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Inside the NHL

Final Four's numbers show how far Ralph Krueger has to go to fix Sabres

Ralph Krueger insisted on his opening conference call with Buffalo reporters Wednesday that the 2019 Sabres are ahead of the Edmonton Oilers he coached in 2013, who were mired in the "rebuild phase completely."

The Sabres, of course, have big-name talents Jack Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin and Sam Reinhart, as well as the promise of many younger players on the NHL roster and in the organization.

None of that has translated into results. The Sabres have missed the playoffs for an NHL-high eight straight years and were 22 points shy of the final slot this season. But GM Jason Botterill knows Krueger has been taking notes on the NHL during his time with Southampton FC in the English Premier League, and Krueger even joked that NHL.com was still the homepage on his computer even though he was across the ocean serving as the chairman of a soccer team.

"Sometimes when you're not working in the National Hockey League, people actually talk to you a lot more and give you more advice," Botterill said. "I think Ralph has actually learned a lot from those interactions the last couple of years."

We're going to see how much Krueger has learned. One suggestion that is normally obvious is watch the teams that play deep into the playoffs, but that really seems to be a good starting point this year.

Especially since Jan. 1, the exploits of conference finalists Carolina, Boston, San Jose and St. Louis proved very predictive on who might have success in the playoffs, and they gave an easy window to the Sabres' trouble.

Let's look at some statistics since the new year, comparing the Sabres to the four finalists.

Wins
1. Tampa Bay 31
T-2. Carolina 30
T-2 St. Louis 30
4. Boston 28
7. San Jose 25
31. Buffalo 12

Points
1. St. Louis 65
3. Carolina 62
4. Boston 61
10. San Jose 52
31. Buffalo 28

Comment: Probably not enough attention around the league paid to the post-Jan. 1 standings, which heavily favored the Blues and Hurricanes and  gave a big nod to the New York Islanders. Of course, it was play after Jan. 1 that got Phil Housley fired.

Goals for
1. Tampa Bay 154
2. Carolina 150
3. San Jose 149
6. Boston 148
9. St. Louis 142
25. Buffalo 109

Goals against
1. N.Y. Islanders 92
3. St. Louis 98
7. Boston 109
11. Carolina 114
18. San Jose 132
31. Buffalo 154

Goal differential
1. Tampa Bay +50
2. St. Louis +44
3. Boston +39
4. Carolina +36
7. San Jose +17
31. Buffalo -45

Comment: Krueger dropped the "difficult to play against" cliche during his conference call when asked how he wanted the Sabres to play. They were, in fact, the easiest team in the league to play against.

He said his run with Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup "confirmed the way I'd like to operate." Of course, he had lots of elite players.

"It was an opportunity at the highest level against the best players in the world to test a system of play which will be the core of what we will be implementing here," Krueger said. "I've seen no reason to adjust that core plan of wanting to have a team that's aggressive in regards to way it pressures the puck and uses speed in the attack as a balance to that."

Sounds like something Dan Bylsma and Housley said, too. Folks around here will believe it when they see it.

Power play
1. Tampa Bay 27.2
4. Boston 25.2
5. San Jose 23.7
7. St. Louis 21.8
8. Carolina 21.7
13. Buffalo 19.8

Penalty kill
1. Columbus 91.2
5. St. Louis 84.8
13. Carolina 82.0
16 Boston 80.6
25. San Jose 77.9
26. Buffalo 77.5

Comment: The Sabres have enough elite talent to have an elite power play and, as the numbers show, it makes a big difference. Boston, for instance, is converting at 34 percent in its 17 playoff games to date.

Shooting pct. (5 on 5)
1. San Jose 10.0
8. Carolina 8.8
T-11. Boston 8.2
T-11. St. Louis 8.2
28. Buffalo 6.9

Comment: The Sabres were probably in a lot of streaks of bad luck later in the season, especially from their top players. Jeff Skinner, for instance, was still getting plenty of shots on goal, but the pucks stopped going in. They do, however, need to work for higher quality shots.

Save pct. (5 on 5)
1. Dallas .942
4. St. Louis .934
8. Boston .927
11. Carolina .925
30. Buffalo .903
31. San Jose .897

PDO (Shooting + Save Pct.)
1. Tampa Bay 102.8
4. St. Louis 101.6
7. Carolina 101.3
10. Boston 100.9
18. San Jose 99.8
31. Buffalo 97.3

Comment: The Sharks don't survive unless goaltender Martin Jones fixes his game like he has since midway through the Vegas series. St. Louis obviously rode Jordan Binnington to its big bounce back and Boston's Tuukka Rask might be the Conn Smythe Trophy favorite after stopping 95 of 96 shots in his team's three clinching games.

The Sabres simply didn't get enough saves from Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark. Some of that was subpar play in the net; some was the number of difficult scoring chances their easy-to-play-against defense gave up. Krueger needs to find an improvement at goalie coach and hope his defense can stop leaving the goaltenders out to dry. If the Sabres don't improve these two numbers, they have no chance.

When Botterill said Krueger's performance in "high-pressure situations" like the Olympics was impressive and a factor in his hiring, it was laughable because there are no high-pressure situations in Buffalo. The Sabres haven't spent March chasing a playoff berth since 2012.

Until they fix some of the above areas — and revamp the roster again — there won't be any next year either.

Sabres GM Jason Botterill likes Ralph Krueger's 'high-pressure' experience

Sharks' tainted run

If the Sharks win the Stanley Cup, it will be as tainted as can be. Three incredible calls that were all game-changers, including two obvious gaffes. The toenail challenge that went their way to wipe out Colorado's tying goal in Game 7 of the second round was the right call, although Gabriel Landeskog was heading out of the zone and that's hardly the spirit of the offside challenge.

But the Game 7 major penalty fiasco against Vegas and the obvious missed hand pass that led to the Game 3 overtime winner Thursday in St. Louis have clearly put officials in the crosshairs this spring. Neither play was reviewable because the only things the eyes in Toronto can help with are offside, goalie interference or pucks directed into the goal by high sticks or glove, or ones immediately played off the mesh behind the net.

The answer is simple: You have to go to replay to get these plays right. Especially on goals. Especially in overtime.

This corner's suggestion would be to drop the offside challenge and allow coaches the chance for one challenge per game on any violation they want. Major penalty, puck over the glass, offside, goalie interference, hand pass, whatever. Most coaches will hold it until the third period (or OTs) anyway.

Speaking to a pool reporter after Game 3, series officiating supervisor Kay Whitmore seemed to be giving hints he thinks that kind of play should have been looked at.

"It’s a non-reviewable play. You can read between the lines," Whitmore said. "You can figure out what you want. You watched the video. But it’s just non-reviewable. I know that sounds like a cop-out answer, but that’s the truth.

"The way the rules are written, any chance there is to review, everything is reviewed that’s reviewable. But as the rules currently stand, the play is non-reviewable.”

Get on that one, GMs. No reason to let officials hang like this.

Preds going for big arena upgrades

Chalk up another 1990s-era arena about to undergo major renovations as we continue to wait on word for anything to be done with KeyBank Center. The Nashville Predators are the latest team making bold moves, striking a new lease agreement with the city and planning to invest $350 million into Bridgestone Arena.

Things will start in 2021 when the franchise intends to add about 1,200 seats to the upper level and build a new press box. In reality, the Preds will be building their first press box. The media has long resided at the top of the upper level in converted sections of seating accessible only by winding through fans in the concourse, an issue that's only replicated in Brooklyn.

There are several premium areas of the building under consideration for the money as well. Sales tax and ticket tax revenue will be the biggest sources of cash for the upcoming work.

The Tennessean said the team has already spent about $80 million in upgrades on the arena in the last eight years, with basically a 50-50 split of the cost between ownership and public dollars.

WNYers in Calder showdown

We're guaranteed of having a local product play for the Calder Cup because the AHL's East final is pitting defending champion Toronto against Charlotte. That means West Seneca's Chris Mueller of the Marlies is going head to head with Nichols School product Andrew Poturalski of the Checkers.

Poturalski leads all remaining players in the playoffs with 13 points in seven games (five goals, eight assists). Mueller has five goals and nine assists in his seven games as both teams are 7-0 through two rounds of the postseason. Mueller was third in the league during the regular season with 33 goals while Poturalski was fifth in points with 70.

The Western Conference final is pitting San Diego (Anaheim) against Chicago (Las Vegas). San Diego upset Edmonton's Bakersfield affiliate, the league's top team by points percentage, in six games to get there.

Around the boards

• How lopsided was the NHL East final? The Bruins led for 136 minutes, 24 seconds during their four-game sweep while the Hurricanes led for just 13:08.

• Imagine the frustration of being a Leafs fan this weekend. You had the Bruins down, 3-2, heading into Game 6 of the first round at home — but blew the series and then watched the entire bracket explode with the quick elimination of Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Washington.

No shock the Boston-Toronto Game 7 winner is heading to the Cup final. As it turned out, this was absolutely the Leafs' best chance since 1967 to get there.

• It will be interesting to follow the path to the draft and see if thinking on the top two picks remains the same. When New Jersey won the lottery, it was assumed the Devils would take American center Jack Hughes, leaving Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko to the Rangers at No. 2.

But Hughes has been pedestrian at the World Championships and Kakko has been an absolute monster, leading the tournament in goals. It's reminiscent of 2017, when Nolan Patrick was the presumptive No. 1 pick all year but the Devils took Nico Hischier and left Patrick to Philadelphia at No. 2. New Jersey GM Ray Shero seems to have gotten that one right and you wonder if he's going to go down a similar road.

The scouting combine is May 31 and June 1 in HarborCenter. The first round of the draft is June 21 in Vancouver.

• Floyd Smith, the Sabres' first captain and coach of the 1975 Stanley Cup finalists, turned 84 on Thursday — the same day Skinner turned 27.

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