Taylor Hall hung up his skates at his stall inside the visitors' locker room Monday morning and smiled when asked about Ralph Krueger.
The conversation that followed seemed to be a welcome reprieve for the 28-year-old winger. Hall has recently been the subject of trade rumors with the New Jersey Devils sitting at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division. His status as a pending unrestricted free agent, as well as the Devils' tumultuous season, makes a change of scenery seem inevitable.
Hall is accustomed to chaotic situations, though. He had five head coaches during his six seasons with the Edmonton Oilers, none of which resulted in a playoff appearance, and credits Krueger with teaching him the importance of remaining positive. Krueger was an assistant on the Oilers' staff during Hall's first two seasons in the National Hockey League and spent the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season as the club's head coach.
Krueger was fired after only 48 games and was out of the NHL for six years until he was hired by the Buffalo Sabres in May. Hall didn't agree with the Oilers' decision.
"It was shorter than it should have been,." Hall said before a 7-1 loss to Krueger's Sabres in KeyBank Center. "I had a great experience with him. Two years he was an assistant coach, and he looked after the D. Even then, speaking with him, obviously his attitude was evident. The way he looks at life and hockey was always positive. It was always great chatting with him. We had the lockout-shortened year where he was head coach and really enjoyed playing for him, whether it was his systems or the environment he created at the arena. I thought it was always great to be around the arena then.
"I’m really happy to see him back in the NHL. I think that’s where he belongs. I know they’re not doing as well as they want lately, but I think he’s the right guy for the job here."
Krueger replaced Tom Renney as Oilers head coach prior to the 2012-13 season and inherited a roster that included 10 players under the age of 25. The lockout prevented Edmonton from holding a normal training camp and a condensed schedule created significant challenges. They also played in a division that included the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
Yet Edmonton was in the middle of the playoff race until it lost nine of 10 games in April and finished with a 19-22-7 record, the second-lowest point total in the Western Conference. The Oilers' power play ranked seventh in the NHL and their young core blossomed under Krueger.
Hall finished the season 10th in scoring, only 10 points behind Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis for the league lead, and seven of Edmonton's top eight scorers were under the age of 24. Krueger's departure seemed to stall their progress.
Hall, the first overall draft pick in 2010, did not reach his full potential until he was traded in June 2016 to New Jersey, where he won the Hart Memorial Trophy in 2018. Nail Yakupov, a forward drafted first overall in 2012, never matched the 17 goals he scored under Krueger and is now playing professionally in Russia.
"I really felt that team was on the right track at that point," Sabres assistant coach Steve Smith, who worked on Krueger's staff in Edmonton, said. "We were in it until the last four or five games of the season, which wasn’t expected. I thought some of those young players that had difficult starts to their careers – Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and these kids – were really starting to come at that point in time. I think after Ralph left, they lost a little bit of traction. He was really good for them. They’ve obviously built great careers since then, but it took them a little longer than it might have had he been able to stay."
Hall added: "We had a lot of younger guys and when you have a younger team like that, it’s important to create an environment that guys know how to come and work hard and enjoy themselves, but also you have to compete and play hard. He brought that. … He only got 48 games and in a really tough conference. We hovered around .500 and had some players on the team do really well that year, whether it was our goalie or guys like myself. He seemed to bring the best out of guys and you’re seeing [Jack] Eichel take another step this year. Whether it’s Ralph or not, I’m sure he’s enjoyed playing for him."
Entering Tuesday, the Sabres (13-10-5) were third in the Atlantic Division and had earned points in five of their last six games. Eichel ranked sixth in the NHL with 38 points – 17 goals, 21 assists – and will carry a 10-game point streak into Buffalo's game Thursday night in Calgary.
Additionally, Victor Olofsson is on pace to score the most goals by a Sabres' rookie since Donald Audette in 1991-92. Krueger also has addressed their porous defensive-zone coverage and has coaxed more supplementary scoring by moving Jeff Skinner off Eichel's line.
The positive message Krueger carried into training camp seems to have resonated with the Sabres and has done the same for Hall almost a decade later.
"If I could take anything, and this may sound weird, but if I were to coach some day, I’d want to have an attitude like he did," Hall said. "As you go through the league and you have different coaches, different assistant coaches, you think, 'If I was ever a coach or be in that position what would you want to do and how would you want to send your message.' He was a guy that not every meeting was roses, but at the end of the day, you were there to play hockey and you were there to be a great teammate. I think that’s what I’d take from him."
The Sabres' power play appeared disconnected again Monday night. They were plagued by misfired passes and sloppy offensive-zone entries. Another personnel change didn't seem to make much of a difference until Henri Jokiharju snapped their 1-for-38 power-play slump with his goal in the second period.
The 20-year-old defenseman quarterbacked the top unit for the first time since joining the Sabres in July and scored his third goal of the season on a slap shot from the right-wing circle. Krueger explained that he chose to use Jokiharju because of the former first-round pick's ability to escape pressure, and the latter remained with that group during practice Tuesday.
Jokiharju also is not afraid to shoot the puck. He has 27 shots on goal in the Sabres' last 18 games after recording only nine in the first 10 games of the season. The difference, Jokiharju explained, is having comfort in a new system.
"Obviously when you come here, you try to build confidence more and more," Jokiharju said. "I think I’m getting more confidence in the offensive zone, so it’s nice to make some plays and shoot the puck at the net."
Evan Rodrigues practiced with the Sabres on Tuesday for the first time since suffering a lower-body injury in the first period against the Florida Panthers on Nov. 24. Rodrigues alternated with Rasmus Asplund on a forward line that included Zemgus Girgensons and Jean-Sebastien Dea.
Rodrigues will join the Sabres on their three-game trip to Western Canada and hopes to be in the lineup Thursday night against the Calgary Flames.
"I felt like my feet were back under me and I was using my speed a lot, handling the puck," Rodrigues said. "Just had a lot of confidence. Obviously it wasn't great timing, but it healed up pretty quick, which is nice. ... Excited to be back."
The Sabres assigned forward Curtis Lazar to the Rochester Americans prior to practice. Lazar, 24, had one goal among 7 points with a minus-2 rating in six games. He was a healthy scratch in five of the last six games for the Sabres.
Prior to being promoted to Buffalo, Lazar had 9 points in 11 games for the Amerks, who host the Toronto Marlies on Wednesday night.
John Hynes' final game as coach of the New Jersey Devils was a 7-1 loss to the Sabres in KeyBank Center on Monday night. Hynes was fired Tuesday afternoon after amassing a 150-159-45 record in 354 regular-season games and one playoff appearance in his four-plus seasons as their head coach.
Assistant coach Alain Nasreddine was named interim head coach and Peter Horachek, formerly a pro scout, joined the staff as an assistant coach.