While there were many in Sabreland hoping that today's 10 a.m. press conference would have a twist, like a surprise announcement, what it came down to was rather simpl, the introduction of Ralph Krueger as Buffalo's new head coach. The 23 minute presser did feature questions about pending unrestricted free agent Jeff Skinner and the conversations between coach and player, but there was no surprise appearance by the Sabres winger nor was there any definitive answer to the question of whether or not Skinner would be signing an extension.
However, there seemed to be some positives on the Skinner negotiation front as Krueger said that he had a "long phone call" with the winger. The new coach said that he was working "on the basis that Jeff Skinner is a Buffalo Sabre" and acknowledged that for him "more than anything, it was about how he [the coach] would like to utilize [Skinner's] skill set and his talent."
Those in attendance, like all fans in Sabreland, were interested in why Kruger felt comfortable with the assumption that Skinner would be a Sabre and he said that it was the "tone in [Skinner's] voice when it came to the past and the future."
"He was comfortable on that line," said Krueger. "I initiated the call in that way, it never went in another direction and Jeff had the opportunity to change direction if he wanted to. It was really just the flow of the conversation that made me feel comfortable.
"I felt he really wanted to be [in Buffalo] and that he was happy to be here."
There was a lot of positive vibes emanating from the foot of Washington St. this morning when it came to the Skinner negotiations. WGR550 Sabres beat writer Paul Hamilton caught up with Sabres general manager Jason Botterill and asked him if he still had a high level of confidence a deal will get done to which the GM replied, "Without a doubt."
Botterill also added this, according to Hamilton, "Both sides have understood that we wanted to get the head coach in place and then we could ramp up our discussions. We've certainly done that and I feel good where it's at right now and hopefully we can finalize something." Skinner is the No. 1 player priority this off season and all indications are that a deal should get done, possibly very soon. However, until there's pen to paper, you never know.
However, there was more to the presser than Skinner and that included Krueger getting in depth on how he would be approaching certain areas.
For a man who said he likes challenges, Krueger certainly has one in Buffalo even with Skinner back in the fold. Krueger said that he'll play the cards he was dealt and once again he was asked about his use of analytics. In his conference call with the media after his hire last month, he said he would use analytics as a tool but also stated he wouldn't overuse them saying, "I believe it's an important part but above all it will come down to not overusing analytics. You need to create a space where the players have certain guidelines and a framework but within that space I like them to be able to be creative and also to let their instincts play, and finding that balance is the challenge we have as a head coach.".
This morning he elaborated further with a long answer.
"As all of this information is flowing to us as coaches," he said, "in my experience in England, the investment in sports science and analytics was large and the way it was processed was interesting fpr to me to observe and I'm really curious as to how exactly we can bring it into the front without disrupting the free flow and the talent of our players. That's one of the things as a coach is to find that balance of a strong, compact game away from the puck where you can feel that unity but still allow the amazing skill that we have on our roster to be able to be creative and to be able to be free.
"So when we take analytics, when we take videos when we take all that information," he continued, "I think the important thing will be to process it in a way that we don't do it just for doing it, but we do it to really make a difference in the individual players. We'll see how open certain players are to it but I'm extremely open to gathering the information and even GPSing the players in an ice session to check maximum speeds and possibly watch for fatigue before it occurs and avoid injuries.
"If we can use analytics to do that, let's find a way."
Krueger eventually got to what he really wanted to say about using analytics and it probably didn't sit too well with those in that cottage industry who've been locked into their charts, graphs and spreadsheets for years.
"But let's make sure that in the end we don't forget that a sport like ice hockey, whether 50 years ago or today," he said, "when the puck is dropped the same basic elements will still make a difference which team wins and which team loses. I'm never going to become over-modern and computerized in a way that we block the way the team plays and flows.
"I think you can understand what I'm trying to get at. It's something I'm extremely interested in but we have to be the best possible leadership team in using it properly"
One would think that Krueger laid this out with Botterill before he was hired and, if asked, confirmed that position to Skinner and the young players he's talked to already. There's no Rosetta Stone for him when it comes to winning and losing in hockey. His approach will be based upon what he's got and what he feels is the best way to use each individual player. Will he hire an assistant coach who will dig deeper into analytics? Probably. He had that in Paul Maurice when he and his staff took Team Europe to the World Cup of Hockey Finals before losing to a stacked Team Canada in an extremely successful run.
A large group of Sabres players has seen two coaches in four years and one would think that their B.S. detectors are pretty sensitive. Rookie head coach Phil Housley just went through that as what he wanted to do wasn't working and after a while the team simply wouldn't respond to anything he was offering. One of the likeable attributes of Krueger is that he comes off as being honest. A reporter pointed out that various players from Team Europe and the Edmonton Oilers, whom he coached briefly, saw him as "a different kind of coach" and he was asked what made him different.
"Every coach, every leader, on the planet is unique," he said. "It's important to be authentic and to be yourself.
"I'm not going to compare myself to anybody," he continued, "but you're always going to get the real deal [from me]. There's not going to be any games or anything, we're going to speak about the truth and I think that's what I'd like to do with the players and the team, have a very open communication in both directions. You've probably heard me say this already, communication is also about listening to your players, your environment to your supporting staff and processing that, not just speaking.
"Whether that's unique or different, I know that's probably one of my biggest strengths is to create an honest locker room and an honest dressing room, an honest atmosphere and to work within those boundaries."
Quite possibly, these could be some of the main reasons that Krueger's conversations with Skinner, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart ended up being much longer than was expected. For four years the Sabres have had coaches with a laser-focus on what made them successful in the past (Dan Bylsma) or what was believed to be the path to future success (Housley) and neither approach took the players into consideration or offered up lasting benefits.
It will be very interesting to see how Krueger's approach affects players like Rasmus Ristolainen and whether the new coach can tap into that reclusiveness and find out what really makes the big, mobile defenseman tick. Ristolainen has been described as a loner and has been lambasted in Sabreland for his poor analytics while offering up his fair share of dubious moments. But he has a lot of positive qualities. Rumor has it that the Sabres may be interested in trading him but when Krueger use the words "bite and snarl" as a couple of attributes he'd like this team to have, one couldn't help but think of Ristolainen.
By the looks of it Krueger has the right approach to this group and it seems as if he believes he can be a unifier. I'm sure in all the listening he's done so far with the players some common themes have come out and those will be the areas he'll work on to not only find common ground, but also to build upon. He's got a lot of work to do but seems up to the challenge using his wealth of knowledge and diverse, world-wide experience as a basis to make it happen.
Right now Krueger is saying all the right things (unless you're an analytics superfan) but this is a stubborn bunch. We'll see how much his approach worked come October.
Thanks to the media there at the presser and to Sabres digital press for posting the full audio.