Mike Babcock and Ralph Krueger’s relationship goes back to 2004 and countless conversations since about coaching in the NHL.
The Toronto Maple Leafs coach just wishes Krueger hadn’t join ed the rival Buffalo Sabres to make his job more difficult.
“It didn’t thrill me that he’s just down the road, but that’s the way life is,” Babcock said. “He’s going to help their team out.”
Babcock and other coaches who have worked closely with Krueger over the years are glad he’s back as a part of their fraternity after five years as chairman of English Premier League soccer club Southampton FC. Krueger’s friends and colleagues in hockey believe he’ll have more success than during his ill-fated 2013 season in Edmonton but also that there will be a steep learning curve in the first year back in the NHL.
“He’ll find it taxing in his first year,” said Ken Hitchcock, who worked with Krueger on Babcock’s gold medal-winning Canada staff at the 2014 Olympics. “The way you win in the NHL and the way you play defense in the NHL has really changed in the last few years. And he’s going to have to have people help him with those adjustments and recognize what they are because even since he coached the Oilers, things have changed a lot. I think he’ll embrace those adjustments, but there will be adjustments.”
Six full seasons removed from his only 48 games of NHL head-coaching experience, Krueger said he now has a better idea of how to plan out the year from beginning to end. Despite Buffalo’s NHL-worst eight-year playoff drought, Krueger believes his team can contend right away.
Krueger certainly carries a reputation for helping teams overachieve, including his first three seasons at Southampton amid the departure of several key players.
“That was a great opportunity for him,” Babcock said. “I talked to him a lot over the time there. It was a growing experience. I think it was a good challenge.”
Like that challenge in management, Krueger’s 13 years as coach of Switzerland’s national team was about establishing a standard of play, a process that can take years before results follow.
“Ralph’s all about culture creates chemistry, which creates winning,” Hitchcock said. “He’s not looking at winning. He’s looking at culture. He looks way down the road. Ralph is a big-time believer in full-time success.”
Krueger’s most recent North American experience as coach of Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey is another example of his team-building skills. The 59-year-old brought together players from eight different countries and made a surprise run to the tournament final.
“In a very short period of time, he was able to build a really powerful culture,” said Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice, who was an assistant under Krueger at the World Cup. “He made absolutely everybody in the room feel a part of it. The equipment guys, the medical guys, the media guys — everybody that was involved with that group had an incredible experience, and that was almost solely driven by Ralph.”
Much of the burden for Krueger now is developing a culture with the Sabres, who have cycled through five different coaches since last making the playoffs. He’s getting an early start on that front by meeting forwards Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart next week at the world championships in Slovakia.
For all the tactical adjustments Krueger might have to make now, Hitchcock doesn’t believe communicating with this generation of players is one of them. The 2014 Olympic experience was a taste of how Krueger can quickly and effectively deliver a message to players and fellow coaches.
“He’s very, very good at reasoning with players,” Hitchcock said. “He’s a very intelligent guy on getting the players to understand where he wants to take them. He just doesn’t grab them and pull them along. He’s very good at getting the players to understand the value of where he needs them to go.”
The joy from Babcock, Maurice and Hitchcock in Krueger’s return stems from their admiration for him as a person and confidence that he’s a good coach who deserves this opportunity. Half a decade in a front office job didn’t sap Krueger’s love for coaching.
“He gets up in the morning rolling and he wants to get to work and make things better,” Maurice said. “He has this great passion for the game, but he’s also a generally caring person and that’s the great mix. He’s not so driven by his passion that he doesn’t care about people or just a people person who’s not involved in the details of the game. It’s just a big blend of being a real good human being and being very driven at the same time.”