By Colleen Meosky
This St. Patrick’s Day two members of the Sabres coaching staff weren’t very lucky. Head coach Ralph Krueger and assistant coach Steve Smith were dismissed from their positions earlier that morning. While it’s not surprising given the ten game losing streak, it has caused quite the stir for the hockey media and the disappointed fan base.
There were many uncertainties when Ralph Krueger assumed the head coaching position for Buffalo in May 2019. He spent less than a full season as the Edmonton Oilers head coach before being fired, but many people believed he did not receive the proper chance to prove himself. From there, Krueger moved to the English Premier League and was chairman for the Southampton Football Club. There was an abundance of skepticism that he would be the right leader to launch Buffalo out of its then eight year long playoff drought due to his absence from hockey. Nevertheless, former colleagues and new acquaintances were all quick to mention how friendly and knowledgeable he was. This was enough to relieve most people of major concern and allowed for many to hope again for a better season.
Over the past two years, his image of being a phenomenal communicator has been steadily on the decline. As fans and players alike become more desperate for success, Krueger faced the challenging task of coaching a locker room with players who had become weighed down by years of losing and false hope. While his players have reiterated how likable and kind he is, the results of good coaching were absent from the ice. Krueger’s been known for an easy temperament and trusting the development process. However, this has left many to think the team may need a stricter coach who refuses to accept their shortcomings.
With what is now a nine year playoff drought, hope and energy has evidently drained from the locker room. The Sabres are currently eighth in the East Division and last place in the league standings with no hint of rising. It looks imminent that the Sabres will tie the NHL’s longest playoff drought in history(ten seasons) and has already been the league’s longest active drought. Although it’s inevitable that every franchise will have poorer seasons over the years, the Sabres have not been able to rebuild effectively.
Sam Reinhart was drafted second overall in 2014. Then came along a projected generational star in the likes of Jack Eichel. Finally, after years of being beat for the top pick, the best defensemen to come along since fellow countryman Victor Hedman came to Buffalo. Rasmus Dahlin’s reputation of a supremely skilled skater with excellent vision for the game excited the global hockey community, not just Western New York. After fruitful rookie and sophomore seasons, Dahlin has been a defensive liability who has only obtained 11 points in 29 games. Even worse is his +/- of -28, the lowest in the NHL. Each of these players came in with people hoping they’d save the team and bring some playoff hockey back to Buffalo.
Fans gathered at Keybank Center to watch and celebrate the first overall pick of 2018, Rasmus Dahlin. Image from Buffalo Sabres YouTube
A flopped first round draft pick is not unheard of. However, this has become a tradition in the franchise. This is not to say that Reinhart, Eichel, and Dahlin are bad players; it simply reflects the weakness in developing players properly. In fact, Reinhart is having one of his best seasons to date and has highlight reel plays. Eichel has been dealing with several injuries this season and is currently out indefinitely with a neck issue. As for Rasmus Dahlin, he is a young defenseman who has a habit of making poor decisions leading to intercepted passes and odd man rushes. He has also been subject to Ralph Krueger’s system that hinders defensemen from charging down the ice and generating offense. Draft projectors and scouts nearly always stated that skating the puck up ice is his best quality. Furthermore, young players will make mistakes while they become accustomed to the speed and skill of the NHL, particularly blue-liners.
Reinhart, Eichel, and Dahlin were all drafted into the organization. Jeff Skinner was traded from Carolina in August 2018. He immediately became an integral part of the team during the ten game winning streak that he was so influential in making. For the first time in his career, Skinner became an All-Star and tallied up 40 goals. Last season he cooled off and only produced 14 goals, his lowest number to date. Returning to begin the unusual 2021 season, Skinner couldn’t generate any of the usual confidence that defines his game. Krueger parked him on the fourth line immediately before benching him based on “principles.” Jeff Skinner has been nothing but loyal to the Buffalo Sabres organization since he waived his no-trade clause in Carolina to relocate. His feisty quips at opponents has made him a fan favorite. It’s been confusing why Krueger would have an issue with Skinner, arguably the smiliest guy in the NHL. He’s respected around the league for his professionalism and utter devotion to the game of hockey. Sabres fans are still in the dark about the exact reasoning for his benching, but even when Skinner was embarrassed by Krueger’s decision, he was a class act in front of the press. A popular trend on Buffalo sports social media was #FreeSkinner in support of one of the few players who seems grateful to be in Western New York. It seems very poetic that Jeff Skinner was the last player to score before the firing of Krueger.
Skinner dancing with a patient at Roswell Park in 2018.
Photo from Buffalo Sabres Twitter
It’s no doubt that Ralph Krueger mishandled the talent he had on the roster. While the Sabres aren’t the most well-rounded team in the league, they have several roster spots filled by players of very notable talent. Now the question is who can take control of the situation and turn this franchise around? Sabres fans have witnessed a decade of exciting players coming to Buffalo and delivering pitiful hockey. There is consistency; Buffalo remains the NHL’s laughing stock. Don Granato has been named interim coach while GM Kevyn Adams searches for a long-term replacement.
A loyal and miserable fan base is more than eager to see change, but for the time being, Buffalo sports fans should look to the Bills for pride.