Growing pains: Krueger, Eakins and McLellan staying positive

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              Anaheim Ducks coach Dallas Eakins watches during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils in Anaheim, Calif., Sunday, March 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
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Buffalo’s Ralph Krueger, Anaheim’s Dallas Eakins and Los Angeles’ Todd McLellan had no illusions about quick fixes in their first seasons. But in a league that has seen plenty of coaching changes the past couple seasons, all three have remained consistent in their message since training camp in September.

“We have not discussed in our room anything beyond what we can take care of today. We’ve done this since September and we’re going to continue to do it, so, really, those are big-picture discussions,” Krueger said.

When it comes to this season, the Sabres, Ducks and Kings will not make the playoffs. Los Angeles and Anaheim once again are in a battle for the bottom of the Western Conference, but have shown strides in implementing more up-tempo styles of play.

Of the three teams, the Sabres have shown signs of the most improvement, despite losing their last four. After winning 10 straight to match a franchise record in Nov. 2018, Buffalo proceeded to win just 16 of its remaining 57 games (16-33-8), leading to Phil Housley being fired.

General manager Jason Botterill then went outside the box in hiring Krueger. The 60-year-old had extensive coaching experience in North American and abroad but had been out of hockey for five years, serving as a director and president of Southampton of the English Premier League.

Krueger has brought in a philosophy of wanting his team to “play connected,” meaning all five skaters working as one. It’s an attacking approach that emphasizes always moving the puck toward the opponent.

“It’s not like last year,” forward Jack Eichel said. “We’ve been through these times where we take a couple of hits at this time of year … and then all of a sudden the wheels fall off. That’s not happening here.”

Eakins was promoted to Anaheim’s top bench spot after four seasons with its San Diego AHL affiliate. He has characterized the organization’s philosophy as transitioning instead of rebuilding, equating it to the process Boston went through a couple years ago.

While Eakins has been pleased with his team’s effort and being more aggressive on the forecheck, the main thing he has been stressing the past couple weeks is trying to rush the net and getting more goals that might now show up in highlights.

“It doesn’t have to be a clean shot on the net. If you watch the highlights every night, there are a whole lot of dirty goals being scored everywhere,” he said. “That’s how we’re going to have to keep committing to getting pucks into the zone in front of the net. The biggest thing is to not be frustrated by it, dig in and stay after it.”

McLellan has always had the toughest rebuilding job of all. The Kings are hampered by veterans with large contracts while trying to slowly work in younger players. McLellan has liked that the veterans have bought in to a quicker pace of play, especially on the power play, but has stressed that the last quarter of the season will be an evaluation period for everyone.

“This is the group that is going to move the needle, as we talked about. Individually and collectively. It’s time to dig in,” he said. “The people that are in that locker room right now, the older players and veterans, we’ve addressed all of them and are aware what their roles could be and how hard they have to play in practice so everybody else can keep their eyes on them. Then there are the followers. The leaders and the followers have to do it all together.”

SIX DEGREES FROM EDMONTON?

McLellan, Kreuger and Eakins share one thing in common — they all coached Edmonton. Of the five teams with first-year coaches, the Oilers are the only one that may make the playoffs, as Dave Tippett has them second in the Pacific Division.

Joel Quenneville has had Florida in postseason contention for most of the season, but the Panthers are five points out of a wild-card spot.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Late-season games between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins always carry high stakes and Saturday’s will be no different. The Capitals lead the Metropolitan Division, but just four points separate the top three spots in the division.

LEADERS (through Tuesday)

Goals: David Pastrnak (Boston) 47; Assists: Leon Draisaitl (Edmonton), 65; Points: Draisaitl, 108; Ice time: Thomas Chabot (Ottawa), 26:01; Wins: Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay), 33; Goals-against average: Tuukka Rask (Boston), 2.13; Save percentage: Pavel Francouz (Colorado), .929; Darcy Kuemper (Arizona), .929; Anton Khudobin (Dallas), .929.