The process of changing how the Buffalo Sabres play began in earnest when Ralph Krueger was hired as coach May 15.
Krueger traveled to Slovakia to meet with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart at the IIHF World Championship, called a number of Sabres to introduce himself, attended the NHL draft in Vancouver, pieced together a coaching staff and put together a framework for how he wanted his team to play in his first National Hockey League season since 2012-13.
There also was a midsummer dinner in Buffalo, where he spoke with Kyle Okposo, Zach Bogosian and Carter Hutton about the past. Those experiences helped Krueger develop a definitive plan for an opportunity he's been waiting for since he was last behind the bench for Team Europe at the World Cup of Hockey in 2016.
Now, Krueger and his players are ready to see how the conversations, planning and practicing translate on the ice when the Sabres open the season Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena.
"Just an excitement that we’re finally launching games that really matter," Krueger said following practice Wednesday in KeyBank Center. "I think the process has given us a lot of confidence for that. You would be nervous if you thought the team wasn’t prepared or uncertain of how they need to play. We feel like the process has gone as smoothly as possible. I have to tell you, honestly, I’m going quite confidently onto that bench and just excited to get it going, but not nervous in a negative way at all."
Krueger recalls that his interest in a possible NHL return piqued when he coached Team Europe, but he could not walk away from his project overseas. The 60-year-old worked as chairman of Southampton, an English Premier League soccer club, from 2014-19. As de facto owner, Krueger was responsible for day-to-day operations, including marketing and on-the-field personnel.
The role taught Krueger how to build and sustain an organization in a pressure-packed atmosphere, yet his mind never strayed from hockey. He routinely checked scores and intended to someday return to coaching if the right situation came along. That opportunity arrived when Krueger met with Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill and owners Kim and Terry Pegula.
In addition to coming off a historic second-half collapse last season, the Sabres' eight-year playoff drought is the longest in the NHL. Rather than dwelling on past failures, Krueger planned to use principles that helped him succeed in the past, with a few minor changes. This isn't his first time behind the bench for an NHL team. Krueger was an assistant coach under Tom Renney in Edmonton from 2010-12 and was elevated to head coach for the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.
But Krueger's one season as a head coach did not include the challenges of an 82-game schedule, including chaotic travel, or a proper training camp. Technology, analytics and sports science weren't as advanced, either. However, Krueger has leaned on his coaching staff – including Steve Smith, who worked as an assistant under former coach Phil Housley – to prepare for the season.
"He wants everybody to feel good about themselves on a daily basis," Smith said of Krueger. "Everyone who walks through that locker room feels like they’re part of something, they’re part of a bigger process. He treats everyone with respect, players with respect. What he does really, really well is he delegates and believes. He sets expectations of what he wants from us. He sets expectations of what he wants from the players, from the trainers, from the PR people, from everybody and tries to hold them all accountable and feel part of a big process. ... You walk away each day feeling like you accomplished something."
The Sabres have not accomplished anything yet. Their intensive training camp included long practice sessions and off-ice workouts. Krueger didn't slow the pace by drawing on a whiteboard between drills. Every detail was planned prior to the team stepping onto the ice, and he wouldn't dive into the X's and O's until the midpractice break inside the dressing room.
Practice drills aren't very long, either. Krueger gives his players only a few repetitions and demands perfection. His practices are structured to encourage competition. Players have explained that Krueger has them feeling less robotic on the ice, allowing them to be more creative with the puck and more confident in trusting teammates in the defensive zone.
"I feel like, to use Ralph’s term, everybody is able to express themselves out there," defenseman Jake McCabe said. "We’ve got a lot of really talented guys on this team. When the puck is on their stick in the offensive zone, they’re able to express themselves, show their creativity and show their skill set. Away from the puck, it’s put your head down and be a smart hockey player. … Everyone is skating together as a unit of five. With the new systems we’re implementing, guys are champing at the bit. Enough with the dress rehearsals. We’re ready for the real thing."
There is unbridled enthusiasm and optimism entering the season opener. Jack Eichel explained he and his teammates feel "a little more relaxed" and that "guys feel better about themselves." Krueger was lauded for his ability to inject confidence into the Oilers during his time as coach, and he is recognized as an impeccable motivator.
Krueger wrote a book about leadership and has spoken at the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership. The Sabres, though, have yet to experience any sort of adversity, aside from needing overtime or a shootout in three of their four preseason wins.
"It starts with him, so the majority of it is Ralph," Eichel said of the changes he's noticed. "The environment he’s created and the mood he’s created every day, I think guys feed off of it. He’s been great to work with, and I think everyone would probably agree with that."
Krueger wants his forwards to use their speed to succeed in the offensive zone and has drilled the importance of playing strong away from the puck. He wants all five players pressuring an opponent and trusting each other with individual assignments in a zone-based system. The Sabres played much better defensively during the preseason, but they did not face a lineup filled with NHL players and the intensity of games will increase significantly beginning Thursday.
Krueger will face challenges during the season. He'll need to navigate a chaotic schedule, and he acknowledged there are times he'll need to be firm with his team. However, his players' response in training camp has him encouraged that a blueprint is in place to succeed in Buffalo.
"I’ve spoken to you often about coming into a team at the right time, where their mindset is open for what we are now trying to bring in, the principles," Krueger said. "There’s a lot of sacrifice here that’s being asked for by the players. Possibly a touch of your offense might be left off because of the way we’re going to deal with risk, and where and when risk is allowed in our game. I’m excited about the buy-in for sure."
Krueger announced following practice Wednesday that Eichel will remain the Sabres' captain, while McCabe and forward Marcus Johansson will begin the seasons as alternate captains. Defenseman Zach Bogosian and winger Kyle Okposo served as alternate captains under Housley in 2018-19.
The Sabres are bringing back 14 former captains for the home-opener festivities Saturday, and they will be available to greet fans at 5:30 p.m. outside KeyBank Center. The following players are participating in the event: Floyd Smith, Gerry Meehan, Don Luce, Danny Gare, Gilbert Perreault, Mike Foligno, Michael Peca, Donald Audette, Stu Barnes, Jochen Hecht, Toni Lydman, Brian Campbell, Craig Rivet and Brian Gionta.
The Sabres confirmed what Krueger told reporters following practice Tuesday: defenseman Brandon Montour will miss three to four weeks because of a hand injury. The team also announced Bogosian and goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, both of whom underwent hip surgery in April, are out indefinitely.
Olofsson, Jokiharju absent
Unsurprisingly, Curtis Lazar, Jean-Sebastien Dea and Lawrence Pilut didn't practice with the Sabres after being recalled from Rochester on Tuesday. Additionally, neither Victor Olofsson nor Henri Jokiharju were on the ice with the Amerks.
Olofsson and Jokiharju are expected to be recalled in time for the season opener Thursday, and the move was made because the Sabres plan to place one or more players on long-term injured reserve. By adding additional salary on one-way contracts prior to the roster deadline Tuesday, Botterill maximized his cap space entering the season.