March 17th is better known for St. Patrick’s Day, but for Buffalo ice hockey fans, March 17th marks the end of one of the year’s up and down coaching terms Buffalo sabers History. Most Sabers fans saw Ralph Kreuger’s shooting as a relief after his docile and relaxed coaching style resulted in a team that seemed downright unconventional and incompetent.
Last off-season, this team had so many people who – once again – believed the team might be tied to the playoffs. It seemed like the team had made a real attempt to fight for one of the top 4 spots in the division. Unfortunately, after a terrible start to the season, the Sabers had more of a contender for their first overall victory than a playoff spot. Then, on St. Patrick’s Day, Ralph Kreuger was fired and Don Granato was appointed interim coach.
In the first six games after Granato was appointed interim coach, the results were the same as when Kreuger was still head coach. Sabers fans saw Don Granato’s first win as the Sabers head coach, with some less than stellar results for the team soon after. However, what became apparent to even the most casual of fans was the fact that the team now looked more competitive than they had all season before Kreuger was fired. Although there had been some one-sided results, we saw a team that at least partially resembled a fast-paced, aggressively coordinated ice hockey team.
Even during those first six games of Granato’s tenure with the Sabers, the team still allowed more goals than one would have hoped. But after the first few games, the team’s defensive style seemed to be moving in the right direction. The players are no longer afraid to attack the puck carrier in the neutral / defensive zone and now try to surprise their opponents. The snack to giveaway ratio rose dramatically when Granato took over as interim coach, and the overall aggressive and more offensive defensive game continued to improve.
The teams are no longer harassing the Sabers at the head of the net, and the players have worked together to block the fast lanes to break open and intercept the passes. In the offensive end and the neutral zone, Buffalo players swarm harder to put pressure on the puck bearers and primary pass options. That allowed Casey Mittelstadt, Days Thompson, and Arttu Ruotsalainen to achieve their success in the last few weeks. Don Granato made the most of this young group of Sabers called up for a late-season friendly and the results and the overall game were impressive.
It seems obvious that Ralph Kreuger preached a more structured defensive game while in Buffalo. There’s nothing wrong with this approach as many traditional old school coaches prefer this as the main focus of a team. However, the tactic in implementing his system was to be more passive, not incurring unnecessary penalties, and letting the opponent make the first mistake.
While this system makes sense in theory, the ebb and flow of hockey games today do not allow this system to work the way Kreuger envisioned. Hockey teams are aggressively faster and more aggressive today than ever before. By letting your team play passive hockey, you allow the aggressive opponent to use the passive game of defense against them – essentially handcuffed.
During Kruger’s tenure, an opponent was often seen taking the puck into the offensive zone while the Sabers defenders continued to give the opposition ground instead of challenging at or around the blue line. When this happens and the Sabers defense returns so quickly from the offensive, the zone opens up from the diamond markings along the circles to the blue line that only beckons to an opposing player like a “Kucherov” or a “Pastrnak”, to enter and shoot through screens.
At this point, when things like that kept popping up night after night, it wasn’t so much what the opposition did to beat this Sabers team, it was the Sabers who beat themselves, how they embraced the system from the point of view of the System approached. However, it was Ralph Krueger’s credit that this passive defense approach was a major reason the Sabers had imposed so few penalties throughout the season.
It has been said that Don Granato allows his players to play the way they can – unlike Krueger, who contented himself with getting Rasmus Dahlin to stay behind and stay home more and get Jeff Skinner to grind and begin most of his shifts in the defensive zone rather than being put offensively in more favorable situations Granato is respected by his players, also because he expects them to play responsibly.
The Sabers will miss the playoffs again but it’s hard not to see the silver lining at the end of this season. Don Granato’s ability to inspire and motivate and his instinct to know when a player should be who he is rather than trying to make him his ideal hockey player like the old school “Ralph Kreuger-like” coaches do League tries to do.
The Sabers face many important decisions about this ice hockey team and what the future holds for them during the off-season. I hope that Kevyn Adams embodies Granato’s hands-off coaching style in the best possible way and gives Don the opportunity to keep moving in a positive direction with this ice hockey team.