March 17 is best known for St. Patrick’s Day, but for Buffalo hockey fans, March 17 is the day that marked the end of one of the highest and lowest coaching tenures in the game. Buffalo Sabres history. Most Sabers fans saw Ralph Kreuger’s firing as a relief after his docile, laid-back coaching style led to a team that looked downright nonchalant and inept.
Last offseason, this team had so many people believing – again – that the team was potentially playoff-bound. It looked like the team had a real chance to fight for one of the top 4 spots in the division. Unfortunately, a horrible start to the season made the Sabers seem more likely to be a contender for the first overall pick than a playoff berth. Then, on Saint Patrick’s Day, Ralph Kreuger was fired and Don Granato was named interim head coach.
For the first six games after Granato was named interim coach, the results were the same as when Kreuger was still head coach. Sabers fans witnessed Don Granato’s first victory as head coach of the Sabers, followed soon after by some less than stellar finishes for the team. However, what was obvious to even the most casual fan was the fact that the team now looked more competitive than it had all season before Kreuger was fired. Although there were some lopsided results, we started to see a team that looked, at least in part, like a fast, offensive hockey team.
Even in those first six games of Granato’s tenure with the Sabres, the team still allowed more goals against than anyone would have hoped. But after the first few games, the team’s defensive style seemed to start moving in the right direction. Players are no longer afraid to attack the puck carrier in the neutral/defensive zone and are now looking to surprise their opponents. The takeout-to-gift ratio increased dramatically as Granato took over as interim head coach, and the overall aggressive, more attack-inspired defensive play continued to improve.
Teams no longer bully Sabers in front of the net, and players have collectively closed passing lanes in order to break up and intercept passes. In the offensive end and neutral zone, Buffalo players adopt a more “in-front” swarming style to pressure puck carriers and key passing options. This has allowed Casey Mittelstadt, Tage Thompson and Arttu Ruotsalainen to claim their success in recent weeks. Don Granato got the most out of this young group of Sabers who were called up for what is essentially a season-ending tryout, and the results and overall play were impressive.
It seems obvious that Ralph Kreuger preached a more structured defensive game in his days at Buffalo. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, as many old-school conventional coaches prefer this as a team’s primary focus. However, the tactic involved in implementing his system involved being more passive, not taking unnecessary penalties, and letting the opponent make the first mistake.
While this system makes sense in theory, the ebbs and flows of today’s hockey game do not allow this system to work in the way Kreuger envisioned. Today’s hockey teams are faster and more aggressive offensively than ever before. By having your team play passive hockey, you allow the aggressive opponent to use the passive game of defense against them, essentially by handcuffing themselves.
Many times during Krueger’s tenure, you would see an opponent bring the puck into the offensive zone while Sabers defensemen continued to give ground to the opposition instead of challenging at or around the blue line. When this happens and the offense pushes the Sabers defense back at such a rapid rate, the area opens up from the hash marks along the circles to the blue line, which only calls an opposing player like a “Kucherov”. ” or a “Pastrnak” to intervene and shoot through the screens.
At this point, when things like this were constantly happening night after night, it wasn’t so much what the opposition was doing to beat this Sabers team as it was the Sabers fighting with how they approached the game from a systemic point of view. . To Ralph Krueger’s credit, however, this passive approach to defense was a big reason the Sabers took so few penalties throughout the season.
Don Granato has been said to allow his players to play the way they know how to – which means, unlike Krueger, who was content to have Rasmus Dahlin stay behind and be more of a presence at home and Jeff Skinner steps away and starts the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone instead of being put in more favorable situations offensively. Granato is respected by his players, partly because he expects them to play responsibly.
The Sabers will miss the playoffs once again, but it’s hard not to see the silver lining come the end of this season. Don Granato’s ability to inspire and motivate and his instinct to know when to let a player be who he is instead of trying to mold him to be his own ideal type of hockey player as a old-school “Ralph Kreuger-style” coaches in this league trying to do.
The Sabers have a lot of big decisions to make in the offseason about this hockey team and what the future might hold for them, and I hope Kevyn Adams does his best to emulate Granato’s hands-off coaching style. and will keep Don moving. in a positive direction with this hockey team.