Sabres leaning on personal relationships to move forward
How does a struggling franchise attract a top free agent like Taylor Hall? Or how does a team that’s missed the playoffs a league-long nine seasons allay the fears a highly respected, 16-year NHL veteran has after the bombshell that he was traded to that team?
Without question the presence of superstar center Jack Eichel helps in every respect moving forward. However, just as no player can single-handedly move at team from the bottom-third of the league to a playoff team, no single entity can convince an All-Star unrestricted free agent to come to Buffalo, nor can he ease the shock of a veteran like Eric Staal being uprooted for a franchise like the Sabres.
“There’s no doubt about it that him (Eichel) being there is a big reason why I chose Buffalo,” Hall said to the media after signing a surprise 1yr. deal with the club. “He’s an amazing hockey player.”
But Hall is also very familiar with Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger, an instrumental factor in his decision. The two were together in Edmonton for three seasons after the Oilers took Hall first overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. In a letter to Sabres fans, the soon to be 29 yr. old left winger jumped off by telling a story about Krueger where the coach called him to the front of the plane on a trip back to Edmonton and asked, “How are you doing?”
“That is who Ralph Krueger is: the kind of guy who wants to know how you are doing as a person during the grind.
“That sticks with me to this day.”
Krueger does things like that as he’s not strictly a hockey coach. “That is who Ralph Krueger is,” said Hall, “the kind of guy who wants to know how you are doing as a person during the grind of a shortened season.”
The landing of Hall was an all-hands-on-deck situation for the Sabres. Lance Lysowski of The Buffalo News laid it out this way when he wrote, “It began (at noon Friday) when Krueger sent a text message to Hall, and Sabres General Manger Kevyn Adams texted Hall’s agent, Darren Ferris, to formally express interest in [signing Hall].”
Later that afternoon both camps got together on a Zoom call with owners Terry and Kim Pegula joining Adams and Krueger to talk turkey. However, it was a FaceTime call between Hall and Krueger two days later that sealed it. “It was easy,” said the coach to the media of the FaceTime call, “I just filled him in on what we’re doing and it worked.”
Probably not that easy, but it was the second time this long off season a personal relationship between Sabres management and a player came into play.
Buffalo shocked the hockey world when they made a trade with the Minnesota Wild for Staal, who had planned on finishing out his career in Minnesota. In fact, he thought he and his agent laid out his limited no-trade clause so that it would prevent any trade as in it he listed 10 teams that had been inquiring about his services around the 2020 trade deadline. No one in Staal’s camp suspected that the Buffalo Sabres would trade for him but they did. And it came as a shock.
However, Adams had played with Staal on the 2006 Stanley Cup Champion Carolina Hurricanes team and the first thing the new GM did when contacting Staal was eschew hockey talk for personal talk and in the process relieving some of the anxiety the Staal family might have had about the move to Buffalo.
What Adams has emphasized on numerous occasions is that having been a player going through all the emotions ranging from being traded to understanding what it’s like to hit unrestricted free agency gives him a unique perspective and personal understanding of what the players go through. It’s an approach that seems to be going a long way in Buffalo and it might be the only thing, other than Jack Eichel, that can entice players to join the Sabres, or feel more comfortable being on the team.
Krueger seems to embody that personal approach as he’s always been more than a hockey coach, as evidenced by Hall's memories from those early days in Edmonton. That aura grew even further after returning to the NHL following a six-year stint in Europe as an executive for Southampton, a Premier League football team. “Ralph is a very interesting human being,” said Hall. “He’s so diversified in his interest and how he talks to people. I think in 2020, a coach like him has the greatest chance of connecting to athletes and really making people better.”
And, as important as it was/is for Hall, Eichel gets the same feeling working with Krueger. “The [mutual] trust is there,” said Eichel in an April interview with Sportsnet. “I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s somebody that I look up to a lot as a role model for leadership,” continued the Sabres 23 yr. old captain. “There’s such a great respect there and I think that it’s mutual between the two of us.”
The second year Buffalo head coach is also more than a bench boss for the organization. Many feel the Pegula’s are leaning heavily on Krueger’s Premier Leauge front-office experience in guiding first-year GM Adams. As we move forward with building the team, Buffalo is bringing in players that Krueger is familiar with, like Hall and even Tobias Reider, a Team Europe member under Krueger in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. In addition, Krueger and Adams are bringing in players with Stanley Cup experience like a star like Staal and role players in defenseman Matt Irwin and Cody Eakin, both of whom were in the Cup Finals recently (Irwin in 2017, Eakin in 2018.)
It’s an approach the needs to work for a Sabres organization that has been struggling mightily since the Pegula’s first full season as owners. Things were getting to the point where their star player and face of the franchise, Eichel, was overtly expressing his dismay leading many to believe he might be ready to ask for a trade. What it comes down is the team really needs to make big strides towards winning now. Trading for Staal and bringing in a player of Hall’s stature points the team in that direction as they add a some star-quality to the top-six that hasn’t been there since 2018 when the team moved on from Tim Murray’s accelerated rebuild. Since then the Sabres watched former players succeed with Cup-winning teams while Buffalo bounced around the basement of the league. In doing so it alienated a fan base with repercussions rattling through the entire league.
With all that said, the goodwill that's been fostered this off season was greatly needed but all of that will be blown to bits if this team does not show significant progress on the ice and, most ideally, make the playoffs. That's where Krueger and his coaching staff come in. Krueger and the front office has done extremely well fostering a culture to bring in two significant pieces, but wins and losses will determine just how successful the organization ultimately is.