Ralph Krueger Fired as Sabres HC After 6-22 Start to 2021 Season

Tim Daniels@TimDanielsBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2021

Buffalo Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger, top center, looks on during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Saturday, March 13, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)
Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

The Buffalo Sabres announced Wednesday head coach Ralph Krueger has been fired following the team's 12-game losing streak. 

Buffalo sits at the bottom of the NHL standings with 16 points (6-18-4 record), which is six points fewer than any other team. Krueger, who was hired in May 2019, finishes his tenure with a 36-49-12 mark.

Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News reported the other staff changes, including Don Granato taking over as head coach on an interim basis:

Mike Harrington @ByMHarrington

BREAKING: I've learned Don Granato will be the #Sabres interim coach and Steve Smith has also been fired. Development coaches Matt Ellis and Dan Girardi are going to be behind the bench as assistants.

Expectations were on the rise for the Sabres coming into the 2020-21 campaign. They'd made a major free-agent splash by signing Taylor Hall, who won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP in 2017-18, along with the trade acquisition of Eric Staal from the Minnesota Wild.

Those additions combined with the continued development of highly touted young players like Rasmus Dahlin and Dylan Cozens was projected to at least keep Buffalo competitive in the tough East Division.

Instead, Krueger drew the ire of fans and local media for his questionable lineup decisions and his preferred style of play. The Buffalo News recently ranked the team below the Seattle Kraken, an expansion franchise yet to draft a roster ahead of its 2021-22 debut, in its NHL power rankings:

Spittin' Chiclets @spittinchiclets

Talk about getting kicked while you’re down. The Buffalo News ranks Sabres dead last below the Kraken in power rankings. https://t.co/1UiieAaLMF

Jeff Skinner, who scored 40 goals playing alongside franchise cornerstone Jack Eichel on the top line two seasons ago, was demoted to the fourth line and averaged a career-low ice time (13:45). It was a strange decision based on his history of being an elite five-on-five scorer.

Skinner, who's in the second season of an eight-year, $72 million contract, was a healthy scratch for two games earlier in the campaign but shrugged off Krueger's suggestion it could help him evaluate his play.

"I don't think I've ever really felt like I need a day off to relook at things," Skinner told reporters. "I've seen a lot in this league, run through adversity before my career. You just work, keep working and put your head down, and that's what I'll do."

Most of the problems stemmed from Krueger's insistence on a defense-first brand of hockey despite Buffalo's subpar group of defensemen and lackluster goaltending.

If the Sabres were going to make a jump this season, it was going to come on the back of an offense led by Eichel, Hall, Staal, Skinner, Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson. It's a top six with ample upside if given more offensive freedom.

Yet, Krueger refused to relent to conventional wisdom as the losses mounted—fittingly, Skinner scored a five-on-five goal in Tuesday's loss to the New Jersey Devils despite logging less ice time than the likes of Kyle Okposo and Riley Sheahan—and it cost the 61-year-old Canadian his job.

The coaching change likely won't mean much for Buffalo this season. It's 18 points behind the Boston Bruins for the East's final playoff spot and the relative strength of the division makes it virtually impossible to go on the type of run it needs to climb the standings.

That said, Krueger illustrated he wasn't the answer to the problems that have led the Sabres to an NHL-long nine-year playoff drought, and the 12-game losing skid hastened his departure.

Now the focus shifts to the NHL trade deadline on April 12, where players such as Hall and Staal could be on the move as the team's roster reconstruction begins anew with an eye toward the 2021-22 season.