Ralph Krueger is not unfamiliar with the task he'll face upon beginning his job as coach of the Buffalo Sabres.
The 59-year-old stepped into a similar situation seven years ago when he was promoted to coach the Edmonton Oilers. The team lacked a winning culture after six consecutive nonplayoff seasons, three of which yielded the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft.
Krueger was given only 48 games during a lockout-shortened 2012-13 season to remedy problems that still plague the organization. The length of his tenure as coach of the Sabres will likely be determined by how he responds to several challenges, some of which proved to be his predecessor's undoing.
1. Build a winning culture within the organization.
Though Krueger never has served as head coach for the duration of an 82-game season, he has extensive experience building organizations, most recently his five-year stint as chairman of English Premier League's Southampton Football Club.
Additionally, Krueger worked with former Sabres forward Miroslav Satan to build Team Europe for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. That work led to a remarkable run to the tournament final. Additionally, he instilled confidence in his players during a 13-year tenure as coach of the Swiss national team, including 18 international tournaments.
He'll have to do the same in Buffalo.
Simply put, most of the roster only knows how it feels to have the season end after 82 games. General Manager Jason Botterill has tried to address the problem by adding players with playoff experience, most recently defenseman Brandon Montour.
2. Teach young players how to win during the season's second half.
Jack Eichel, the Sabres' 22-year-old captain, posted career highs in goals (28), assists (54) and points (82) under Phil Housley this past season. Sam Reinhart, 23, added 22 goals, with career bests in assist (43) and points (65). Additionally, Jeff Skinner scored a career-high 40 goals after playing the previous eight seasons in Carolina.
Yet, all three endured difficult stretches of play at a critical time in the season. The same can be said for Rasmus Dahlin, whose 44 points were the second-most recorded by an NHL defenseman before his 19th birthday, surpassing Hall-of-Famer Bobby Orr and trailing only Housley's 57 points with the Sabres in 1982-83.
Despite individual success, Eichel, Reinhart and Dahlin have yet to learn how to win important games late in the regular season. Though there was tangible progress with team chemistry during Housley's second season, the Sabres collapsed when games mattered the most.
The team won 10 games in a row in November to take over first in the NHL standings, only to finish 27th after going 16-33-8 in the season's final 57 games.
"A big part of our success is going to be the development of Rasmus Dahlin, the development of Jack Eichel, the development of Sam Reinhart, Casey Mittelstadt – players who are already at the National Hockey League level," Botterill said during a news conference Wednesday in KeyBank Center. "The fact that we’re going to expect Ralph to communicate well with them, expect Ralph to help their development to move along here for our organization to get to the next step."
3. Implement a defensive structure.
Krueger and his staff will need to teach those forwards and Dahlin how to better protect the Sabres' net. That begins with the team's defensive structure, which was at the root of the team's decision to fire Housley after only two seasons.
Management expected young players such as Dahlin to make mistakes around the team's net, but systematic flaws became obvious during the second half of the season. The Sabres went 9-21-4 with a negative-41 goal differential following the All-Star Break.
Defense was one area in which the Oilers struggled during Krueger's one season, as they allowed the third-most unblocked 5-on-5 shot attempts.
"I like the way Jason has been putting this group together and the way he thinks," Krueger said during a conference call. "He understands the necessity of being strong with and without the puck and developing a team game that's dynamic and allows this core group of players to develop and show their skill, but at the same time find the discipline as a group to defend properly. That'll be high on our agendas to put that game plan in place quite quickly to become a contender and competitor right into April."
4. A roster in need of offseason overhaul.
Though the Sabres' roster should be better equipped to play within a coach's structure, Krueger could face challenges with his personnel.
Defensemen Zach Bogosian (hip) and Lawrence Pilut (shoulder) underwent surgeries that could prevent them from being ready for the start of the season. Montour also suffered a lower-body injury that will force him to miss the remainder of the IIHF World Championship, and the Sabres are rumored to have discussed trading Rasmus Ristolainen.
There is also uncertainty surrounding the forwards, with Skinner and Jason Pominville pending unrestricted free agents. Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson and Evan Rodrigues are restricted. The team is trying to use a chunk of its $23 million in projected salary cap space to re-sign Skinner and owns the seventh overall pick in next month's draft.
Krueger's offense in Edmonton fared well in some areas with less high-end talent than he'll have at his disposal next season. Under Krueger's guidance, winger Taylor Hall finished ninth in the league with 50 points in 45 games in 2012-13. Additionally, Edmonton's power play and penalty kill ranked seventh and ninth, respectively.
"I know we’re going to work hard through the summer to add some pieces and to make some adjustments on the roster," Krueger said. "Only time will tell. I don’t want to make any big promises here. The only one I will make is I will do everything within my power to find out what this group is made of pretty quickly and to get us into that competitive space for much longer than the team was able to get into last season."
5. Shortcomings in 5-on-5 play.
Krueger's greatest challenge could be improving the Sabres' 5-on-5 play. Last season, they struggled to break the puck out of their own zone and could not sustain a forecheck, leading to a negative-36 5-on-5 goal differential from Nov. 28 through April 7.
Though it is important to note the Oilers had a rebuilding roster, they had the fourth-fewest 5-on-5 shot attempts and the second-lowest 5-on-5 shooting percentage during Krueger's one season as head coach.
This past season's 5-on-5 struggles led Kyle Okposo to describe the Sabres as "consistently inconsistent." Prior to winning the season finale, the Sabres had not won back-to-back games since Dec. 13, and they were winless in 14 consecutive road games. Buffalo was shut out five times in 12 games from March 9-31, including three in a row, and won only two games during the month.
"He had success implementing more of an up-tempo style that’s going to be more aggressive all over," Botterill said of Krueger. "That’s what we we’ve talked a lot about with utilizing our main asset, which is young players who have speed. That’s what we’re going to try to do, whether it’s on the forecheck, backcheck, pressure all over the ice."
Story topics: Buffalo Sabres