BUFFALO, N.Y. — New coach. New hopes. Maybe this is the season in which the Buffalo Sabres’ long-awaited turnaround finally begins.
”Let’s get through Day 1 first,” Kyle Okposo said with a laugh upon reporting for training camp.
It’s not as if Okposo doesn’t welcome the upbeat, motivational vibe new coach Ralph Krueger is introducing to a team the spent the past two years mostly underachieving under Phil Housley. An out-of-the-box hire if there ever was one, the just turned 60-year-old Krueger is highly respected in hockey circles and returns to the bench after spending five years as chairman of soccer’s Southampton FC of the English Premier League.
What gives Okposo reason for pause is how long it will take Krueger’s philosophies to sink in on a team called ”fragile” and ”soft” by players and previous coaches.
”There’s going to be a big buy-in,” said Okposo, who was struck by the message Krueger delivered during the team’s first meeting.
”I talked to five or six guys after. Ralph talked for 15 or 20 minutes, and every single one of them said they wanted to run through a wall after he was done talking,” he said.
The Sabres have been big on talk before in September. The trouble has been a persistent inability to translate what they say into actual success once the regular season begins, which is a big reason why they’re now on their fifth coach in six-plus years.
This is a team in the midst of an eight-season playoff drought – the NHL’s longest active streak – during which Buffalo has finished last in the overall standings three times. And the Sabres are coming off a season in which their maddening tendency to crumble at the first sign of adversity was largely evident.
After briefly sitting first overall in late November following a franchise-record-matching 10-game winning streak, Buffalo proceeded to win just 16 of its final 57 games to finish 27th overall with a 33-39-10 record.
”Yeah, we’ve been through a lot of tough times together in the organization with tough years. It’s been up and down,” captain Jack Eichel said. ”But I think you can use that experience to better yourself.”
Krueger’s vast hockey experience includes coaching the Swiss national team, serving as a consultant to Canada’s gold-medal-winning team at the 2014 Winter Games, and coaching Team Europe to a second-place finish in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. He also was an NHL assistant in Edmonton, and spent 2012-13 as the Oilers head coach before being fired following a 19-22-7 finish.
Known for being a hockey innovator, Krueger has introduced a mantra of ”Playing Connected” to Buffalo to build team unity both on and off the ice.
”I just want them to understand that we’re all in this together, and we all need to work together on this,” Krueger said.
WHO’S HERE: Krueger, forwards Marcus Johansson (free agency), Jimmy Vesey (trade with New York Rangers), and rookie first-round pick Dylan Cozens, and defensemen Colin Miller (trade with Vegas) and Henri Jokiharju (trade with Chicago).
WHO’S NOT: Forwards Jason Pominville (unsigned) and Alexander Nylander (traded to Chicago).
KEY PLAYERS: Jeff Skinner must begin showing himself worthy of Buffalo’s commitment in re-signing him to an eight-year, $72 million contract after scoring a career-best 40 goals. Eichel needs to build on a career-best season (28 goals and 82 points). The same goes for defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, a rookie of the year finalist as an 18-year-old last year, in which the Swedish-born player wowed fans with his deft skating and play-making abilities, while struggling at times adapting to the NHL’s smaller ice surface. Can Casey Mittelstadt shrug off his rookie year struggles and fill the team’s much-needed void as a second-line center? Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen‘s future remains in question. He continues to be the focus of trade speculation after spending the offseason suggesting he would prefer to play elsewhere.
OUTLOOK: It’s difficult to assess how good – or bad – the Sabres were the past two seasons under Housley, the Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman, who showed signs of being overwhelmed as a first-time head coach. On the plus side, GM Jason Botterill enters the third year continuing to add depth and youth to an organization left mostly barren under former GM Tim Murray. He could have a chance to stockpile even more talent by trading Ristolainen, who has an NHL salary-cap friendly three years left on his six-year, $32.4 million contract.
PREDICTION: Though it might be too much to suggest the Sabres ending their playoff drought under Krueger, they have the talent to at the very least stay in contention in the final weeks. Finishing with 90 points – something Buffalo hasn’t done since 2010-11 – would be considered an achievable goal.