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Ralph Krueger faces challenges as he starts second year as Sabres coach

Lance Lysowski

Under the guise of a curious traveler, Ralph Krueger visited bars and restaurants in Buffalo last April to have what he called "enlightening" conversations with patrons about the Sabres and the city's passion for hockey.

The grassroots, fact-finding mission, which was revealed by General Manager Jason Botterill shortly after Krueger was hired May 14, 2019, resonated with the fan base. Krueger presented himself as a common man, yet his credentials were other-worldly.

Across two decades, Krueger led an underachieving Austrian club to the European championship; authored a book in German on leadership; participated in the World Economic Forum; built Switzerland into one of hockey's global powers; showed promise during three seasons with the NHL's Edmonton Oilers, one as head coach; and served as chairman for Southampton of the English Premier League.

His unique set of skills appeared to be a perfect fit for the Sabres, an organization with a group of young players who had never competed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, on the one-year anniversary of the team announcing the hire, it's clear that Krueger must address the following issues if he is going to bring playoff hockey back to Buffalo.

Fix the special teams

Krueger deserves credit for what the Sabres were able to accomplish at 5 on 5. In 69 games, the Sabres improved in Corsi-for percentage, expected goals percentage, goals scored per 60 minutes and goals allowed per 60 minutes, among other metrics.

The Sabres ranked 20th in 5-on-5 goals scored and ninth in goals against, despite this being a one- or two-line team most nights. Although injuries and goaltending also contributed to their spot in the standings, the Sabres might have been in the playoff hunt if their special teams weren't a disaster.

The penalty kill ranks 30th in the NHL after finishing 12th in 2018-19. Assistant coach Steve Smith was in charge of the penalty kill for a second consecutive season and the personnel was mostly the same, yet they delivered a historically bad performance.

Goaltending didn't help. Buffalo ranked 29th in penalty-kill save percentage. Poor coverage by the forwards resulted in higher shot quality. Smith and Krueger need to switch from their 1-1-2 penalty-kill formation, which is designed to take away shots from the slot. The system can be difficult to play because the forwards need to switch when covering down low and successful penalty kills are able to adjust in-game based on what the opponent is doing.

Opponents noticed the Sabres' weakness and used puck movement to create space down low. Buffalo could not find a solution. Although Smith runs penalty-kill meetings, it's unclear how much influence Krueger has on special teams. He explained to reporters early this season that his entire coaching staff, including goaltending coach Mike Bales, provides feedback and ideas on how both units should play.

The power play wasn't consistent, either. It took a few weeks of games for other teams to notice the Sabres were running their top unit through Victor Olofsson in the right-wing circle. From Nov. 1 through March 11, Buffalo ranked 30th in the NHL on the power play. Krueger could not find a role for Jeff Skinner and the second unit needed a play-making center.

The power play was Krueger's area of expertise during his two seasons as an assistant in Edmonton from 2010-12. An offseason of film study should give him a better idea how teams are defending his top unit, and Botterill should add a few talented forwards to make Krueger's job easier.

"We were really able to dive into the power play together and identify with my experience in the National Hockey League, and Ralph’s experience in a big rink, there was a real opportunity to create a bit of a hybrid system," said former Oilers coach Tom Renney, who hired Krueger in Edmonton. "That’s a place we could give a young team the opportunity to feel real good within a structure and a game plan to help build their confidence. Our players had the opportunity to go out on the power play and do what they do best. Given the fact they were, in many cases, young, it did give them that sense of confidence because of the nature in which we approached that. I think it really paid off."

Player usage

I'll no longer advocate for Skinner to play on the top line with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. Maybe someday this roster will be deep enough for that to happen. Until then, the Sabres need to try to create four lines that can score.

Krueger tried to address the problem by placing Skinner on the second line. The Sabres, though, did not have a center capable of playing alongside the former 40-goal scorer. Marcus Johansson battled inconsistency while attempting to fill that role. It shouldn't have been a surprise that he looked far more comfortable on the wing this season. Krueger then declined to put Skinner with Johan Larsson, despite the two players showing complementary skill sets when skating together.

The scoring chances came in bunches for Skinner. Although the 27-year-old winger missed 10 games with an upper-body injury, he led the team in individual expected goals and scoring chances, including those of the high-danger variety. The production was ugly, though: 14 goals, none on the power play, with nine assists and a minus-22 rating in 59 games. This isn't want Botterill envisioned when he gave Skinner an eight-year, $72 million contract last June.

It was baffling that Krueger didn't use Skinner in 6-on-4 situations and the two-time All-Star was barely involved on the power play. There were games where Skinner would have a strong first period, only to barely see the ice over the final 40 minutes of regulation.

Additionally, Krueger never allowed Reinhart to drive play on another line. Botterill told the media last June at the NHL draft in Vancouver that Reinhart was capable of creating offense away from Eichel. So why didn't the Sabres give Reinhart that opportunity?

Team management

We should have expected there to be some growing pains with Krueger. His only experience as an NHL head coach came during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. He didn't have to deal with a regular training camp, a long trip to Sweden or an extended All-Star break.

The Sabres did not seem ready for the latter. They were outscored by 10 goals while going 2-4-1 in their first seven games after the break. The team continued to fall apart in important moments of games, most notably a New Year's Eve loss to Tampa Bay in which Buffalo allowed five unanswered goals to blow a 4-1 lead.

Krueger's tactics worked wonders on Eichel, who emerged as the unquestioned leader while scoring a career-high 36 goals. But the Sabres need an injection of confidence. Adding playoff experience has helped, particularly with Johansson, a mentor to the young Swedes. But there seem to be significant psychological hurdles with this group, a natural byproduct of a long playoff drought. The young core players need to learn how to better handle adversity throughout the season.

Systems

It's important to add perspective when talking about some analytics. For example, the Sabres' Corsi deteriorated when Olofsson and Skinner were out of the lineup because Krueger placed a greater emphasis on limiting an opponent's shot quality. He didn't care about the attempts allowed, as long as most were coming from the perimeter. Boring hockey was necessary with that lineup.

However, I need Krueger to explain how he used his defensemen at 5 on 5. The Sabres evolved from run-and-gun under Phil Housley to dump-and-chase with Krueger. The latter approach makes sense with stay-at-home defensemen, but the Sabres' blue line was built to carry the puck into the offensive zone and join the rush.

Why handcuff Rasmus Dahlin by making him dump the puck in as soon as he crosses the red line? The system probably contributed to the improved defensive metrics – there were fewer odd-man rushes against most games – but it resulted in countless empty possessions. It's easier for the coach to change his system than for Botterill to overhaul what's become a much better defense corps. Krueger's strategy makes less sense when you consider how much Botterill gave up to acquire Brandon Montour and Colin Miller, puck-moving defensemen who would have fit well in Housley's system.

Perhaps Krueger will make systematic changes now that his players have developed better habits away from the puck.

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