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Observations from English soccer convinced Ralph Krueger to cut down morning skates

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Most of what Ralph Krueger learned during his five years as chairman of Southampton F.C. cannot be applied to his role as coach of the Buffalo Sabres.

Krueger spent most of his time in the English Premier League running the club's day-to-day operations, everything from building a culture within the organization to securing a sponsorship deal with Under Armour. He wasn't involved in on-field strategy or soccer personnel decisions.

Yet one game-day observation stoked Krueger's natural curiosity: Southampton's players didn't perform any on-field workouts prior to a match at 8 p.m. Instead, they lifted weights or went through dynamic stretching to physically prepare for competition.

That's when Krueger started asking questions. He discovered how Southampton's sports science staff collected data that showed morning workouts were a waste of energy, and ultimately, had a negative impact on an athlete's ability to sustain performance for an entire season.

When Krueger became the Sabres' coach in May, he decided morning skates, which have been held by teams around the National Hockey League since the 1970s, were going to be the exception, not the norm, in his return to the bench.

"I just think it’s all about energy and understanding the different ways that we can gather energy and/or making sure that the quality of our execution stays high," Krueger said following the morning skate Saturday in San Jose. "What I find tends to happen is if you’re practicing with a team that’s tired mentally or physically your execution principles fall away and it’s better to just go off-ice and do something really intense together. That was probably one of the few things that comes also out of my experience from the Premier League, watching the way they gather and/or use energy on game days."

However, Krueger did not want to eliminate skates without speaking to his players. He gauged the opinion of his leaders, including captain Jack Eichel, to see if the Sabres would feel comfortable holding an off-ice workout with team meetings, as opposed to the 15-30-minute game day skate.

The group agreed with Krueger's plan. Most NHL coaches have cut back on morning skates in recent years. Columbus' John Tortorella and Tampa Bay's John Cooper are among those who have called the activities a waste of energy and have mostly abolished them altogether. Their teams typically only have healthy scratches, players recovering from injury and the game's backup goalie on the ice for an informal skate on game day.

Morning skates aren't used to strategically prepare for an opponent. They're simply a way to get players' legs moving and to help maintain their timing with the puck. The Sabres' skate Saturday morning at SAP Center was only their third in nine games this season, and Krueger only had them on the ice because the team was off Friday. He is among a group of coaches who prefer an intensive practice the day before a game, as was the case Monday at Honda Center in Anaheim, and he doesn't plan to hold any morning skates at KeyBank Center this season.

"Every guy is different," Sabres winger Jeff Skinner said. "Some guys like to skate, some guys don’t like to skate. For me, it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes I like to skate and sometimes I don’t. The older you get the less you like to skate because you sort of know what you need. It’s been good so far. Obviously it’s worked out well for us results-wise. It’s up to him, so I just do what he says."

"I like that we prefer to practice hard," forward Marcus Johansson said. "Game days we just get ready for the game. I’ve always been like that. I feel like morning skates don’t do much for me. Not waste your energy in the morning and focus on the night. Even though it’s just a morning skate you go out, you focus and you’re still skating and thinking. When you don’t, you come in relaxed and you make sure your body is feeling good and all that."

The Sabres were busy on game days under former coach Phil Housley, who preferred to hold morning skates unless the team was on the second day of a back to back or playing a matinee. He didn't dial back the workload until the Sabres were struggling in the second half of the season. Their 10-game winning streak in November required an overtime or shootout seven times, a stretch that seemed to take a physical and mental toll on players. They endured a historic collapse in the second half that resulted in an eighth consecutive non-playoff season.

Buffalo's trip to Sweden next month has created another challenge for Krueger. The Sabres are amid a stretch of 12 games in 23 days. Though that includes only two back to backs, the Sabres have four different road trips during that stretch, including three games in California. That is a drastic change from the Edmonton Oilers' lockout-shortened schedule during Krueger's one season as coach in 2012-13.

The Oilers had only five sets of back to backs and intraconference opponents during that 48-game regular season. Yet Krueger typically didn't hold morning skates in Edmonton. His priority was rest and recovery, with an emphasis on maximizing practice days.

"If you think about it, a morning skate for every game, you’re going to play back to backs, but say there’s 70 times you morning skate, that’s 70 extra times you’re putting your gear on, getting on the ice and practicing," Eichel explained. "You burn energy in the morning skate that you’re never going to get back during the day. He’s just trying to conserve as much of our energy as possible. We’re on the ice so much during the year.

"His whole approach to making sure you’re prepared for games and not trying to overdo things is really good. There’s scientific evidence behind it. We have so many great resources with our sports science team and everyone who does a lot of the data collecting. Throughout the course of a year it takes a toll."

There isn't a team-wide workout plan when the Sabres are off the ice the morning of a game. Each player is trusted to prepare himself. That was earned during training camp when they successfully navigated a daily workout regimen that included approximately 75 minutes on the ice and a brief workout in the weight room afterwards.

The Sabres dealt with few soft-tissue injures, which is an improvement from previous seasons. They encountered approximately 249 and 325 man-games lost in the 2018-19 and 2017-18 seasons, respectively. Among their 36 man-games lost entering the game Saturday in San Jose, only 12 were the result of injuries suffered during the season or training camp.

Less time on the ice has not affected the Sabres' ability to learn Krueger's systems, either.

Krueger is maximizing practice days with both on- and off-ice workouts, and he has kept his principles as simple as possible. He's encouraging them to use their creativity, puck movement, speed and skill in the offensive zone, while relying on one another in a zone-based defensive system.

The Sabres entered Saturday tied for second in the NHL with 13 points in eight games, while their power play -- which had little time together in practice or games during training camp -- ranked third. Krueger is routinely speaking to his players to hear their opinions about how the team prepares for games. They declined to disclose many details but value having a coach who includes everyone in those sort of decisions.

"I was actually thinking the other day, he might be the best coach I ever had, for sure, in sport and pro hockey,” Rasmus Ristolainen said Tuesday in Anaheim. “It’s been really good. He knows what we’re going through, how we feel. He’s maintaining the schedule, his practice days really well."

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