Jason Botterill is 42 years old and has been a GM at the NHL level for exactly two seasons. Perhaps he figures he’s young enough and smart enough and still has plenty of time to get another job if this gig with the Buffalo Sabres goes completely sideways.
And it just might. Deep down, does Botterill really know that Ralph Krueger is the man who is capable of dragging the Sabres out of mediocrity and into contender status? Probably not, because it’s impossible to tell at the moment. Krueger is a 59-year-old with an eclectic resume, but it’s entirely bereft of success at the NHL level and, aside from the masterful job he did with Team Europe in the World Cash Grab of Hockey™, Krueger has been running a soccer club for the past five years. The Sabres need an astute hockey mind and a credible presence in their dressing room more than they need The Most Interesting Man in the World. If they get both in Krueger, all the better.
But here’s the thing. Botterill swung for the fences here, realizing that there’s a chance he could be hitting into a triple play. Sabres fans are a generally blue-collar group, one that has had to endure more dysfunction and ineptitude than any fan base should. They need to see tangible results, some sense that the franchise is developing an identity and moving in the right direction, not someone who speaks four languages and can speak chapter and verse in bafflegab about concepts such as team building and creating a culture. In short, Botterill is putting his own job on the line with this hire.
And that’s what good leaders are not afraid to do. Botterill could have tiptoed around this and hired Jacques Martin, a proven NHL coach with whom Botterill has worked from his days with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He could have hired some guy he played with in college or the minors because that’s what people in the NHL do. He could have retreated to the recycling bin of coaches and made a safe choice. But instead he went off the map and out of the box.
And it’s that kind of thinking that is going to ultimately get the Sabres out of this rut in which they find themselves. This is not a case of Jason Botterill making like he’s smarter than everybody else. This is a young man who is clearly comfortable making unconventional choices, one who has enough confidence in himself that he’s prepared to make a move that he knows will be second-guessed 50 ways to Sunday if it doesn’t go as planned.
Prior to his tenure with the Oilers – two years as an assistant coach and one as the head coach in which the franchise posted a combined record of 76-107-29 with no playoff appearances – Krueger had a previous life in which he was one of the most respected coaches in Europe. As the head coach of Switzerland’s national team for more than a decade, Krueger was always coming from the underdog position and had to figure out a way for them to keep up with the big boys. In his first year with the program in 1998, he guided the Swiss to a fourth-place finish in the World Championship and a fifth-place ranking in his last in 2010. In the 13 years he coached the team, it finished in the top eight in the world nine times. In the 2006 Olympics, the Swiss got to the quarterfinal game and ran into Sweden, which went on to win the gold medal. But it did finish sixth in the tournament, ahead of hockey powers Canada and the United States.
Former NHL coach Ken Hitchcock has had a long association with Krueger and worked with him when Krueger was a consultant with Canada’s Olympic team at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. While even he acknowledges it’s hard to know who the right man is for any coaching job, he thinks Krueger has prepared himself well for his second shot behind an NHL bench.
“He’s great at creating a proper working atmosphere would be the best way to describe it,” Hitchcock said. “He studied that for a living and he’s spent a lot of time trying to understand it. He’s smart at understanding chemistry and continuity. We were together every day in the Olympics and I think he’ll do a hell of a job. He’ll do things that are different than what we’ve seen here and a little unorthodox, but he knows exactly what he’s doing.”
In the end, though, Krueger will be judged on wins and losses and playoff berths and rounds won in the post-season, as he should. So will Botterill. And if this works out, they’ll celebrate their accomplishments together. If it goes the other way, they’ll probably both be looking for work at the same time. Neither of them has anything to lose, which is probably the kind of approach that the Sabres need right about now.
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