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Ralph Krueger captivates Sabres with message, approach at start of training camp

Ralph Krueger captivates Sabres with message, approach at start of training camp

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Buffalo Sabres coach Ralph Krueger during training camp at the KeyBank Center on Friday, Sept. 13, 2019. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Twenty-four Buffalo Sabres formed a semi-circle around Ralph Krueger and simultaneously tapped the blades of their sticks on the KeyBank Center ice for several seconds.

It was a welcome-back-to-the-NHL moment for Krueger. The gesture was the Sabres' response to their 60-year-old coach thanking them for their work during his first training camp practice in almost eight years. He was still beaming hours after he first stepped foot on the ice Friday morning.

"At the end of the first session I told the guys, 'It’s been a long time coming,'" Krueger, who was last at an NHL camp as an assistant coach with Edmonton in 2011, said with a smile following the second of two on-ice sessions.

With a whistle hung around his neck, Krueger conducted each of the two practice sessions while wearing a Sabres track suit and a grey baseball cap. There were no outbursts of frustrations when a mistake was made, though there were several during a breakout drill in the first session. Instead, he taught by pulling aside whichever player committed a turnover or struggled to win a one-on-one battle in front of the net.

Krueger's messages during each session, and the manner in which he delivered them, impressed returning players and newcomers. However, his quest to build trust off the ice began with an impassioned speech during a team meeting nearly 24 hours earlier.

"He’s a leader," Sabres goalie Carter Hutton said. "He grabs the room right away. He comes in with a lot of respect and highly regarded by everybody. … I think for a lot of these guys it’s picking up the new material and the way we want to play."

Amidst a day filled with media interviews and promotional video shoots, the Sabres gathered Thursday to hear Krueger formally introduce his vision for the next chapter in a franchise that owns an NHL-worst eight-season playoff drought. Krueger spoke of his mantra, "Playing connected," and his plan to change the way the Sabres compete on the ice. Following the 20-minute speech, winger Kyle Okposo surveyed several teammates to hear their first impression, and each agreed with Okposo's assessment.

"Every single one of them said they wanted to run through a wall after he was done talking," Okposo said. "He definitely got the guys’ attention and knows how to deliver a message."

The NHL lockout in 2012-13 prevented Krueger from conducting a training camp during his only season as head coach of the Edmonton Oilers, but his international coaching experience -- including 13 years leading Switzerland's national team -- taught him how to quickly build trust with players and how to efficiently install a system under time restraints.

That begins with communication and motivation. Krueger wrote a book on the latter and his resume, specifically the World Cup of Hockey in 2016, prepared him to relate to players of various ages and nationalities. He's also spoken at the World Economic Forum and spent five years as chairman of English Premier League's Southampton.

"It was different right off the bat just with his background," Okposo added. "When you’re essentially running a Premier League soccer team in England; you talk about pressure, that’s more pressure than running the Yankees, the Cowboys, anything. He’s got that pedigree right away. It definitely feels different than a traditional guy who played or came up through the ranks and is just a typical coach. He’s got that unique background, so it’s definitely going to feel a little bit different. Day one, so far so good."

Krueger wants to instill confidence in a team that dropped from first in the NHL to 27th following a second-half collapse last season. Little is known publicly about how the Sabres will play offensively and defensively. After all, each of the first two practice sessions lasted only 60 minutes. He has spoken about wanting them to attack in all three zones and take advantage of the speed on his roster.

During both practices Friday, Krueger urged his players to be "aggressive," particularly when forechecking. He ran each of the sessions, standing near center ice, delivering instructions while his coaching staff, as well as Rochester coach Chris Taylor, ran players through the drills. There wasn't a break on the ice to draw on a white board. Krueger opted instead to teach his system in the dressing room while two zambonis gave the Sabres a fresh sheet of ice in the middle of each session.

Krueger's hope is the Sabres' new identity will become obvious to observers during the final days of training camp.

"It begins off the ice," Krueger said when asked about his "Play Connected" mantra. "We have to work on that unity and it’s not going to happen overnight. We have new players in the group. We’ve got a new mix coming in here. … All kinds of newness, which takes a few weeks until it settles into a comfortable zone, and we’ll work on that naturally. We’ll do it organically. On the ice, we need to feel an identity. I think I’ve spoken to you before that I’d like you to be able to tell me in three, four weeks what you’re seeing and you underline the fact that we’re playing like this, this is Sabres hockey."

Former players and colleagues have detailed Krueger's positive approach to coaching, but how will he respond when a situation requires him to be firm? Krueger has already shown the Sabres he isn't in Buffalo to be their friend. He's spent the past few days delivering sometimes harsh assessments, leading Okposo to label the new coach as an "alpha."

Constructive criticism is important to Krueger. Sam Reinhart joked he's already received a dose of that early in camp and he expects to hear Krueger's honesty more once the season begins Oct. 3. The Sabres aren't looking that far ahead yet, though. Neither is Krueger. They don't have the luxury to think beyond a training camp they hope will help them achieve their goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"What he means by that is I’ve been communicating with the group quite honestly since yesterday and attempting to create a clear understanding of how we’re going to operate," Krueger said when told about Okposo's comment. "Giving the players a voice in the process. The philosophy since the beginning of May has been brooding and developing. …We’ve solidified a way to play that we believe is going to give us a chance to be competitive every night and that’s maybe what he’s feeling. We’re very confident that we have a path we need to go down."

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