power play,” Krueger said. “But my brain just doesn’t really work that way. (I’m) trying to make sure that everybody understands they’re important.
“And if you’ve killed four minutes and somebody else has played eight in the power play, those might be equal minutes as far as the work and the sacrifice and the investment of energy that you have.”
When Krueger rattled off his lines, he mentioned the so-called fourth line – center Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo – first.
Through two games, the trio has quickly become the Sabres’ biggest surprise, contributing at both ends of the rink.
“The focus is always on the ones that get the points and the goals and the assists, but if I look at what Larsson, Girgensons and Okposo have been doing here in the first two games, they lead the way in really playing simple, hard forechecking,” Krueger said. “They’re getting the pucks in deep, they’re having some strong offensive shifts.”
On Saturday, Okposo’s second-period goal restored the Sabres’ two-goal lead shortly after the Devils scored.
Krueger said the line generated five scoring chances and allowed just one Saturday.
In Thursday’s 3-1 road win against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Krueger shortened his bench and used Larsson, Girgensons and Okposo to close out the game.
“That line, as an example, was playing as one of only two lines left in the last five minutes,” Krueger said.
Okposo said: “(Girgensons and Larsson) open up a lot of space for me. They’re good with the puck, too. So I just think we’re trying to play the system and we’re reading off each other pretty well.”
Okposo’s ability to adapt and make the most of his limited ice time – so far, he has played only 18 minutes, 45 seconds – has been critical. He spent most of his first 11 seasons skating on scoring lines.
But following a 14-goal campaign in which he often looked a step behind, Krueger shifted Okposo, 31, to a checking line in training camp.
“I’m focusing on what I can do to be the best and that’s it,” Okposo said. “There’s no external pressure, there’s no external factors that are entering into my brain. It doesn’t matter if I play five minutes or 20 minutes.”
Right away, Krueger said Okposo embraced his new challenge.
“From Day One, in every practice since the 13th of September, he has been attempting what we’re asking in every drill on the ice and understanding that what we need from him is possibly different from the past,” he said.
Krueger said Okposo’s positive “attitude through this is what’s carrying him.”
“If it’s 10 minutes or it’s going to be 18, we’re convinced that he put in the work this summer to have the foundation to be able to do that,” he said.
While Krueger has lauded Okposo, he took away the ‘A’ the veteran had worn for years before the season started. Instead of Okposo and defenseman Zach Bogosian, center Marcus Johansson and defenseman Jake McCabe are now alternate captains.
Okposo called the honor “a tremendous opportunity for Jake and Marcus to step up.”
“Marcus has been in the league for a long time,” Okposo said. “Him coming in this year, he’s going to be a big piece of our team moving forward. Jake’s the kind of guy that does everything right. He’s been here a long time, he’s put his dues in, he’s getting more vocal. He just has a big presence.
“I couldn’t be happier for those guys.”
Notes: Krueger wouldn’t reveal tonight’s starting goalie. Carter Hutton played the first two games. … Instead of skating Sunday, the Sabres held off-ice workouts. … The Blue Jackets are 0-2 and have been outscored 11-3 following Saturday’s 7-2 loss to the Penguins.