EDMONTON – Ralph Krueger isn't surprised to see Leon Draisaitl emerge as one of the NHL's top scorers. When the Edmonton Oilers' star was 20, he was a relative unknown playing with established standouts on Team Europe in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
Krueger was his coach and looking to unleash the big German's vast talent.
Speaking Sunday a few hours before meeting the Oilers as the coach of the Buffalo Sabres, Krueger remembered how tough it was for a kid in the pre-tournament schedule against Team North America and Sweden.
"He had a couple tough games against North America and then against Sweden he gets a hat trick," Krueger recalled in Rogers Place. "But his overtime goal against the Czech Republic in a 3-on-3 where we had to win and how he took responsibility there showed me where Leon Draisaitl can go and it's been confirmed."
Krueger had Team Europe assistant and current Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice work directly with Draisaitl in that tournament. Draisaitl became a 29-goal scorer the next season, morphed into a 50-goal man last season and is battling linemate Connor McDavid for top honors in the NHL this season. He entered Sunday's game leading the NHL in assists (34) and points (53), one ahead of McDavid.
"Edmonton should send Paul Maurice flowers," Krueger joked. "I thought Paul did a really good job helping Leon understand what it took to play the best teams in the world. I think Leon took a lot of lessons out of the World Cup into his game here in Edmonton."
Draisaitl lauded Krueger's work Saturday when speaking to Hall of Fame reporter Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal.
“I only had a short time with him at the World Cup, but he’s a great communicator," Draisaitl said. "He’s someone you want to play for. At the time I wasn't at the level I am now. I was a work in progress and I learned a lot from Ralph and the players I was around. It was such a great experience.
“Ralph has that positive mentality and it's really calming to a lot of players and the team. Nothing but good things to say about Ralph."
Sunday was Krueger's first game in Edmonton since he was fired in 2013 after one season as the Oilers coach that followed two years as an assistant. He was consulted on the design of the Oilers' locker room when Rogers Place was in the planning stages before its 2016 opening.
"From the day it was decided to go in another direction I looked for my next opportunity of growth," Krueger said. "I had so much growth while I was here in Edmonton. Those three years opened my coaching to the National Hockey League and what it takes to be successful here.
"I wouldn't be standing here today as head coach of the Buffalo Sabres without that experience and I think that experience helped me a lot to do what I did in the English Premier League and understand athletes at this level."
Krueger worked hard with the Oilers' young players in 2013, notably Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. They were in the playoff hunt until the final couple of weeks of the lockout-shortened season.
"Super positive guy, but he’ll hold you accountable. He’s a good teacher, obviously a very intelligent guy," Nugent-Hopkins told the Journal. "Shows that when goes to Europe and manages a soccer team. He just knows sports. I really enjoyed my time with Ralph.
“He’s obviously young at heart. How old is he? He’s 60? I would have thought he’s younger than that because of his attitude, such an upbeat guy. We had a bit of a good run that year. He definitely held us in the fight until the end."
The end here was quick for Krueger. Then-GM Craig MacTavish fired him via a Skype call to Switzerland and replaced Krueger with Dallas Eakins. Krueger said he maintains no bitterness, in part because he heard from Team Canada leadership Steve Yzerman and Mike Babcock about working on the 2014 Olympic team within two days of his firing. That team won gold in Sochi.
"I just didn't let that bitterness in because the only person it would have hurt was me and nobody else would have cared," Krueger said. "I think it was just a life lesson to move on, take the good with you and take the lessons and put them somewhere else. It happened to be in football."
Asked by an Edmonton reporter if he's had any contact with MacTavish since the firing, Krueger said simply, "Nope. Never talked to him and really don't need to."