Rikard Grönborg: A risk worth taking

The Swedish National Team head coach would bring a unique perspective behind the bench in Buffalo

Since the initial hoopla regarding the Buffalo Sabres’ reported interest in former Edmonton Oilers head coach, Todd McLellan (who has since signed a five-year deal with the Los Angeles Kings), there have been very few media leaks on the coaching front. In fact, the silence was deafening until Scott Burnside of The Athletic reported yesterday that, according to a source close to the team, Rikard Grönborg’s name was thrown into the Sabres’ internal mix soon after McLellan was eliminated as an option.

Many are unfamiliar with Grönborg, who has served as the head coach of the Swedish National Team since 2016-17. Since then, the 50-year-old has led his country to back-to-back gold-medals in the IIHF World Championship. At the end of this month, he’ll try to make it three in-a-row when the 2019 tournament kicks-off in Slovakia. Prior to his arrival, Sweden had never won back-to-back gold medals since the tournament was established in 1920, and had only won it twice since 2000.

As impressive as that is, Grönborg’s intrigue stretches beyond what he’s been able to accomplish on the international stage. Since his coaching career began as an assistant with St. Cloud State University, he served as a coach in a few different leagues including the NCAA and WHL before ultimately landing with the Swedish national program as a scout in 2006. During his time spent in both North America and Europe, he’s developed a unique perspective on coaching that could prove to be exactly what the doctor ordered for the perpetually ailing Sabres.

As a leader who places a heavy emphasis on communication, he certainly checks certain boxes for what Jason Botterill appears to be looking for in a head coach. Earlier this month, the Sabres’ GM spoke briefly about the team’s coaching search during the NCAA Frozen Four Championship taking place in Buffalo.

“We’re looking at someone who has that communicative ability, has that accountability, has that presence,” he said. “That’s why we’re going to be looking at all different options.”

Not only has Grönborg emphasized the same philosophies during his time with Sweden, he also carries a master’s degree in management and leadership. In an article for Sportsnet, he expressed how his approach to leadership and communication relates not only to system implementation, but player development as well.

“There’s so many X’s and O’s out there—I think most coaches coaching at that level, they know their X’s and O’s—but how do you get the players to grow in your environment?” he stated. “Because that’s the biggest key for me. How do you communicate with those players? How did you get them to excel and become better and buy into the system? That’s what I’m intrigued about, is how you develop the players.”

That statement alone could have been ripped right from the Botterill handbook of player management. Since his introduction in Buffalo, he has expressed nearly identical values. Under Phil Housley, the Sabres’ young core lacked direction. Based on his team’s inconsistent (to put it lightly) ability to execute his system, he didn’t appear to be the strongest communicator. Pair that with some Housley’s more head-scratching personnel decisions (particularly when it came to the Sabres’ developing youngsters), and it’s easy to tell why Botterill made it a point to mention those traits specifically.

On top of his favorable approach to interpersonal cohesion off the ice, Grönborg possesses a unique, forward-thinking tactical mindset, something the Sabres haven’t had in well over a decade. In the same Sportsnet article referenced above, he made it a point to note how important he feels it is to “carve out specific roles” for his players. He also mentioned his philosophy on rolling four lines (something that he believed was perhaps more prominent in Sweden).

Most important of all, he addressed system-based trends in hockey and how he prefers to cater his tactics to the players at his disposal, and not the other way around.

“Everyone’s playing the same system,” he said. “It seems like they have one team that’s been successful for a year or two and suddenly everyone is emulating everything that they do. Everything from recruiting the same type of players to the same systems. I think the challenge for management is to look what kind of team you have and say, ‘OK, who is going to fit our team—the team we have right now—and develop us into a contender in the National Hockey League?”

Such a sentiment should appeal to every fan who was just subjected to two years of Housley taking the exact opposite approach to no avail. It’s quotes like these that make the popular apprehension regarding Grönborg’s label as “just another unproven coach” so short-sighted. Experience wise, yes, the Sabres would be bringing on another first-time NHL coach, but that is where the similarities between he and Housley start and finish.

Despite his track record of success and his seemingly compatible leadership traits, there is still some risk associated with bringing him aboard. Aside from the fact that he’s never held a position in the league in any capacity, he’s also never coached a team for six months at a time. Being unfamiliar with the strains of an 82-game season is an important factor to consider. There are however, other perceived practical flaws that some fans have expressed, which are perhaps less legitimate.

For instance, the concerns about his lack of familiarity with the “North American game” are probably overblown. Aside from the fact that he spent time playing and coaching for St. Cloud State, as the head coach of the Swedish team (which is his only job), he spends all year scouting players from around the world, many of whom (dare I say, most?) play in the NHL.

He is also a United States citizen (dual-citizenship) who would have no problem communicating with English-speaking players on the roster (which is another somewhat popular talking point among fans).

The last, and perhaps most widely-shared criticism of Grönborg as a candidate revolves around a relatively archaic perception about the “soft European game” which many believe is played in Sweden. Sure, every NHL team needs some semblance of a physical presence, (especially in the playoffs), but like it or not, the NHL has evolved. Fast, skilled, less physically-imposing players are flourishing. Perhaps it’s high time the organization puts itself ahead of the curve in that respect.

Botterill doesn’t appear to be concerned with said narrative, given his player acquisition trends. In his two years as the GM in Buffalo he’s drafted 10 European players, nine of whom came from either Sweden or Finland. At the moment, the Sabres have 18 players from those two countries in the organization. 15 of them are under the age of 22.

Almost every Swedish player in the organization has been coached by Gronborg at some point in their development. That factor almost certainly plays into his favor.

At the end of the day, what we have here is a candidate with excellent communication skills, progressive tactical theories, and worldwide familiarity. He’s not the conventional pick (after all, there hasn’t been a European head coach in the NHL since 2001), he’s not the safe pick, but he sure is one of the most intriguing.

The Sabres must ask themselves whether it’s better to swing big and potentially miss, or to aim for the middle and arrive safely. Given the potential pressure on Botterill to right the ship in short order, it remains to be seen whether or not he’ll be brave enough to go with such a bold choice behind the bench.