Early NHL standings show coaching changes work: Sabres and Oilers leading their division

With coach Ralph Krueger’s Buffalo Sabres (6-1-1) leading the Atlantic Division and Dave Tippett’s Edmonton Oilers sitting atop the Pacific Division, offseason coaching changes are an important storyline in the NHL’s early going.

But this is an old story, not a fresh approach

Last year, new coach Rod Brind’Amour took the Carolina Hurricanes to their first playoff appearance in a decade and made it to the Eastern Conference Final before bowing out. Coach Craig Berube, an in-season coaching arrival, guided the St. Louis Blues to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

“When you bring in a new coach, I truly believe you get the best from all guys,” Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said. “As a player, you get a chance to showcase what you are all about.”

Historically, coaching changes often give NHL teams an initial boost, whether it is at the start of a season or in-season. In 2015-16, the Penguins fired Mike Johnston after 28 games and Mike Sullivan took them to a championship. That was six years after coach Dan Bylsma took over in-season for the Penguins and won the 2009 Stanley Cup.

Veteran coach Darryl Sutter took over the Los Angeles Kings in 2011-12 and won a Stanley Cup. Before his arrival, the Kings last won a playoff series in 2001.

“I see in other sports (a coaching move) is not as big of a change,” Waddell said. “But I see in our sport, because we do roll 18 players on nightly basis, where a guy feels it’s a fresh start and an opportunity to prove he deserves more ice time.”

Buffalo Sabres captain Jack Eichel talks with head coach Ralph Krueger during the first period of a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Photo: Gene J. Puskar, AP)

The ice time reshuffle has long been thought to be a primary reason for the team improvement. In life, everyone always tries harder to impress the new boss.

Plus, new coaches often concentrate on improving the team’s defensive play because that’s the area where they can have instant impact. You can teach a player to be more defensive but you can’t transform a 20-goal scorer into a 40-goal scorer. Defensive improvement always impact the standings.

Teams that made off-season coaching switches:

►Sabres (Krueger): No one in Buffalo is too excited about the team’s strong start because everyone remembers last season’s collapse after winning 10 in a row.

But Krueger’s professorial style fits well with this team, which relies heavily on young stars Jack Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin and Sam Reinhart. 

Canadian Krueger, the son of German immigrants, previously coached the Edmonton Oilers. But he was recently chairman of the Southampton soccer club and a well-respected motivational speaker. He once wrote a book, in German, called "Team Life: Beyond Setbacks to Success."

“At heart, he’s a kid from Manitoba who loves coaching hockey,” said Sabres general manager Jason Botterill. “He enjoyed his experience at Southampton, but he is fired up and excited to be back behind the bench. Our players are feeding off that. They understand the passion he’s bringing.”

Krueger, well-accomplished in international hockey, has always had the ability to instantly connect with players he coached. Botterill said he senses that Krueger always knows what to say in every situation.

“When you sit down with Ralph, his entire focus is on you,” Botterill said. “You feel he’s gone through a lot of experiences and he’s pulled down a lot of knowledge from those experiences.”

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