NASHVILLE – When Ralph Krueger first arrived in Buffalo back in June, he acknowledged he would need to educate himself on how the National Hockey League had changed during his six-year absence.
His learning curve wasn't as steep as some expected. The Sabres went 9-2-2 in October and entered Saturday having won five of their previous seven games. Krueger reached somewhat of a milestone in Nashville's Bridgestone Arena.
The Sabres' game against the Predators was Krueger's 49th of the season. He was coach of the Edmonton Oilers for only 48 games following the lockout in 2012-13. In a four-question conversation with The Buffalo News on Saturday, Krueger reflected on how the league has changed since his time in Edmonton and where the Sabres stand at the break.
How have you changed as a coach since those 48 games leading the Oilers?
RK: I'm a leader who permanently is looking for growth, so it's less that I measure where I was in Edmonton than what I'm experiencing here today. All of my leadership experiences, whether it was hockey at the World Cup or the Olympics, or Southampton in the Premier League in England, all of those certainly brought more clarity in what I like to focus on.
I'm not a quantity kind of coach when it comes to the players. I might be quantity on our own preparation, on our work, on our details there; we're very, very strict. But on the quality of communication with the players, I'm sure I'm in a better place than I was then. Being able to nail what the group needs, when the group needs it and the support of the coaches I have here, too. Using that support. I think I'm a lot better at using the people around me, too, as a leader. Those would be major points of evolution, really.
What have you observed about the way the game has changed since you were last in the league?
RK: More than anything, for me strategically, the biggest thing is probably the link between what good defense can bring you offensively. I think I separated the two more at that time in my coaching career. Now, I see it's all interconnected and the opportunity out of defense to create good offense and how quickly that needs to happen.
What's fun for me here is the athlete has gone to a whole new spectrum. The off-ice work that is being done now compared to when I was Edmonton, the difference is the reason for the increased speed and skill on the ice. With the fitness level of the athletes today, the 365-day-a-year athlete, we do more work off ice than on-ice now outside the games. That was absolutely rare and it was always like pulling teeth back then, so I was already working on that back in Edmonton. You had to always be on top of it, you always had to watch it, and now the guys do so much on their own and everything.
The athlete, the level of athlete you're dealing with. Hockey, for me, took the longest to move into that elite athletic space of all body, all mind, all nutrition, all fitness. I think hockey lagged and we have totally caught up with the world now. That's why it's exciting to be back in the game of hockey. I'm walking into a sport that's really seen an amazing evolution in the last decade. As a coach, you're challenged because the athletes expect a higher level of coaching. They expect a higher level of information. They expect a higher level of presentation. The coach I was then and the coach I need to be today, to coach a group of elite athletes like this, there's just a higher demand on it.
How would you assess this team's progression from the beginning of training camp until now?
RK: We're really pleased with the lows we had, the highs we had, the package we've had. Would we like to be a touch more points higher? Yes, but the focus is continually on the process. That evolution of the way we, for instance, move through injuries. We've got one of the longest lists here in the league among the teams we've played lately, and the way we're filling those gaps and filling those holes and still sustaining our development, that's pretty exciting.
It's way too early in the season to do any type of assessment on the season. I don't want to go there because it's only a one-week break. ... I've been happy every day here. There hasn't been a day where I haven't been happy. Even when we had our losing streaks I was happy with the way the group dealt with those losing streaks, and the way we worked through those losing streaks. It was constructive. It was a constructively difficult time, not a destructively difficult time.
You've taken my head out of the day, which I don't do very often. You're asking me about the journey today, and I would say from the first day of training camp on the 12th of September to today, I've enjoyed the way this group has embraced the process and is trying to get better every day. It's non-negotiable. They want to improve. That's all you want as a teacher, which is my role. As a teacher, you want that interest and enthusiasm. If you don't have that, what's the point? That's here in full flame. Do we still have a long way to go and do we still have a lot of opportunity? Yes, and that's also exciting.
What do you plan on doing during the one-week break to prepare for the rest of the season?
RK: I'm just going to spend time with my family, that's it. I have my second granddaughter. She's only like 10 days old. What unbelievable timing for me. I'm going to spend every single minute of every day with my family, which is where I want to be. The second thing is I'm going to be outside. I'm going to be with my family, and I'm going to be outside because we don't see any sunlight in our jobs. I'll be really honest with you, it will be exercise, family and sunlight.