Krueger kicking around big ideas
|Toronto Star 15 May 2019 at 19:00|
The Buffalo Sabres have missed the Stanley Cup playoffs eight seasons in a row, the longest drought in franchise history and the longest active skid in the NHL. They’ve chewed through five coaches — Lindy Ruff (the last coach to lead them to a playoff series win, in 2007), Ron Rolston, Ted Nolan, Dan Bylsma and Phil Housley — over that span, and none have been able to lead the Sabres to anything better than 89 points (Ruff’s total in 2011-12, his last full season at the helm). None of Ruff’s successors have lasted more than two seasons.
Suffice it to say, things are bad in Buffalo and it’s time for some outside-the-box thinking. Like, say, hiring a guy with 48 games of NHL head coaching experience who has spent the last five years helping run an English soccer team.
Ralph Krueger is that guy, the Sabres announced Wednesday morning. Most recently, he was chair of Southampton of the English Premier League. Now he will be the head coach of a North American hockey team.
Krueger’s lone foray into NHL head coaching came during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, when he led the Edmonton Oilers to a 19-22-7 record. About six weeks after the season, new Oilers GM Craig McTavish sent Krueger a Skype friend request and then used the online video-chat service to fire him.
Since then, Krueger has split his time between the seemingly unconnected worlds of hockey and top-level European soccer. In January 2014, former Southampton majority owner Katharina Liebherr tabbed Krueger to become chair of the Premier League club, a job he began after he finished his duties as a consultant to the Canadian national ice hockey team that won gold at the Sochi Olympics in February of that year.
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More recently, Krueger was the head coach of Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, leading a group of players from Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Slovakia and Switzerland to a surprising second-place finish behind the Canadians.
With Krueger in the front office, small-market Southampton maintained its spot in the Premier League, though its fortunes have tumbled in the past two seasons. After finishing seventh, sixth and eighth between the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons and twice qualifying for the Europa League, the Saints flirted with relegation and fell to 17th in 2017-18 and 16th in the season that just ended. With his contract set to expire and a new set of majority owners — the Gao family from China — calling the shots, Krueger stepped down in April.
But the Sabres apparently saw something in the Canadian-born former German national — he spent almost the entirety of his 1980s playing career in that country — who in April received Swiss citizenship (he coached Switzerland’s national ice hockey team for 12 years between 1998 and 2010 and led them in three Winter Olympics). As an assistant in Edmonton, he vastly improved the Oilers’ power play. As head coach, he placed great emphasis on shootouts, with his assistants scouting opposing goaltenders.
“We see shootouts as a specialty team,” Krueger told the Edmonton Sun in January 2013. “We have a power play. We have penalty killing. And we have penalty shots in the shootout.”
As if Krueger’s CV isn’t esoteric enough, he also has been involved with the World Economic Forum as a member of its Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership. Liebherr cited his German-language book, Teamlife: From Failure to Success, as a reason she hired him at Southampton.
“Throughout his career, Ralph has shown the ability to adapt to a variety of high-pressure environments while leading some of the world’s elite players,” Sabres general manager Jason Botterill said in a statement. “His strong communication skills, leadership and diverse background make him a uniquely qualified candidate to lead our team going forward.”
Oilers radio analyst Bob Stauffer kept the NHL-EPL linkage going on Tuesday, comparing Krueger to Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and perhaps aptly referencing the “most interesting man in the world” ad campaign recently employed by Dos Equis beer.
In any case, Krueger isn’t the “hockey guy” hire the Sabres have made in the past, to little success. At this low point in the franchise’s history, he’s probably worth a shot.