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DAVID STAPLES: Major mistakes of Edmonton Oilers management? One was axing Ralph Krueger, now head coach of the Buffalo Sabres

Edmonton Oilers' head coach Ralph Krueger, centre, talks to Taylor Hall, right, as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, looks on during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Vancouver Canucks in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday January 20, 2013.
Edmonton Oilers' head coach Ralph Krueger, centre, talks to Taylor Hall, right, as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, looks on during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Vancouver Canucks in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday January 20, 2013. - Postmedia

How we got it wrong in Edmonton when it came to Ralph Krueger

Hockey writers and pundits don’t get everything right, and that’s also the case with fan bloggers like me who are sometimes blinded by the hope that the home team’s management has finally got things right, even if the last ten moves they made were all wrong.

When I think of my own mistakes in writing about the Oilers, my support of Oilers management when they fired Ralph Krueger and hired Dallas Eakins in 2013 in near the top of the list.

We never knew what a gem we had here in Krueger, just now named as the new head coach of the Buffalo Sabres.

I can’t help but wonder how the Oilers would have done if only they had kept Krueger, a coach who I recognized at the time as bringing out the best in top attacking players like Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov, Devan Dubnyk and Justin Schultz, but I blamed because he didn’t get more out of that 2012-13 OIlers team, even in a lock-out shortened season.

In retrospect, it’s clear to see that Oilers GM Steve Tambellini had failed dramatically when it came to building a useful supporting cast of veterans and young talent to bolster the Oilers line-up. In this era, the best that Tambellini could do wasn’t nearly good enough, as he drafted poorly and brought in weak veterans like Kurtis Foster, Jim Vandermeer, Gilbert Brule, Eric Belanger, Ben Eager, Lennart Petrell, Nick Schultz and Darcy Hordichuk in the two years before Krueger got the job, then in 2012-13 added Mark Fistric, Jerred Smithson, and Mike Brown to the mix, none of them world beaters, most of them abject disappointments. The team failed to make the playoffs under Krueger, but they were a better team than before he was head coach and they were never as good again until 2016-17.

Krueger, it’s now evident, represented the best hope for a winning Oilers team built around that core group of Hall, RNH, Eberle, Schultz, Dubnyk and Yakupov.

What I also failed to realize then was that part of the reason the team struggled in 2012-13 was that it played against only super tough Western Conference teams that truncated season. If Krueger had had a full year, and if his Oilers had played against weaker, smaller, less physical Eastern Conference teams, the results would almost certainly have been much better in 2012-13. I realized this grave mistake in my analysis — one that was made almost without exception by Oilers bloggers at that time — by December 2013, when Dallas Eakins’ Oilers were doing well against Eastern Conference teams, but getting crushed by Western Conference teams. I admitted my error at that time. But by then it was too late to throw my support to Krueger. He was gone.

It’s fair to say that Craig MacTavish’s biggest mistake as GM was firing Krueger. MacTavish came in promising bold moves and he made one in axing Krueger. Then MacTavish paid the price for it himself when he was fired in 2015.

In any case, good luck to Krueger in Buffalo, where he inherits a team full of young talent, much like those 2012-13 Oilers.

For the record, and for anyone wanting to learn more about Krueger’s philosophy and how he was seen in Edmonton during his short tenure here, this is what we reported at the Cult of Hockey and Edmonton Journal on him:

Jonathan Willis, May 25, 2012: There’s no arguing with Krueger’s record at the international level.  He won everything he could possibly win – including a championship over teams from stronger European leagues – as a head coach in Austria, and his defense-first system helped propel Switzerland up the world rankings.  That track record is the reason why the Oilers could give a first-time NHL coach an ‘associate’ title without any controversy… One of Krueger’s responsibilities with the Oilers was the power play, which after years of struggling finished third in the NHL in 2011-12…. Krueger’s the man who drew up the plan and took an approach different from that pursued by the Oilers for years. “Everybody talks about the quarterback being back at the point. But, if you look at the truly great powerplays, they are led by a dangerous player off the hashmark,” Krueger said, and added had two such bodies — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner.

Bruce McCurdy, June 28, 2012, when he was hired here, reports on Krueger in his own words from his first press conference as Oilers coach.

On the Oilers: “We are not going to be focussed on winning, winning, winning to the point that it suffocates us and we squeeze our sticks. We have skill in our room that’s so exciting, and I need to find ways that their instincts can play freely in this organization, that we don’t block them with the coaching processes, and that the natural ability leads us to winning.”

On coaching: “What strong coaching does is allow the instincts of the players to flourish, to flow naturally. That’s going to be one of the biggest challenges, with all the skill we have, bringing them together on one page on the defensive side of the game, but allowing them the freedom to flow and to be dynamic and exciting offensively.”

On his readiness: “It’s been a natural, healthy 23 years of growth as a coach, and I feel like I’m ready for this situation.”

On style of play: I think it’s important as a coach to look at the assets you have. With this group, you don’t have to do the team offence thing as much as if you have no skill. It’s all about groups of five when you have a lack of skill. When you have skill, you need to work together but you can free-flow. The young players that we like to speak about all the time are maturing, day by day, they really have taken to wanting to understand the team defensive side of it. That needs to be a strong foundation of creating a winning culture. The style will be a very disciplined one. We will want to attack on a very aggressive basis and we have the tools to do that, on the same time always building on a strong defensive core.”

On balance: “ I will be a lot less about technicalities and tactics than I will be into keeping communication lines open. I’m into coaching quality and not quantity. I’ve found that the pace of the NHL and travel that we have doesn’t allow for a lot of quantity. As an example, video, I think it’s about quality, bringing the players what they need so they can play freely on the ice.”

On rookies, specifically Nail Yakupov and Oscar Klefbom: “ I’ll have a bit of a step up coming from Europe, to understand what’s going on in their minds.”

July 12, 2012, Krueger on why he planned to play rookies Yakupov and Schultz on the power play: “They will be strongest, probably, in those [power play] situations early on. It’s the 5-on-5 game in the National Hockey League that truly tests young players – to find their way defensively first of all and then to create offensively is quite difficult when you’re new into the league. On the power play their skillset will have a little more time and space and they should be able to add to our power play strength immediately.”

Jan. 28, 2013, on why he doesn’t like putting his lines constantly into the blender: “There are certain advantages that grow out of lines also going through difficult games together. Because the conversations on the bench are always between those three…. I’m not a big fan of a lot of changing. What you can see within the games, I don’t mind mixing up lines once in a while through a game to try break it, throw somebody into another line… There’s a lot of flexibility there. But your foundation, in this league, where things are coming at us so fast, we need to find some continuity in the people we’re playing with to also have some things develop instinctually in those lines… We’re being extremely patient with this, more on the hope that the synergies can grow. If Nail (Yakupov) suddenly ends up in a completely different situation with different partners, he’s going to start at the zero point again.”

John Mackinnon, Edmonton Journal, Feb. 24, 2013: This promising, gifted but unfinished, often out-of-sync Oilers team has the right man coaching them in Krueger. He said this week his job is to coax the best from all his players. And there was ample evidence on Saturday that his upbeat, cerebral approach is working well.

David Staples, Cult of Hockey, March 8, 2013: The coaching staff has generally had the right players on the ice at the right time. Under-performing veterans aren’t getting too much ice time, unless the coaches have no other options, which is sometimes the case. The Nugent-Hopkins line has been run into the ground, facing off against the top competition on other teams, but what other choice has there been for Ralph Krueger and his assistants? It’s clear Ales Hemsky and Ryan Smyth are no longer up to the challenge of facing off against top competition and Horcoff is out… Their options have been limited due to inexperience and lack of depth.

Stan Fischler, New York hockey writer, April 11, 2013: Is there a more disappointing NHL team than the Oilers? Edmonton’s biggest mistake was not keeping Tom Renney as head coach. Goalie is weak.

Jim Matheson, Edmonton Journal, April 23, 2013: He’s got the wrong mix of players, heavy on skill, but not nearly enough truculence to borrow Brian Burke’s favourite word–only 12 fights all year, lowest in the league, little nastiness in scrums after whistles. He knows it, but he’s not singling anybody out, not for public consumption. There’s no funny, sarcastic lines coming out of his mouth like those of former coach Pat Quinn who didn’t like “fly-by players”, his way of saying players who stayed out of harm’s way. He hasn’t verbally swung at anybody as his new GM boss Craig MacTavish did with Dustin Penner one day, referencing his contract… Krueger is a nice guy. He says hello to one and all at the rink–media guy, Zamboni drivers, security people, visiting coaches, visiting writers.  He is also the right man for this job, eminently qualified through 20 years of coaching, in Europe and over here. He’s diligent in his preparation, a strong voice.

David Staples, May 24, 2013: In 2013, under Krueger, RNH, Eberle, Hall all took major big steps up, while Hartikainen took a smaller step. But when it came to declining two-way performance, Eager, Paajarvi, Gagner, Horcoff, Petrell, Hemsky, Whitney each took a step back, while Petry, Smid, Smyth, Jones, Lander, Belanger took giant steps back. A few of these players (Horcoff, Whitney, Smyth, Belanger and maybe Eager and Hemsky to some extent) declined due to age and injury, but others just saw their games stall or go into reverse… It certainly looks like Krueger will be back to coach the team. If he is going to succeed, this team has got to create more scoring chances and give up fewer chances. It needs to have the vast majority of its young and young veteran players improving their two-way play.

Craig MacTavish, June 8, 2013, after firing Krueger on Skype: “I don’t think that this was in any way fair to Ralph. It wasn’t about being fair to Ralph.”

David Staples, June 9, 2013: He failed in his short chance to get the team to perform at a higher level. As much as I liked Krueger’s passion and the fact he was a career coach with a great deal of knowledge, his Oilers team was a disappointment on many levels. Most crucially, this is a team that went sideways when it came to creating scoring chances and stopping the other team from getting scoring chances. It had zero improvement. In fact, it slipped a bit from Tom Renney’s last season as coach… Of course, all of Krueger’s line-up choices and the team’s overall performance this year were greatly impacted by the players that Oilers GM Steve Tambellini and his pro scouts provided. Krueger had little choice but to go with players like Eric Belanger, Ryan Whitney, Mark Fistric, Mike Brown, Ben Eager, Darcy Hordichuk. They were here, they were on contract, so Krueger was stuck, for good or for ill. But Krueger didn’t seem to make the most of his players, save for the young group of stars on the team, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall.

Jonathan Willis, June 10, 2013: Krueger’s team didn’t just perform badly. It underperformed the team from the year before by a significant margin. And that represents cause to dismiss the coach… Renney’s teams averaged in the 46.5 percent range, and in six of seven segments were above 45 percent. The final segment with the steep drop-off coincides with the loss of Taylor Hall to injury. Krueger’s team in contrast averaged below 45 percent and in two of his four 12-game segments underperformed the Oilers’ worst stretch (the no-Hall segment) under Renney. The team was consistently out-shot and out-chanced to a degree worse than the 2011-12 Oilers were, and the only reason the team was able to tread water (the records under Krueger and Renney were roughly comparable) was thanks to better goaltending… As MacTavish said, it’s not about being fair to Krueger, and the data suggests that the coaching change from Renney to Krueger had introduced new problems that needed to be fixed. In the end, MacTavish decided those problems could best be fixed by outside help, and in the process identified a new coach – widely reported to be Dallas Eakins – who was a better fit for the new philosophy he is introducing to the organization. It’s not a decision that can be faulted.

David Staples, Dec. 9, 2013: Last year, former coach Ralph Kruger’s Oilers only played against Western conference teams in the lock out-shortened season. Those Western conference teams were tougher competition, on average, than the Oilers had faced in 2011-12, when they played most of their games against the West, but also a portion of games against weaker Eastern conference teams. So while the scoring chance numbers went sideways under Krueger, the increased difficulty of competition might have masked some amount of improvement on his watch. There’s no doubt that the play of the Oilers top line players, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, all improved in Krueger’s first and only year as the Oilers coach. This year, Eakins’ Oilers have done well in terms of scoring chances differential against Eastern teams, but not against the competition that Krueger’s team always faced.

David Staples. Jan. 13, 2014: The Edmonton Oilers under Dallas Eakins have now played 48 games, the same number the team played under coach Ralph Krueger in the lock-out shortened 2012-13 season…. Overall, the best players did better in their two way games at even strength under Krueger and the team did a bit better against tough Western conference opponents. Krueger’s power play and penalty kill units also performed better. There’s a performance edge here for Krueger’s Oilers.

David Staples, Feb. 10, 2014: The notion that the Oilers were on the wrong track with Krueger deserves to be reconsidered.

Craig Button, March 17, 2014, on new Oilers coach Dallas Eakins: “The bottom line is, and Al MacNeil, a long time player, a long time coach, he always said this, ‘If a coach is getting a team to play to its capabilities, and the team doesn’t have success, then that’s on management to get better players in there. If a team isn’t playing to its capabilities, it starts with the coach.’ This team, in my view, does not play to its capabilities. It’s interesting that you use the term, ‘lost in translation’ with Yakupov.  I think there’s a lot of things lost in translation and not just with Yakupov. That’s the coach’s job….The coach’s job is to get players to play to their ability, to play to their strengths and to play to their capabilities, and to weave it within the framework of a team. And that’s your job. And I don’t think anybody can say that there’s been progress in that young group.”

May 14, 2018 Bob Stauffer of the Oilers: “For Buffalo Sabres’ fans Ralph Krueger is like a Jurgen Klopp-type from Liverpool. Positive energy guy, who empowers his players. Has some interesting concepts with PP, and puck support defensively. He is the ‘Dos Equis’ guy of the Sports World. A ballsy hire by Botterill.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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