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Why did Penguins' GM recommend Ralph Krueger for Sabres job?

Ralph Krueger did not intend to leave for the NHL when he spoke to Jason Botterill about the Buffalo Sabres' coaching vacancy in 2017.

As chairman of English Premier League's Southampton F.C., Krueger was amidst his own managerial search and was not ready to walk away from a project that consumed his life since he was dismissed as coach of the Edmonton Oilers following a lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

Botterill's former boss, Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford, also failed to lure Krueger back to coaching in 2014. Still, Rutherford suggested the two speak because he thought they shared a similar vision for building an organization.

When Krueger chose to leave Southampton last month, he spoke to Botterill, which ultimately led to him becoming the 19th coach in Sabres history. Now, Rutherford will watch from afar to see if his initial suggestion blossoms into a success.

"First of all, I believe Ralph will have a very good working relationship with Jason," Rutherford told The Buffalo News in a phone interview Thursday. "Based on my relationship with Ralph, he’s willing to work with people and that will be the start of it. He’s coming in with a lot of good players there. They’re looking to get more structure out of their team and to get more out of those players, this is what I’ve seen Ralph do in the past. That’s what he’s capable of doing."

Rutherford has a deep respect for what Krueger accomplished on the international stage. The three-time Stanley Cup champion general manager followed Krueger's career as coach of the Swiss National Team, a tenure that included 18 tournaments over 13 seasons.

When Rutherford was general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes, he hired Krueger as a European scout in 2005. Rutherford was captivated by Krueger's knowledge of the sport. The latter had an innate ability to communicate the strengths and weaknesses of the players in which he scouted.

"He’s always been on my mind since he left the organization in Carolina because I really liked him a lot," Rutherford said of Krueger. "He’s always a guy I’m keeping in mind when I’m looking for somebody."

Krueger's talent would not become well-known until the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. He led a roster that included only three NHL players, two of whom were goalies, to an upset win over Czech Republic, which featured Jaromir Jagr and 22 other NHLers.

Two days later, Krueger and Switzerland shocked Canada. Ontario-born Paul DiPietro, who had not played in the NHL in 10 years, scored both goals against Martin Brodeur in a 2-0 win.

The performance showed the world that Krueger could implement a system within a small time frame and motivate a group of players who spent much of their year competing against one another in the Switzerland's top professional league.

"It’s harder to do what he did than it is in the long term," Rutherford said. "You’re putting these guys together in short order, you have to bring them together as a team. Some of the other teams that have more talent get by on their talent. He didn’t have that same talent level and he brought his team together."

That success earned Krueger his first NHL opportunity as an assistant with the Oilers in 2010. In two years, he revitalized the team's power play and reportedly had a remarkable impact on some of the young players on the rebuilding team.

That earned him a promotion to become head coach when Tom Renney was dismissed following the 2012-13 season. The timing proved to be unfortunate. The NHL's work stoppage led to the cancellation of all games up to Jan. 14, shortening the regular season to 48 games.

Despite leading a rebuilding team, Krueger had the Oilers in the playoff chase following a five-game winning streak from March 26 through April 3. They missed the postseason after losing nine of 10 games.

Krueger's staff helped the Oilers' power play and penalty kill rank seventh and ninth, respectively. He planned on returning for a second season as head coach, only to be learn of his firing during a brief Skype call with then-general manager Craig MacTavish.

Yet, Rutherford was among those across the league who were impressed by Krueger's ability to have the Oilers play with more structure defensively.

"I really liked the job he did in Edmonton," Rutherford recalled. "They didn’t have the success they wanted to, but I really felt he brought that team along quite nicely and really improved them at the time. I like how he can communicate with players, identify what they need to do better and he’s capable of doing that."

Krueger won a gold medal as a consultant with Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics. His speech on leadership at the World Economic Forum led to the job offer from Southampton, which he accepted in March 2014.

Rutherford had Krueger on his short list of coaching candidates that summer, but Krueger passed on the opportunity because of his commitment to Southampton.

Rutherford suggested Krueger to Botterill one year after Team Europe's remarkable run to the World Cup of Hockey final. The European nations among the eight-team field were Sweden, Finland, Russia and Czech Republic, forcing players from eight different countries to band together under Krueger's leadership.

After losing its first two pre-tournament games, Team Europe upset the United States and Czech Republic before it beat Sweden in the semifinal, and it lost both games to Canada during the best-of-three final.

Despite success at the Olympic Games and IIHF World Championship, Botterill's decision to hire Krueger raises the question of whether a coach with such little NHL experience can navigate the ebbs and flows of an 82-game schedule.

Rutherford has no such concerns.

"I think it’s a fair question," Rutherford said. "It’s different. But I’d like to have a guy who motivated a team during a short-term basis and led it to overachieve than somebody who didn’t do it. He’s done it. He did it in Edmonton the one year. I’m sure he’s going to be able to do it in Buffalo."

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