Marcus Johansson

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Krueger holds key to unlocking Sabres’ potential

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Buffalo Sabres.

One has to wonder what Ralph Krueger could have done with the Edmonton Oilers and all of their talent if given more than 48 games.

The truncated 2012-13 season due to the lockout was all Krueger would get, however. The Oilers went 19-22-7 and Krueger was let go a season after he was promoted from an associate coach.

Krueger then disappeared from the NHL, first moving into a role as a consultant with Team Canada for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and then taking on the role of director and then chairman of Southampton Football Club, who were in the Premier League at the time, England’s top-flight soccer league.

[MORE: 2018-19 in review | Three questions | Under pressure]

He was named coach of Team Europe for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, where he and his squad would reach the best-of-three final before losing to Canada in two games.

Everywhere he’s gone, at least on the international level, Krueger has met success. And he’s garnered a title of a players’ coach who gets the maximum from those under his tutelage.

And let’s face, there hasn’t been a coach in Edmonton that’s really done anything special with that club since. And while Krueger wasn’t afforded a longer chance, he’s now getting on in Buffalo on a team with some special, young talent itself.

If the Sabres have an x-factor this season, it very well could be the man standing behind the players. Krueger’s ability to band the troops together will be key as the Sabres try and reverse their losing culture and make the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons.

And Krueger believes the team is on the cusp.

“This group is ready to become a contender and to compete with anybody on any given night,” Krueger told The Associated Press back in May. “I’m confident that we can become that kind of a team quite quickly.”

There’s optimism around the Sabres after another aggressive summer that has seen them acquire both Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju on the back end and Marcus Johansson and Jimmy Vesey up front, along with signing 40-goal man Jeff Skinner to a massive eight-year deal.

Skinner was a big piece that needed to be signed this summer if the Sabres were going to continue to have a big-time goal scorer. It would appear Krueger played a part in Skinner’s decision to commit long-term.

“Before I even had the chance to speak with him, I had a few different people reach out and tell me about their positive experiences with him,” Skinner told NHL.com. “Our conversation on the phone seemed to confirm all those things.

“He’s obviously a great leader, and his resume speaks for itself. What stood out from our conversation was how excited he was to be in Buffalo. I think his excitement is genuine and reflects the feeling we have as players.”

While question marks remain in goal and with the team’s defensive structure, there’s a good chance that Krueger shifting the team’s mindset from one of losing to one with promise going forward will only pay in dividends to the team buying into his message.

Krueger is the man tasked with changing it and much of where the Sabres head this season rests on his shoulders.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Sabres have questions to answer in offensive, defensive zones

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Buffalo Sabres.

Let’s ponder three burning questions for the Sabres in 2019-20 …

1. How will their goaltending situation play out?

The San Jose Sharks will tell you, confidently, that team save percentage during the regular season means very little.

In their case, they’re not lying, per se. Still, it would be stretching the truth based on a complete anomaly.

And as bad as the Sharks were between the pipes in the regular season, they still had enough talent to put them into the Western Conference Final.

How does this relate at all to the Buffalo Sabres some 2,700 miles away? Well, it outlines how much better the Sharks were in front of Martin Jones despite an inferior team save percentage. The Sabres are a team that couldn’t be saved by outscoring their opponents and therefore their 22nd-ranked team save percentage of .901 had quite the bearing on their outcome in 2018-19.

There wasn’t much between Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark last season. Both played well along with the team early on in the season, when the Sabres were battling for first in the East. That all came crashing down in the second half, however, as team defense took a nosedive, bringing their season along with it.

Ullmark, who signed a one-year extension with the team on Saturday, enters once again as the backup but should see significant time as he did last year, especially if Hutton struggles again.

[A look back at the Sabres in 2018-19]

2. Will the re-tooling on defense do wonders?

Taking advantage of a cash-strapped Vegas Golden Knights team, the Sabres went about acquiring Colin Miller for a couple of picks, a shrewd move by general manager Jason Botterill and one that was much-needed as the team strives for a better defensive effort this coming season.’

Speaking of shrewd moves, they also added Henri Jokiharju after trading Alexander Nylander to the Chicago Blackhawks. Henri Jokiharju was taken in the first round in 2017 and was projected to be a big part of Chicago’s future on the right side. Instead, they traded him away for Nylander who hasn’t developed the way the Sabres would have wanted him to.

All these moves leave the Sabres with nine defensemen on their roster, meaning one should be getting moved prior to the season, both for cap compliance and roster space reasons. The Sabres are above the cap limit by $1 million and have 24 players signed at the moment.

There have been rumors of Rasmus Ristolainen being on his way out, but nothing has materialized in that realm as of yet.

Nevertheless, the additions of Miller and Jokiharju are intriguing, along with having Brandon Montour getting a full training camp with the team and a healthy Jake McCabe back in the fold.

3. Can the Sabres get the secondary scoring they need? 

Buffalo’s big three of Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart combined for over 200 points last season, including Skinner’s 40 goals and Eichel’s 82 points.

From there, their next two top scorers came on defense with Dahlin and Ristolainen, the latter who may not be with the team by the time the regular season rolls around.

No other forward on the team had more than 34 points (Conor Sheary) and 16 goals (Jason Pominville), so the Sabres have gone out and tried to rectify that.

The addition of Marcus Johansson is a big one, in terms of puck possession and scoring. Johansson had 13 goals and 30 points in 58 games last season and 11 points in 22 games for the Boston Bruins in the playoffs.

They also acquired Jimmy Vesey, the 17-goal man from last season with the New York Rangers. Vesey hasn’t been the player he was touted as coming out of college as a Hobey Baker winner but perhaps new scenery on a young team can jump-start his career.

There’s also the pending return for Ristolainen if the Sabres can swing a deal. Buffalo won’t be wanting a defenseman in return, which means they could add someone up front to add further depth.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

It’s Buffalo Sabres Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Buffalo Sabres.

2018-19
33-39-10, 76 points (6th in Atlantic Division, 13th in Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN
Marcus Johansson
John Gilmour
Curtis Lazar
Colin Miller
Jimmy Vesey
Jean-Sebastien Dea
Andrew Hammond
Henri Jokiharju

OUT
Matt Tennyson
Kyle Criscuolo
Scott Wedgewood
Alex Nylander

RE-SIGNED
Evan Rodrigues
Zemgus Girgensons
Johan Larsson
C.J. Smith
Remi Elie

[MORE: Under pressure | X-factor | Three questions]

2018-19 Season Summary

It’s now been eight straight seasons since the Sabres made the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the longest drought in the NHL. They’re now on their sixth head coach since 2011 and are hoping new head coach Ralph Krueger’s methods work in turning around a franchise that started off last season so well only to see it crash and burn.

The Sabres woke up on Nov. 28 tied for the most points in the NHL with 36 following a 10-game winning streak. Through 25 games they were 17-6-2, Jack Eichel led the team with 28 points and offseason acquisition Jeff Skinner was tied for league lead with 19 goals. Goaltender Carter Hutton was playing fabulous with a .928 even-strength save percentage. Things were looking bright for once.

The 10-game winning streak was followed by a five consecutive defeats as the Sabres began their fall back to earth. The next three month saw 26 losses in 39 games — and then March happened. Between March 2 and April 2, the Sabres recorded just four points 16 games, which saw only one victory. 

The fall was an historic one. The 2018-19 Sabres joined the 2016-17 Flyers as the only teams in NHL history to have a 10-game winning streak and miss the playoffs in the same season. It would ultimately cost head coach Phil Housley his job and open the door for Kruger’s NHL return.

There were a few bright spots from a forgettable season, though. Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, was a Calder Trophy finalist after a nine-goal, 44 point season; Jeff Skinner hit 40 goals and signed an eight-year, $72 million extension in June; Jack Eichel put up a career-best 28 goals and 82 points, and Sam Reinhart had another 20-goal season.

Depending on how the 2019-20 season goes, the change may not stop behind the bench. General manager Jason Botterill is certainly on the hot seat and there are nearly 20 players who could become unrestricted or restricted free agents next summer.

In trying to improve the blue line, Botterill went out and acquired Brandon Montour from the Ducks in February and picked up Colin Miller from the Golden Knights in a late-June trade. Marcus Johansson and Jimmy Vesey were added up front in hopes of strengthening the forward group.

There’s a lot of work still to be done for Botterill and co., and this coming season will determine many futures inside the organization.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Key questions for Bruins in 2019-20

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Boston Bruins. 

Let’s bat around three burning questions for the Bruins in 2019-20 …

1. Is the Atlantic Division going to be even tougher?

Consider some scenarios that could await the Bruins:

  • The Lightning stand as a powerhouse again, and maybe avoid a playoff disaster this time around.
  • For all the drama, the Maple Leafs remain potent, and perhaps find another gear with Tyson Barrie giving them more defensive balance.
  • Sergei Bobrovsky stops pucks like one of the best goalies in the world, and Joel Quenneville brings together a Panthers team that already boasted considerable talent.
  • A Canadiens team that was sneaky-good last season takes another step forward.
  • The Sabres capitalize on a strong offseason and threaten for one of the top three seeds.
  • The Senators and Red Wings seem likely to struggle, although Detroit could at least be scrappy.

While the Panthers and Habs could just as easily stumble, the top-end of the Atlantic figures to be robust once again. You almost wonder if the Bruins might prefer life as a wild-card team in the Metro bracket, if possible.

[BRUINS DAY: 2018-19 in review | X-factor | Under Pressure]

2. What will they get from their goalies?

The goaltending position is about as unpredictable as it is crucial to an NHL team’s success.

On paper, Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak stand as one of the most dependable duos in the league. Both have shown the ability to put together elite, or near-elite stretches, as recently as 2018-19. If Rask falters or gets hurt, Halak’s been capable of stepping in and playing at a high level. Their career numbers are positively sparkling.

There is one thing “on paper” that’s troubling, though: their ages.

Rask is 32, and Halak is 34. It’s far from impossible for one, or both, to hit the aging curve hard, whether that comes down to suffering untimely injuries, athleticism or fatigue-related drops in play, or a combination of those factors.

I’d argue the Bruins are in a position to succeed goaltending-wise, but there are some red flags that things could also go wrong.

3. Will the Bruins’ offense be more versatile, or remain top-heavy?

Charlie Coyle‘s cold puck luck right after being traded to the Bruins made it seem like Boston would be as top-heavy as ever entering the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Coyle’s lot then turned red-hot for stretches there, allowing him to form a nice supporting duo with Marcus Johansson, and that was crucial during the rare lulls for the Bruins’ dominant top line of Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, and Patrice Bergeron. Supporting players like Coyle, Jake DeBrusk, and Sean Kuraly picked up the slack during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, as the Blues found ways to solve the Bruins’ top line.

As discussed in the x-factor post about the Bruins battling the aging curve, it’s possible that Bergeron (34) and Marchand (31) may both decline because of all of their mileage, and sometimes those drops are sudden and huge, rather than gradual.

In some cases, the Bruins’ top line might just suffer because of specific matchups, particularly during the playoffs, where a team like the Blues can break down tape and negate some of their strengths with comparable two-way players.

In other cases, like the dog days of the regular season, especially back-to-back sets, it might just be smarter for the Bruins to strategically choose nights to rest veterans like Bergeron.

Younger and/or supporting players can make that feasible if they show that they can handle bigger roles. That’s a pretty big “if,” though.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

It’s Boston Bruins Day at PHT

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Boston Bruins. 

2018-19
49-24-9 107 points (2nd in Atlantic Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Lost Stanley Cup Final in seven games to Blues

IN
Brett Ritchie
Par Lindholm
Brendan Gaunce
Maxime Lagace

OUT
Marcus Johansson
Noel Acciari
Lee Stempniak
Jordan Szwarz
Gemel Smith
Zane MacIntyre

RE-SIGNED
Danton Heinen
Peter Cehlarik
Connor Clifton
Steven Kampfer
Ryan Fitzgerald

2018-19 Season Summary

One more win, that’s all they needed. The Bruins fought off the Blues in Game 6 to force a do-or-die game in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. Unfortunately for them, eight years after they won a Game 7 to top the Vancouver Canucks for the title, they fell short in a 4-1 defeat to St. Louis.

The loss put a sour note on an otherwise great season for the Bruins. They finished tied with the Calgary Flames for the second-most points in the NHL during the regular season. Brad Marchand stayed out of trouble for the most part and recorded a career-high 100 points. David Pastrnak, while playing only 66 games, topped his previous career marks with 38 goals and 81 points. Jake DeBrusk scored a career high 27 goals, and Patrice Bergeron, in his 15th NHL season hit a personal best 79 points and tied his career high in goals with 32. With a lighter workload (46 appearances), Tuukka Rask posted his best even strength save percentage (.925) in five seasons, and the power play clicked at 25.9%, the best success rate the franchise has seen since 1980-81 (25.4%). 

Basically, everything went pretty swimmingly in 2018-19 for the Bruins. Head coach Bruce Cassidy continued the success that started after he replaced Claude Julien in Feb. 2017. Since that time the team has a 61% win percentage (117-52-22) and have accumulated the second-most points (256) in the NHL.

[MORE BRUINS: X-Factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

So it was no surprise the Bruins cruised through the regular season and played their way into Cup contender status as the playoffs began. Waiting for them in Round 1 were the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were vanquished yet again in seven games for the third time in seven seasons. Next, the Cinderella Columbus Blue Jackets were ousted in six games after taking a 2-1 series lead. In the Eastern Conference Final, the other surprise team, the Carolina Hurricanes, were swept, putting Boston in the Cup Final for the 20th time in franchise history.

There were few good moments for the Bruins in the final series against the Blues, one was the return of Zdeno Chara to the lineup in Game 5 at TD Garden after breaking his jaw.

But now as they rest up with a short summer in preparation to get back to the Cup Final and win it, the Bruins’ roster won’t be drastically different, at least at the start of the season. A cap crunch and needing to re-sign two important pieces on the blue line has kept general manager Don Sweeney from going out and adding big names to the lineup.

The offseason has been quiet, aside from some minor additions and a few departures. Atop Sweeney’s to-do list is to re-sign restricted free agents Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo. There’s currently a little over $7 million in cap room and it’s a question if one or both will still be unsigned when training camp opens next month. There’s plenty of confidence both will get extensions given that McAvoy is ineligible for an offer sheet, and while Carlo is eligible, NHL GMs have shown a general dislike in using them.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.