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In hiring Ralph Krueger, Sabres get something different but will it be better?

Mike Harrington

While texting this week with a Western Conference colleague about Buffalo Sabres coaching candidates, he stopped me in my tracks when he asked if I ever had seen the commercials for Dos Equis, the Mexican beer that featured "the most interesting man in the world."

"I think that is Ralph Krueger," my friend said confidently. "Who else has been an NHL head coach, ran Southampton FC and been a featured speaker at the European Economic Forum?! Never met a guy like him in hockey."

Hard to disagree. There never has been an NHL coach with the eclectic kind of resume Krueger has, one filled with unique entries both inside and outside of hockey. Of course, a quirky career path means absolutely nothing when it comes to career success.

At this point, it's safe to say trying something different is the biggest thing fans wanted out of this search. Even if it fails in a couple of years.

If Dan Bylsma was a safe choice from the hockey world and Phil Housley was a reasonable lunge for a first-timer in 2017, Krueger represents completely out of the box. Probably in the history of the franchise.

Krueger understands the head-scratching his hiring might bring. Think about it. A 59-year-old who hasn't been an NHL coach since 2013 and who has spent the last three years as the president of an English Premier League soccer team.

And you hire him now at a time when the franchise is at a point of sheer desperation just to make the playoffs?

General Manager Jason Botterill is asking the Pegulas – and, by extension, the fan base – to believe in his last-ditch choice to run this club. Botterill did lots of due diligence on this one and ultimately went with someone with a long relationship with his father, noted Canadian sport psychologist Cal Botterill, and someone highly recommended to him by Jim Rutherford, his former boss in Pittsburgh.

Right now, the best thing about Krueger is he's not Jacques Martin or Dave Tippett or Todd Richards. It's a low bar to fly over.

Allure of winning with Sabres lured Ralph Krueger back to coaching

Krueger has 48 games of NHL coaching experience, coaching only the 2012-13 Edmonton Oilers in the lockout season. He was fired via Skype – classy stuff, Edmonton – five weeks after the season by GM Craig MacTavish following a 19-22-7 campaign.

When his time with Southampton Football Club was up, Krueger knew he wanted to take one last shot at the NHL. Last month, he told The Athletic he didn't think coaching was in that future and that he was destined more for a team president's role.

But Botterill said all of their conversations were simply about replacing Phil Housley.

"I opened up my viewfinder and a lot of opportunities started coming in my direction," Krueger said on a conference call Wednesday. "But there was nothing that lit a fire as much as my conversations with Jason, and I just feel the coaching magnet pulling me back."

Through all his work coaching the Swiss Olympic team, his time serving as a consultant for Team Canada's Olympians and for his widely revered month with Team Europe in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, the best thing you can say about Krueger is he's hardly a classic retread.

"I don’t think this is a huge gamble at all. The reward could be huge for Buffalo. He’ll get people to buy in and get excited," Jason Strudwick, who closed his long NHL career in Edmonton in 2011 when Krueger was associate coach, told the Edmonton Journal. "When I think of Ralph, I feel better. I don’t know what it is, but he gets you believing,”

I saw that belief at work up close during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, when Krueger led Team Europe to a stunning run to the championship series before a loss to Team Canada.

Team Europe trained in Quebec City, and I was there for its exhibition opener in which the veteran squad of players from eight European nations got smoked by Jack Eichel and Team North America, 4-0. The kids ran circles around them. It didn't look like the vets would win a game.

Three nights later in Montreal, Team Europe fell into a 5-1 first-period hole against North America but got back within a goal before losing, 7-4. Then it won its final exhibition against Sweden in overtime and opened the tournament with a 3-0 stunner over Team USA.

From that point, it was completely on.

Krueger got into his players after that opening exhibition disaster. Reminding them they were from smaller places such as Slovenia and Slovakia, from Norway and Denmark. And Austria and Germany. This was their chance to come together and be like Sweden and Finland and Russia for one time in their careers on the international stage.

It was fascinating to watch. By the time the best-of-three final rolled around, the players had all bought in.

The morning of the final game, won by Canada on a last-minute goal by Brad Marchand, Krueger talked about the journey because he knew this could be the last time the club was together. But he stayed in the moment, too.

"Today we're speaking about getting better as a team again," Krueger said that day. "It's not just lip service for us. It's truly been our mantra to keep the picture small and focus on whatever the next challenge is. There is a really nice bite and a nice edge and intensity in the group through these two days."

Facing tall task against Canada, Team Europe deserves credit for making Cup final

Now, that was a three-week tournament. Can Krueger get that kind of buy-in from one of the NHL's most moribund franchises? You have no idea. I don't either. And neither does anyone in the oddly fawning Canadian media, which went completely over the top with its praise for Krueger the last 24 hours.

But it's clear Krueger will give the Sabres a different perspective on their daily work.

"His drills in Edmonton were great," said Strudwick. "He had one where we had to do six passes before we got a shot on net and it made so much sense because there was movement. I’ve seen 1,000 drills and here was one I hadn’t seen or heard of. This was a coach coming at you in a different way. It challenged you and kept you on your toes."

Krueger made some missteps during his chat with Buffalo reporters Wednesday. Pointing out that players "need to feel pain" as part of their development process sounded eerily too close to Darcy Regier's infamous 2013 comment that "it may require some suffering" for the Sabres to reboot.

Krueger actually said, "Where Buffalo has been and where we're going to go, it's percentage points that make the difference. It's getting those percentage points right."

Those aren't percentage points that showed the Sabres to be the worst team in the NHL since Jan. 1 this season. They showed that Botterill has a lot of work to do on this roster to give Housley, Krueger, Scotty Bowman, Toe Blake or any other coach a chance to survive.

And Krueger's assertion that "this group is ready to become a contender" was downright laughable, but he seemed to realize that needed some explanation.

"I think I'm just at heart, of course, an optimistic coach and an optimistic person, but I don't believe I'm a dreamer," Krueger said. "I believe I'm a realist and I'm looking at what I see here. I know we're going to work hard in the summer to add some pieces and make some adjustments in the roster."

It's believed Krueger has a three-year contract, certainly less than previous coaches have gotten. Part of that is the Pegulas probably would like to stop paying guys not to coach when they show them the door. Part of that could be Botterill & Co. thinking with a long-term prism.

Is Krueger being groomed to be the club's president, just when Kim Pegula may need to spend full-time attention on the Bills' new stadium plans? And when he steps off the bench, will it be time for Chris Taylor to ascend from Rochester? Reading between the lines with Botterill on his AHL coach, it seems like he's keen on keeping his development going as a head coach rather than an assistant in Buffalo.

Does Krueger's hiring have any impact on Jeff Skinner's decision to re-sign? It sure might. Skinner's favorite coach during his time in Carolina was Paul Maurice, now the head man in Winnipeg. Maurice was Krueger's assistant with Team Europe, and the two spend time in the summer together at Manitoba cottages. Hmmmm.

Can Krueger give this team any semblance of defensive structure and, at the same time, resurrect Rasmus Ristolainen's game? Or will Ristolainen be heading out the door?  Can he win the approval of Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, which is certainly key to having control of the locker room? That process begins when they will meet in the coming days when Krueger heads to the World Championships in Slovakia.

By all accounts, Krueger got a raw deal in Edmonton. Krueger is big on motivation, on teamwork, on leadership. Botterill seems to have determined these traits are missing with his club and, ultimately, with his coach the last two years.

It's going to be mighty interesting to see how this plays out. Even if it's more of the same for the Sabres in the standings, you get the feeling it won't be more of the same behind the bench.

Botterill has gone well out of the box here. At this point, he has nothing to lose.

Mike Harrington: In dismissing Phil Housley, Jason Botterill put himself on the clock

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