In the 14 years Ralph Krueger coached Switzerland’s men’s senior national hockey team, it was known mostly for a smothering, defensive style of play.
New Jersey Devils, European version, in other words, and Krueger says there was a good reason for this, too.
“Many times, we were trying to beat countries, where not one player on our team would have made theirs,” said Krueger.
That, naturally, represented a different challenge than one that faces him now. Krueger replaced Tom Renney as the Edmonton Oilers coach last June, after two years as an associate coach on the staff. Krueger is a Winnipeg native who played part of his junior career in Calgary, but essentially honed his coaching craft overseas – first in Austria, then in Switzerland.
Above all else, the 53-year Krueger understands that to succeed in the coaching game, you’d better play the hand you are dealt. Thankfully, in Edmonton, he has a completely different hand at the moment – a quartet of young offensive players, in Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov; a defenceman everybody wants to see in Justin Schultz; and a developing goalie, Devan Dubnyk, who will stake his claim to the No. 1 job.
Expectations for a breakthrough are sky high in Edmonton, but before the Oilers added depth defenceman Mark Fistric from the Dallas Stars, Krueger made a sober, realistic point too:
“We were in 29th place last year, and we have changed two players [Yakupov and Schultz],” Krueger said. “They are excellent players and all our players have gotten older. We will be a much better team. There’s no question, the curve has to be up. The competitiveness, on a regular basis, has to be there.
“But we have to temper the speed in which people are expecting this to happen. It’s a process.”
“We’re going to be an exciting team to watch, but there’s a maturity in the National Hockey League that’s needed to truly compete for a Presidents’ Trophy,” Krueger said. “That’s a different type of maturity and we’re not there yet. But we will be dangerous every night, I know that.”
Philosophically, the coach says he is not married to the past, but starts every year fresh, and tries to tailor his coaching style to whatever off-season roster changes may have occurred. He makes a distinction between coaching principles, which he says don’t change much, and strategy of play, which can change a lot, depending on your team, and the opposition as well.
“The principles defensively that every hockey team needs to adhere to are going to be the same, but the puck possession you might want to promote is going to change when you have tools like we have here,” he said.
“Inside the organization, I believe we have a very healthy patience. This season gives us a wonderful concentrated opportunity to really get to know where our strengths and weaknesses lie – and what final pieces we need to change. That’s something that everybody realizes. We’re still at an evolving stage. We’re starting to expect much better results, but we’ve got to keep it realistic. Like when players score a lot of points in the American League, that’s still a long way from the NHL. Like Justin will do very well, but they can’t expect those numbers [second in the league in scoring] to translate equally into the NHL immediately. That’s unrealistic.”