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Former Oiler coach Ralph Krueger brings his leadership skills back with Buffalo

Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger (centre) discusses power play options with Jack Eichel (9), Rasmus Dahlin (26), Colin Miller (33), and Victor Olofsson (68), late in the third period at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y., on Oct. 9, 2019.
Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger (centre) discusses power play options with Jack Eichel (9), Rasmus Dahlin (26), Colin Miller (33), and Victor Olofsson (68), late in the third period at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y., on Oct. 9, 2019.

As a hockey coach Ralph Krueger is like the iconic sheriff Andy Taylor from Mayberry on the old Andy Griffith TV show — likeable, straight-shooter, also able to get the town folk to listen to what he says.

You have to look long and hard to find any player who’s had trouble with Krueger.

In his coaching days in Germany, with the Swiss national team, certainly here with Edmonton Oilers during that 2012-2013 lockout season when they came close to the playoffs, the kids not only loved him but played hard and well for him.

It’s much the same story in Buffalo now.

“Every time I run into an Oiler … Taylor Hall a few days ago against New Jersey, or Jeff Petry (Montreal) or Jordan Eberle (Islanders), or if I see Sam Gagner and Nuge (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) (Sunday) at the rink, there’s always hugs and smiles and laughing,” said the Sabres coach.

“We went through a pretty intense time together here and that connection is still extremely strong.”

You don’t always find a symbiotic relationship between player and coach but Krueger has always seemed more like an all-knowing, all-caring dad.

“Super positive guy but he’ll hold you accountable. He’s a good teacher, obviously, a very intelligent guy. Shows that when goes to Europe and manages a soccer team. He just knows sports. I really enjoyed my time with Ralph,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “He’s obviously young at heart. How old is he? He’s 60? I would have thought he’s younger than that because of his attitude, such an upbeat guy. We had a bit of a good run that year (2013-2014). He definitely held us in the fight until the end.”

“One hundred percent I needed the Oiler experience to prove I could be a head coach in the National Hockey League,” said Krueger, who was Tom Renney’s right-hand man for two years, then moved up when Renney wasn’t rehired by then GM Steve Tambellini. “I’m so grateful to the organization for bringing me into the fold and I think back with nothing but pleasure those three years in Edmonton. Absolutely zero bitterness. I dealt with it (being let go by Craig MacTavish) pretty positively when it happened.”

MacTavish’s mistake letting Krueger go for Dallas Eakins, who was a good man in over his head in his first NHL head-coaching job.

The Southampton soccer shift was a quixotic story, but that’s who he is, an adventurer at heart. There was also the side trip to be head coach of the stars from Germany, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia, France at the 2016 World Cup where he got the World Team to the finals against Canada, coaching a just-starting-to-bloom Leon Draisaitl.

“If I hadn’t done that project I don’t know if I’d be here today. It was an opportunity to stay hot within the hockey environment, with top players … (Anze) Kopitar, (Zdeno) Chara, (Marian) Gaborik, (Jaro) Halak, Mark Streit, so many players who made me feel comfortable. It was just like coming home,” said Krueger, who says he saw the genius of Draisaitl back then.

“We went through some growing pains with Leon but he scored a hat-trick against Sweden in an exhibition game and when he stepped up to score the overtime (tournament) winner against the Czechs, that moment confirmed his potential.

“People thought I was insane to put Leon out there for a defensive zone face-off but I thought it was better he win the draw in our end and after a bit of a broken play he winds up with a breakaway. Just how Leon dealt with it all, how cool he was, we were sitting in the room afterwards and (assistant coach) Paul Maurice and I saw a whole different level with Leon. He grew tons in that tournament. So, no I’m not surprised what he is now.”

Draisaitl heaped praise on Kreuger the day before their first NHL meeting.

“I only had a short time with him at the World Cup but he’s a great communicator,” said the NHL’s leading scorer. “He’s someone you want to play for. At the time I wasn’t at the level I am now. I was a work in progress and I learned a lot from Ralph and the players I was around. It was such a great experince.

“Ralph has that positive mentality and it’s really calming to a lot of players and team. Nothing but good things to say about Ralph.”

Krueger is a people person, but was more involved with the business end of things with his soccer club.

Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford reportedly made a coaching offer that Krueger turned down while he was at Southampton before Rutherford hired Mike Johnston. Then this summer, the New York Rangers contacted him about their president’s job that went to John Davidson. That seemed Krueger’s next career NHL path. But now he’s coaching again in Buffalo.

“When I had my conversations with (Sabres GM Jason) Botterill, I knew that I hadn’t done coaching for awhile,” said Krueger. “But realized it’s my life’s calling. I wasn’t sure how quickly it would all come back to me but I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s intense and all teams go through learning curves and ups and downs. I’m really embracing this process.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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