The countdown is on to Ralph Krueger's first training camp as an NHL head coach. The Buffalo Sabres' new bench boss, remember, has been a head man for only one year in the league but that 2013 season with the Edmonton Oilers was the lockout season. There was essentially no training camp during the chaotic January, just a couple of practices to get ready for the opening game.
So after turning 60 on Aug. 31, Krueger will be a rookie of sorts when the Sabres hit the ice for the first time Friday in KeyBank Center.
"I have a big national team background where camps are just part of life and you’re permanently doing camps," Krueger, who led Switzerland into the Olympics and Team Europe into the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, said Monday in Harborcenter. "So I don’t feel anything other than an excitement and a positive energy for the opportunity to have this responsibility in Buffalo. As far as, let’s say, being awed that it’s an NHL camp, that’s not really coming up at all.
"We’ve worked hard in preparation here the last month with the coaches to be clear with our language, to get ourselves on the same page as far as how we’re going to teach the different processes and now it’s up to me to lead that. I enjoy doing that. I look forward to the responsibility and the pleasure of working together with these players.”
The player who might garner the most attention early in camp – assuming he's still on the team – is veteran defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. Believed to be ready for a change after six difficult seasons, Ristolainen was scheduled to arrive in town Monday from his summer training in Finland.
Sabres players will skate informally over the next two days with Ristolainen as part of the group, even though he told a Finnish reporter last month a trade from Buffalo would be his preference.
Ristolainen is coming off a season in which he posted an NHL-worst minus-41 rating, and he has three years left on his contract at $5.4 million per season. But Krueger also knows the 6-foot-4-inch right-handed shot has four straight seasons of at least 30 assists and 40 points.
"I know that it's going to be fun to work with a player with that skill and ability," Krueger said. "I have nothing but excitement for working with him. I know there's a lot of potential there that's still untapped. It's up to me and the coaches to find out what that is."
General Manager Jason Botterill continues to be cryptic when asked about Ristolainen.
"Our conversations with him have been positive," Botterill said Monday. "I think 'Risto' has always been someone who comes to camp in extremely good shape and I think there's a good deal of adjustment for all of our players with a new head coach trying to put together exactly what coaches want, what they want from a systems standpoint and where they fit in with the group. I'm sure those conversations will go on with Risto and the entire team."
Krueger has two practices a day slated for the first three days of camp before the Sabres open the exhibition season with a back-to-back set, next Monday against Pittsburgh at Penn State and Sept. 17 in Columbus.
"I don’t feel we need to rebuild and reinvent everything within a week, so I think patience is important here," Krueger said. "First 10 days, four games. It’s about assessing the players and letting them also slide back into the competitive mode and I don’t feel a big heat there in getting everything across.
"I think that the second half of the training camp where you’re getting into the final two games and you’re getting back into the battle with the league and at the beginning of October, that’s going to be a lot more detailed, a lot more intense. That’s the time we really have to solidify how we’re going to play."
Botterill said he's been impressed watching Krueger prepare for the last several weeks and is as interested in seeing how his new coach builds a staff and a team, as is everyone outside the organization.
"It's great having guys who have been on the staff here before," said Botterill, notably referring to assistant coach Steve Smith. "And in bringing in people like (assistant coaches) Mike Bales from Carolina, Donny Granato from Chicago, you get the best of all worlds. I've come to realize with Ralph, with some of his connections throughout the league over the years, he's taking best practices from all of these guys.
"What I'm looking for is just from the entire group a lot of enthusiasm come Friday, understanding that we're going to be implementing a new system and there's going to need to be teaching and learning from that. But also we want to see pace, we want to see work ethic from day one."
In other news Monday:
- Botterill said defenseman Lawrence Pilut (shoulder) and goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (hip) will both sit out training camp. Pilut's return date is likely around mid-October and Luukkonen is slated for early November, with both dates being around what they were originally scheduled for when their surgeries took place in the spring.
- Pilut and Luukkonen were the only players scheduled for the Prospects Challenge who did not play. Botterill said updates on returning players would come once camp starts. The most notable in that group would be defenseman Zach Bogosian, who also is coming off hip surgery.
- Botterill said he has not ruled out bringing veteran winger Jason Pominville into camp, although it doesn't seem likely that will happen at the beginning as the team gets a look at some young players and newcomers like Jean-Sebastien Dea and Curtis Lazar. "We'll continue to communicate with him the next couple of days here and make a decision on that," Botterill said. "I haven't ruled it out but like I've said, we're very excited where we are from a depth standpoint and the competitions we're going to have, and we want to make sure we give those players enough of an opportunity."