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How the past has prepared Sabres coach Ralph Krueger for the challenge ahead

Ralph Krueger had seen enough. Standing behind the bench in Montreal's Bell Centre, Krueger called time out after Team Europe fell behind 3-0 less than eight minutes into a pre-tournament game against Team North America in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

A roster comprised of players from eight countries huddled around Krueger and listened to what assistant coach Brad Shaw recalled as an "ultra-positive" message that fueled Team Europe to the tournament final, where it lost to Canada in a best-of-three series.

The masterful coaching performance illustrated Krueger's ability to get the most out of a roster, make remarkable in-game adjustments and communicate a game plan to players of various nationalities, all of which were reasons General Manager Jason Botterill cited when asked last week why Krueger was chosen as the Buffalo Sabres next coach.

Those who worked with Krueger in the past, either on the international stage or during his three-year stint with the Edmonton Oilers, detailed to The Buffalo News how a 59-year-old who spent the past five years as chairman of English Premier League's Southampton F.C. can use his experiences in his quest to bring playoff hockey back to Buffalo.

"I have no doubt he’s going to be successful," Shaw, now an assistant coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets, said in a phone interview. "I think one of the best things that he did for our team was, even in that short time frame, to create an identity and a culture. I think looking from the outside at Buffalo, I think that’s something that was missing. ... He’s a great communicator. He’s a great leader. ... I think the world of him as a guy and a hockey coach."

In-game adjustments

Peter John Lee thought Krueger misspoke amid a preliminary round game at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Switzerland held a two-goal lead against Canada and was going on the power play, when Krueger told five of the team's penalty killers to take the ice for the man advantage.

Few in the sport know Krueger as well as Lee. The two have been friends since they were teammates in Duesseldorf, Germany, from 1986 to '88 and shared philosophies throughout their post-playing careers. Lee, who played six seasons in the NHL, was general manager of Eisbaren Berlin, which competes in Germany's top professional league, when Krueger asked him to join Switzerland's coaching staff in the summer of 2002.

Lee always regarded Krueger as an innovator but opting to keep their best skill players on the bench against the top team in the world seemed odd because Switzerland could pull away with a power play goal. However, Krueger made the unorthodox decision because he noticed the opposing coach, Pat Quinn, was sending four skilled forwards out to try to score short-handed.

Switzerland did not score on the power play but it held on for one of the biggest upsets in the tournament's history, only two days after it stunned defending world champion Czech Republic. Krueger's roster had only three active NHL players, two of whom were goalies, and both goals against Quinn's team were scored by Canadian-born Paul DiPietro, who was 10 years removed from playing in the NHL.

"I will never forget the great Pat Quinn’s compliment to Ralph that in that game the Swiss team played a better ‘Canadian game’ than Team Canada." Lee, who has been Eisbaren Berlin's GM for 19 years, recalled in an email.

The victory gave Krueger worldwide attention. However, he had long been respected for using North American concepts on the bigger, European rink. His innovative style led Switzerland to 18 international tournaments over 13 seasons, building a winning culture in a country that experienced little success before his arrival.

He used that experience during his previous, albeit brief, NHL head coaching stint.

When Krueger became coach of the Oilers for the lockout-shortened season in 2012-13, he and his staff had little time to overhaul the team's system from the previous season. Rather than bogging down a young roster with intricate adjustments, he opted for simplicity and trusted his instincts.

Retired center Eric Belanger, who turned 35 during that season, recalled Krueger often tweaking his lines and system in-game based on which players were performing better. There was no stubbornness to keep one line together or to only trust talented young players such as Taylor Hall.

"Whether you're the best player or a guy on the third line, the guy who is having a good game is going to play more minutes," Belanger said in a phone interview. "He would quickly make adjustments and wasn't afraid to sit a younger guy after he turned the puck over five times in a period. Everyone knew the expectations. He was sharp behind the bench."

Krueger lasted only 48 games as coach before he was fired by then-general manager Craig MacTavish during a Skype call. Though there was tangible progress, Krueger remained unsure how he wanted to use the speed and skill of an NHL roster.

Coaching Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey allowed Krueger to experiment with systems and different approaches, and he found a clear identity after two pre-tournament games.

Team Europe's coaching staff – Krueger, Shaw and Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice – were unable to conduct proper practices in the week leading up to the tournament because several players were participating in Olympic qualifying games. That gave Krueger only one morning skate to prepare his roster for its first pre-tournament game against Team North America, a 4-0 loss in Quebec City.

Team Europe had been outscored, 7-0, in less than 68 minutes of tournament play when Krueger called that fateful timeout on Sept. 11, 2016.  The game resulted in a 7-4 loss, but slowly his players began to follow his puck-possession-driven game plan that used speed in the attack to take advantage of opponents, some of whom relied on individual talent during the 12-day tournament.

Though the plan was not enough to defeat Canada in the tournament final, Krueger discovered how he wanted to use the speed he'll have at his disposal in Buffalo.

"I think from that point on, our team went in another direction as far as unity and believing in one another," Shaw added. "We kind of got to understanding how we were going to play and what our best game looked like, or at least we had some glimpses of it. I give Ralph a lot of credit for that timeout. For me, it was the turning point."

Communication

When Tom Renney was hired as Oilers coach in 2010, he identified Krueger as a candidate for the staff. The two coached against one another at the IIHF World Championship and later discovered they shared many of the same philosophies.

Renney knew the Oilers were in the process of getting younger, and he thought a collaborative relationship such as theirs would be beneficial for maximizing the roster's potential. Krueger was uniquely qualified to earn players' trust and deliver the sort of positive message Renney was trying to implement.

Krueger's coaching career began with a seven-year stint behind the bench for VEU Feldkirch, including five-straight Austrian championships, an experience that led to him author a best-selling book in German on leadership and motivational skills titled, "Teamlife: Over Setbacks to Success."

Krueger also served as a core member of the World Economic Forum's council on new models of leadership, a platform he used to detail how empowering others and collaboration are the cornerstones to success.

"At the end of the day, you have to make sure there is some type of connectivity between the person delivering the message and those who are receiving it," Renney said. "I don't know if there is anyone better in the game than Ralph Krueger. He's uniquely gifted in that sense. He has the ability to communicate with anybody, young or old, and making them feel relevant."

DiPietro, a fifth-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 1990 and Ontario native, had played professionally in Switzerland for six seasons and was in the process of becoming a citizen when Krueger asked if he'd be willing to represent the country at the 2005 World Championships.

DiPietro did not know much about Krueger, other than the coach's reputation in building the country's development program, but the then-34-year-old center quickly realized the latter's ability to connect with players in very little time leading up to the tournament. Switzerland reached the quarterfinals at worlds that spring before making history at the 2006 Winter Olympics.

"He built a culture by communicating with players and working with them," DiPietro, now an assistant coach with Switzerland's U20 national team, recalled. "He would never give up on guys, and you'd see it in practice every day. He got us to come together quick and we played together as a team. Every player felt valued and had a role. That's important."

Krueger used the same strategy following his two-year stint working under Renney. Upon being hired as head coach, Krueger called the Oilers' veterans and explained the role each would play in helping the team succeed sooner than some expect. The gesture resonated with Belanger, who was frustrated by a diminished role the previous season.

Krueger explained during a conference call last week how he planned to use communication to build a "hardworking culture" with the Sabres.

"It builds from off the ice on to the way we play," Krueger said. "We should feel connected when we’re out there. It’s certainly a hardworking culture. It’s a culture that treats people right with giving everybody a voice but quite clear who has the responsibility. I think that it’s an open and honest culture but one that strives to find out what everybody is made of. First the individuals and then finding out from the group. Those are driving elements for me in the culture we’d like to build in Buffalo."

During those preliminary talks with Oilers veterans in 2012, Krueger revealed his first significant, outside-the-box decision: only he and assistant Steve Smith, who served on Phil Housley's staff with the Sabres in 2018-19, would be behind Edmonton's bench for the 2012-13 season.

Kelly Buchberger, the other assistant, would join goaltending coach Frederic Chabot in the press box. Krueger wanted one consistent message and thought fewer voices would allow players to not be bogged down with chatter between shifts.

Everyone had a voice in how the Oilers were going to play, from the youngest on the roster to the most experienced assistant coach. Feedback was encouraged in meetings, though Krueger wished to keep those short as a way to keep the concepts simple. Krueger then crafted his message to motivate the Oilers, who held a six-year playoff drought.

"You have to make the guys believe what you say," Belanger said. "As players, we were aware what kind of team we had. We were young, but we were still decent. ... Ralphie had us believe in 'Let's shock the world; it's us against them and show everyone we're more than a young team. Stop saying we're young and that we're going to get there. Let's go there now.' ... It started with his relationship with players."

Krueger has already begun building relationships with the Sabres. He texted a number of players on the roster before traveling to Slovakia to meet with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, both of whom are competing in the world championships. The plan is to then sell Jeff Skinner on the vision to snap an eight-season playoff drought, which is the longest in the NHL.

Though Krueger needs to finalize a coaching staff and will have a voice in personnel decisions, he learned through his travels nothing can be accomplished without communicating with those on the ice and behind the bench.

"Building relationships with his players was always an important part of his process because he believed this to be the foundation of building trust, accountability and commitment," Lee said. "Put it this way, if aliens landed on our planet today, I would suggest sending Ralph to find a way to communicate with them."

Player development

The Sabres' future likely will be determined by the success of Eichel, Reinhart, Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt. In the salary cap era, an inability to develop young players handcuffs coaches and general managers, ultimately leading to the sort of turnover that has plagued the Sabres since Lindy Ruff's firing in February 2013.

Botterill's search for a head coach centered around candidates with a track record of developing young talent and getting those players to follow a disciplined structure that emphasizes the importance of goal prevention.

Krueger has never served as head coach for an entire 82-game NHL season, and his only season in that role resulted in a 19-22-7 record. However, the Oilers' power play was led by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Hall and Jordan Eberle, all 21 or younger, when they finished third in the league in 2011-12. They did so by listening to the unique concepts Krueger installed as associate coach, specifically neutral-zone position on breakouts.

He also cleaned up some off-the-ice habits from young players, including poor body language, and instilled confidence in veteran players who grew frustrated following another difficult season in Edmonton.

"He finds a way to get the best out of people, no matter their position," said Chabot, the former Oilers goaltenders coach who is now a development coach with the Minnesota Wild. "He has succeeded in everything he's done and the main cause is he's very approachable and inclusive. He finds ways to bring his own ideas to a team, no matter the field, and finds ways to get things moving forward and improving."

Krueger was never tasked with developing players during his stint with Switzerland since the roster was comprised of experienced professionals and Team Europe was a veteran roster led by some of the sport's most respected leaders at the time. It is important to note he has been credited with helping build Switzerland's national team program, which has since produced a number of high-end NHL players, including New Jersey center Nico Hischier, the first overall draft pick in 2017.

However, those who worked with Krueger wonder what he can accomplish with more time and better circumstances. The 2012-13 lockout limited his ability to install a system and gave him less time to develop relationships with young players because many of them were forced to play in the American Hockey League until the NHL and its players' association ended the work stoppage.

Still, Krueger is lauded for how he guided the roster to playoff contention, though the Oilers missed the postseason after they lost nine of 10 games down the stretch. They played with better defensive structure and a culture was established, according to Belanger.

"Ralphie was doing all the right things with those younger guys," Belanger said. "Guys started to fully understand that he was going to hold them accountable if they turned the puck over or made mistakes. I would have loved to see him stay there and be able to coach more with that team because I loved the way he was handling things."

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