Sam Reinhart

Skinner’s contract overshadows new Sabres coach’s arrival

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Rather than focus on what’s gone wrong in the past, new Sabres coach Ralph Krueger arrived in Buffalo intent on building a better future with the underperforming team he inherited.

Most important, Krueger expressed confidence that leading scorer Jeff Skinner will be part of that future based on a lengthy phone conversation he had with the unsigned forward who is some three weeks away from becoming an unrestricted free agent.

”I work on the basis that Jeff Skinner is a Buffalo Sabre and as a result that’s how our conversation went,” Krueger said Wednesday during his introductory news conference.

”It was really just the flow of the conversation that made me feel comfortable,” he added. ”I felt he really loved to be here and that he was happy to be here.”

As for getting Skinner re-signed, Krueger said he was leaving that to general manager Jason Botterill.

For his part, Botterill said nothing has happened during negotiations to change his expectations regarding Skinner’s return.

”I would say discussions continue to go very well, but you never have a deal completely done until there’s a signature,” he said. ”We’ve clearly shown that this is a priority to try and get something done. Hopefully, we can find a way to get that materialize.”

Botterill said the sides are negotiating with the intention of getting a deal done before the NHL’s free-agency signing period opens July 1. In saying Skinner has earned the right to test the market, Botterill added that at no point has that possibility been broached by the player’s agency.

”There’s always that option for the player,” he said. ”But in my dialogue with Newport Sports, it’s been to try to find a solution before then.”

The just-turned 27-year-old Skinner completed his ninth NHL season, and first in Buffalo after being acquired in a trade with Carolina in August. In leading Buffalo with 40 goals, he topped 30 goals for the fourth time in his career.

The Sabres maintain an edge in re-signing Skinner because under league rules they can offer him an eight-year contract. He would be limited to signing a seven-year deal in free agency.

Skinner’s uncertain status overshadowed Krueger’s introduction, which came some three weeks after he was hired .

He arrived in Buffalo on Tuesday after spending time in Europe where he met with several players, including captain Jack Eichel, competing at the World Championships in Slovakia. Krueger also had personal issues to deal with in preparing to move back to North America after spending the past five years serving as chairman of soccer’s Southampton FC of the English Premier League.

Fully focused on being the Sabres coach, Krueger said he has little interest in reflecting on what’s gone wrong with a team in the midst of an eight-year playoff drought – the NHL’s longest active streak – and now on its fifth coach since Lindy Ruff was fired in February 2013.

”I’m not the kind of person who spends a lot of time on the opinions of the past,” he said. ”For me to analyze one year, three years, five years, 10 years, 15 years past would be a waste of time in my opinion. It’s more, what do we need to be. And I’ll focus on that.”

At 59, Krueger returns to the NHL, where he fired after one year as the Edmonton Oilers coach following the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Krueger, who is from Winnipeg, Manitoba, established his reputation as a hockey innovator and motivator internationally while coaching the Swiss national team and leading Team Europe to a second-place finish at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Krueger has much on his plate. He will be attending the NHL draft in Vancouver, British Columbia, in two weeks, immediately followed by the Sabres’ annual rookie development camp, and hopes to have a staff in place by the end of the month. He’s already spoken to half the players on the Sabres’ roster, and hopes to reach out to the remaining ones over the next week.

Krueger characterized his conversations with Eichel and forward Sam Reinhart at the world championships as productive.

”There was a clear understanding of what needs to be done here I thought in their conversations. We didn’t just speak about the weather,” he said. ”We spent a lot of time speaking about what needs to happen off ice, on ice and through.”

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Fellow coaches expect Krueger to thrive, adjust with Sabres

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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 joined 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.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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Ralph Krueger back in NHL as Sabres head coach

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Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill has made his decision and has chosen Ralph Krueger to be the team’s next head coach.

“As we sat down with Ralph, we liked what he has from an NHL background, the fact he worked with Carolina as a consultant for five or six years while he was head coach with Team Switzerland,” Botterill said Wednesday morning. “We liked the fact he was on the bench for three years in Edmonton, but we also put a lot of stock into his experience at the World Championships and the World Cup at the Olympics. Those are high-pressure situations where you have to make adjustments and you have to make quick decisions and he got results in those situations. That was impressive from our standpoint.

“When we did the follow up from talking with different players who had worked under Ralph they felt he was a very good communicator with them. That ability to get the most out of a group and communicate with a group we felt was a very good fit for our situation in Buffalo.”

Botterill reportedly had a thorough search for Phil Housley’s replacement and settled on Krueger, who was last behind a bench guiding Team Europe to a runner-up finish at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Jacques Martin and Dave Tippett were reportedly among the finalists for the job.

Since 2014, the 59-year-old Kruger had been chairman of English Premier League side Southampton F.C. It was announced last month that his contract would not be extended.

Krueger’s last presence in the NHL was as head coach with the Edmonton Oilers during the lockout-shortened 2013 season. He was fired — over Skype — after a 19-22-7 record, three years after he was brought into the organization as an associate coach.

Months after his surprising success at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, Krueger’s name entered the head coaching rumor mill and remained whenever a new job opened up. He told Pro Soccer Talk in May 2017 that he had turned down two NHL jobs, citing his happiness with his role at Southampton.

Speaking with The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun in April, Krueger spoke about the experience he gained in the role as chairman, something he could certainly bring to his new job with the Sabres.

“Now I’ve had the opportunity to be that person who creates a culture where you try to have it that everybody can really find their potential and find out what they’re made of,” Krueger said. “So my evolution has been neat that way. Now six years into this, if someone is asking me about the NHL, your brain goes to a similar role.’”

Krueger, who will be the Sabres’ fifth coach since 2013, has plenty of work ahead of him in turning around the franchise’s fortunes. Buffalo finished with the fifth-worst record in the NHL in 2018-19 and won 16 of their final 57 games after a 10-game winning streak earlier in the season gave hope that The Queen City would see playoff hockey again.

There are good pieces in Rasmus Dahlin, Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, and possibly Jeff Skinner, should he re-sign, to build around, and Botterill will add another with the No. 7 overall selection in next month’s entry draft.

MORE: Who should coach Ducks, Oilers, Senators?

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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.

The Buzzer: Avalanche land last spot in West

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Three Stars

1. Phil Kessel

This is actually a dual Penguins three-point scorer award, as both Kessel and Sidney Crosby (one goal, two assists) enjoyed three-point nights as Pittsburgh clinched a playoff spot.

Kessel gets the edge for a couple reasons, though. For one thing, he had more goals than Crosby, as Kessel’s points came via two goals and one assist. One of the winger’s goals ended up standing as the game-winner, too.

With 82 points in 81 games, this ties Kessel’s 2011-12 as his second-best output, behind only last year’s 92. While Kessel seems to find his name mentioned far too often in trade rumors, the guy just keeps delivering. In particular, he probably deserves more credit for being “clutch,” as he’s been dynamite for the Penguins in postseason situations, and also important regular season moments like these.

Also, he once filled the Stanley Cup with hot dogs for trolling purposes. Pretty good final tiebreaker, actually.

2. Alexander Steen

As An Increasingly Old, I can relate to Steen slowing down, as the Blues forward has done at 35.

It’s nice to see strong outbursts like these from Steen, then, unless you’re a part of the Central Division jumble where three spots still haven’t been decided. Then you’d probably prefer the Blues to be a one-line team, thank you very much.

Steen scored two goals and one assist on Thursday, with one of those tallies coming shorthanded. His 27 points are more solid when you realize he’s been limited to 64 games played, so maybe he can heat up for the postseason?

3. Petr Mrazek

It was tempting to go for Jack Eichel (one goal and two assists, and you’ll see that one of those helpers ended up being special) or Jaroslav Halak, who pitched a 26-save shutout. There were other nice performances, too.

With the Sabres eliminated and the Bruins already locked in place, the Hurricanes “needed” more out of Mrazek, at least for a while. The complications of clinching scenarios called for some changes, but the bottom line is that Mrazek played well enough to make the process more straightforward for Carolina, as the clinched a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, ending a decade-long postseason drought.

Highlights of the Night

Two moments of great passing really took the cake on Thursday. First, check out this sweet no-look pass by almost-third-star Jack Eichel to Sam Reinhart:

If you’re like me, you’re a sucker for fantastic breakout passes, and Dougie Hamilton provided exactly that to Warren Foegele:

Factoids

  • There will be greater detail on this later, but in the East, the Capitals clinched the Metropolitan Division title, while the Penguins and Hurricanes locked down playoff berths. Out West, the Avalanche clinched their spot, punctuated by this goal from Nathan MacKinnon to Erik Johnson, thus knocking off the Coyotes. The West’s eight is set, while positioning is still to be determined in certain situations.

(Technically, this goal really secured the spot, but the Johnson goal was more fun.)

Scores

BUF 5 – OTT 2
TBL 3 – TOR 1
NYI 2 – FLA 1 (SO)
PIT 4 – DET 1
WSH 2 – MTL 1
CAR 3 – NJD 1
STL 7 – PHI 3
NSH 3 – VAN 2
BOS 3 – MIN 0
COL 3 – WPG 2 (OT)
SJS 3 – EDM 2
ARI 4 – VGK 1

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.

Hats off to Tavares’ fantastic first season in Toronto

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However you feel about John Tavares joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, you can’t deny how great he’s been during his first season with the team he rooted for as a child.

It’s possible that Monday represented his best game yet with the Maple Leafs.

For the 10th time in his already fantastic NHL career – and already the second time since joining the Maple Leafs – Tavares generated a hat trick. He did so through two periods of Monday’s game against the Florida Panthers, and actually added a fourth goal during the final frame as Toronto outgunned the Panthers 7-5. With that, Tavares enjoyed his first-ever four-goal game.

As you can see from the highlights of his hat trick above and the fourth goal below, the goals were very much of Tavares’ trademark: “greasy” goals in the dirty areas in front of the net. If you combined the distance of all four goals, they might only match that single center-ice goal by Sam Reinhart.

Tavares has already crossed the 40-goal barrier for the first time in his career, and the milestones are piling up from there, as this performance pushes him to 45 goals and 86 points in 76 games. Consider the following:

via Getty Images

Impressive stuff.

There’s a lot of angst in the air in Toronto right now, and a win might only do so much to soothe concerns, as a 7-5 win isn’t exactly “pretty.” At least if you’re wanting to tighten things up, as Mike Babcock surely hopes to do heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But imagine if Tavares was a flop, instead of a slam-dunk success, during his first season with the Maple Leafs? Instead, he’s playing at such a level that he might just help Toronto to simply “outscore its mistakes.”

Either way, it certainly doesn’t seem like signing Tavares was a mistake.

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.