Ralph Krueger's first task as Buffalo Sabres coach will be to meet with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart next week in Slovakia, where both players are competing at the IIHF World Championship.
The more pressing conversation could be with Jeff Skinner, the Sabres' leading goal scorer who will become an unrestricted free agent if he is not signed to a contract extension before July 1.
General Manager Jason Botterill acknowledged during his news conference Wednesday he spoke to Skinner throughout the coaching search and acknowledged the hire will factor into the left winger's decision whether to remain in Buffalo.
"If you’re going to sign a long-term contract with an organization, you kind of want to know who the head coach is," Botterill said. "So we’ve kept in dialogue with Jeff and certainly made him aware of who we were going to name here as head coach today just as we did with a lot of our leadership group. But yeah, just as it’s important next week for Ralph to touch base with Jack and Sam over at the world championships, it’s going to be very important for him to build a new relationship with Jeff and make sure that he feels comfortable with what our plan is moving forward here both as a team, as an organization but where we see Jeff fitting into the mix."
When Skinner spoke to reporters during locker cleanout last month, he downplayed the role the hire would have in his decision to return to Buffalo. Instead, he beamed when discussing the roster's pillars, including Eichel, Reinhart and Rasmus Dahlin.
Yet, Skinner remains unsigned and the clock is ticking for Botterill to sign the 26-year-old to a long-term extension. The latter told WGR Radio's "The Instigators" early Wednesday that both sides were expected to talk following the scouting combine, which will be held in Buffalo from May 31 through June 1.
Skinner scored a career-high 40 goals with the Sabres this past season after he was acquired from Carolina last August. He scored 10 goals during the team's 10-game winning streak, only to have one goal over a 22-game stretch from Feb. 17 through March 31.
When negotiating a long-term contract, an ability to win will likely be as or more important to Skinner than dollar amount or term. Skinner, who was drafted seventh overall by the Hurricanes in 2010, has the NHL's longest active streak of games played (661) without appearing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Though the Sabres' roster will likely undergo significant changes this offseason, Krueger told reporters he believes the team is strong enough to snap its eight-season playoff drought, which is the longest active streak in the NHL.
"I think that above all, this group is ready to become a contender and to compete with anybody on any given night. I'm confident that we can become that kind of a team quite quickly," Krueger said during a conference call Wednesday.
Now the 59-year-old coach will have to convince Skinner that is the case.
Sabres defenseman Brandon Montour returned to Buffalo on Wednesday after a lower-body injury prevented him from finishing the IIHF World Championship with Team Canada, Botterill told reporters.
Montour, 25, will be evaluated by doctors to determine the best course of treatment. Botterill noted the injury is not expected to be "long-term," though more details will be known once Montour is examined.
Montour, who was acquired on the eve of the trade deadline, was representing Canada for the first time in his career and totaled 10 points in 20 games for the Sabres.
Impact of injuries
The Sabres' depth on the blue line has taken a significant hit this offseason with Zach Bogosian (hip) and Lawrence Pilut (shoulder) undergoing surgical procedures that will prevent them from being ready for the start of the season.
With Montour's status still uncertain, Botterill said the Sabres will consider adding a defenseman through a trade or free agency but noted none of those injuries should be long-term issues. The Sabres are more likely to rely on a young defenseman from Rochester, such as Will Borgen, Jacob Bryson or Casey Fitzgerald.
"It’s got to be a situation that if something comes up that helps our team throughout the course of the second half next year or even beyond that, we’ll certainly look at that," Botterill said. "We like how some of our young defenseman (played) this past year, like a Will Borgen, we have Jacob Bryson, we have Casey Fitzgerald joining our organization; we think that there’s a situation where they could possibly push for jobs at the start of the year. Does it mean that they’ll be able to help us over the course of 82 games? That’s a big step for young players. But we certainly think they can help us at the start of the year."
Taylor unlikely to join Sabres staff
Botterill confirmed Rochester coach Chris Taylor was discussed by Botterill and assistant general managers Randy Sexton and Steve Greeley during the search that led to Krueger's hiring.
However, Taylor's work with the Amerks, including back-to-back playoff appearances and significant progress with young players such as Victor Olofsson, is unlikely to lead to a role on the Sabres' coaching staff.
"I think those are questions that we’ll continue to talk to Chris about," Botterill said. "I think right now he’s really enjoying being the head coach (in Rochester) and getting that experience, and I think that’s probably best for his development moving forward here. ... What we have going on in Rochester right now, what Chris and Randy are developing down there, is one of the strengths of our organization. And when we hired Chris we were excited about it and we think he’s done an excellent job down there in the last couple years."
Eichel 'really excited'
Eichel may not have met Krueger yet but the Sabres' 22-year-old captain expressed optimism about the hire, according to Aaron Vickers, a correspondent in Slovakia for NHL.com.
"I've heard a lot of good things," Eichel said. "I'm really excited. From guys who have played for him and from people around hockey, it seems like he's a really good guy. He gets the most out of his players. I'm just looking forward to getting to know him, meeting him and get things going."