Tuesday, July 25, 2017

After a busy two months, all's quiet on the Sabres front

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 7-23-2017


Jason Botterill needed a break. The first time GM came to the Sabres on May 11 right after the Pittsburgh Penguins just finished eliminating the Washington Capitals in Round-2 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. From there it was into the fire with his new club.

Botterill spent his first week on the job meeting with Sabres scouts to compare notes on the fast approaching NHL Entry Draft which was just six weeks away. And if that wasn't enough, he also had to prepare for the expansion draft as the Las Vegas Golden Knights were looking to build their roster with one player from every NHL team. Also on tap for Botterill was finding a head coach for his new team and building a management team to surround him which included finding an assistant general manager who could also serve as the GM of the Rochester Americans. The Amerks were also without a coach after Dan Lambert's contract wasn't re-upped.

The one reprieve from the huge pile of work that was in front of him was a on-ice Cup celebration with the victorious Penguins. Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford invited his former right-hand man to the celebration with Botterill gladly and rightfully accepting (he'll get a day with the Cup as well and said he's probably taking it to his hometown of Winnipeg.)

It was a nod to all the great work Botterill did with key role players that helped the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cup wins. Even if his presence at the celebration seemed awkward, it was a fitting way to turn the page on a long and very successful tenure in Pittsburgh.

With the expansion draft a few days away, it was onward and Botterill worked out a deal with Golden Knights' GM George McPhee to keep young goalie Linus Ullmark. He sent a sixth-rounder to Vegas to keep McPhee from selecting the exposed Ullmark and watched as McPhee nabbed Will Carrier. Three days later he was huddled with his scouts in Chicago and lead his first NHL draft as GM. The Sabres, who had been dropped from fifth-overall to eighth at the draft lottery ended up with a player in center Casey Mittelstadt that most viewed as a top-five pick anyway.

Botterill said at his opening presser that he was focused upon revamping the Sabres defense and building a strong Amerks club. On June 17 he traded a 2017 third round pick for Montreal defenseman Nathan Beaulieu and less than two weeks later he sent Buffalo's longest-tenured players--Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno--to Minnesota for defenseman Marco Scandella and former Sabres captain Jason Pominville.

The two trades allowed Botterill to head into July 1 free agency without the need to overreach for an expensive free agent and allowed the new GM to follow through on his promise to fortify Rochester. Botterill and Co. had a busy start to free agency as they landed eight players. Three of them--goalie Chad Johnson and forwards Benoit Pouliot and Jacob Josefson--will be looked upon as contributors to the big club while the other five were of the depth variety that will add talent and experience at the AHL-level.

Weaving it's way through all the player moves was the hiring of coaches and front office personnel. On June 15, just four days after the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Finals, Botterill hired Nashville Predators assistant Phil Housley as the new head coach of the Sabres. On June 26 Botterill poached Randy Sexton from Pittsburgh to be his AGM and Rochester GM and on June 30, Chris Taylor was hired to be the new Ameks coach. Botterill retained Sabres goalie coach Andrew Allen on July 11 and he was bookended by the Housley hires of Davis Payne and Chris Hajt for his coaching staff.

Botterill downshifted a bit with a four-day Sabres Development Camp that ended on July 11 and now he's focused upon four restricted free agents to sign with two of them headed to arbitration--G, Robin Lehner and Beaulieu. Lehner's arb-date is this week, July 27, while Beaulieu's is August 4. Forward Johan Larsson had filed for arbitration but he and the Sabres settled while forwards Zemgus Girgensons and Evan Rodrigues remained unsigned.

After packing all of that into a two-month span, it's not surprising that all's quiet on the Sabres front right now. The additions of Beaulieu and Scandella certainly fortified the defense-corps for new head coach Housley and the Day-1 free agent signings will go a long way in stabilizing Rochester. Sexton is a very competent GM for the Amerks and Botterill hired Ryan Jankowski, who was director of player personnel for Hockey Canada, to head his amateur scouting department.

However, bubbling under the surface are contract extension talks with franchise center Jack Eichel as the history-making Connor McDavid contract (eight years and an NHL-record $12.5 million/season) serves as a backdrop. Botterill has already said that he'll wait on extending fellow second-overall pick Sam Reinhart and there's still the question of if or how Evander Kane fits into the grand scheme of things. All three players are in the final year of their respective contracts.

The Sabres are in a good place right now, which is a good thing after an extremely disappointing 2016-17 season. Perhaps Botterill took a little time to smash a brat and relax with a frosty adult beverage this summer. With his phone right by his side, no doubt. He got a lot accomplished, but there's still plenty to be done.



Sunday, July 23, 2017

On the NHL/Olympic thing.

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 7-21-2017


Let's start by saying that I'm a big fan of the Olympics which dates back to my youth in the 70's. I remember Tommy Smith's black fist on the medal stand and being outraged at the end of the  USSR/USA basketball game in 1972 as well as being shocked at siege of Olympic Village in Munich that year. Names like Olga Korbut, Bruce Jenner, Dorothy Hamill, Mark Spitz and Teofilo Stevenson are all embedded in my brain and all because of their incredible achievements on the world stage during those years.

There were many other names and events that are etched in my brain from Carl Lewis to Greg Louganis, to the Atlanta bombing. I fondly remember the Sabres own Dominik Hasek thwarting the 1998 mighty Canadian Olympic team in the semi-final shootout which is right up there with some of my favorite Olympic moments. Tops amongst all of my memories, however, was the Miracle on Ice in 1980. I still get chills just as I did seeing it live (or what we thought was live at the time.)

Although none of this means I'm an authority on all things Olympics, it does provide a framework for where I'm about to go with this NHL/Olympic thing. The NHL announced today that they will allow players on AHL contracts to participate in the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, but as of right now they're not allowing their players to compete in South Korea. And that includes AHL'ers on two-way contracts.

North American professional athletes began participating in the Olympics beginning in 1992 with the USA "Dream Team" basketball squad. The NHL began participation in the Olympics beginning in 1998 and after five Olympics, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said at a press conference in April that the NHL players will not participate in 2018 and that they considered "the matter officially closed." According to Bettman, "the overwhelming majority of our clubs are adamantly opposed to disrupting the 2017-18 NHL season for purposes of accommodating Olympic participation by some NHL players" and he was also mentioned that the International Olympic Committee won't be picking up any of the cost, which includes travel and insurance, for any NHL players participating in the games, like they'd done in the past. And from this writer's standpoint, even if the break could be accommodated and the IOC footed the bill for players, I'd still have reservations about sending athletes to a city that's a stone's throw away from North Korea and an unbalanced leader in Kim Jong-un.

I get what the NHL Players Association said in that patriotism is a driving force behind players wanting to participate in the Olympics and I can somewhat buy into the belief that the sport will increase in popularity because the best players will create a highly competitive atmosphere. Vancouver 2010 was great hockey, and for Canadians great theater, but it's also best to keep in mind that the Games were in the birthplace of hockey with a friendly border-country as a hockey adversary.

For this NHL fan, the disruption to the season isn't worth it and for players where the NHL season already consists of too many games, a condensed schedule is brutal, especially for players who competed in the Olympics. In fact any add-on to the NHL season, which includes the World Cup, seems to put undue strain on players. However, if the NHL wants to continue with the World Cup, fine as it's not during the season. If players want to participate in the IIHF World Championships, fine as it's after the season.

Keeping NHL'ers out of the Olympics undoubtedly means lesser star power and a lesser product skills-wise, but the competitive nature of players playing for their country will not be lessened. For many of the players the Olympics represents an opportunity to reach for the gold or even immortality. Many won't ever get the chance to compete for the Stanley Cup and even less won't make into the World Cup either so this is their shot, and as we saw in 1980, sometimes great things happen.

In fact, as an old-school type of guy, I have no problem going back to the time when only amateurs were allowed to play in the Olympics. I remember the late 80's when a semi-finals basketball loss by the U.S. furthered the case for inclusion of pro's in the Olympics leading to the ridiculously dominant "Dream Team." It was great watching them but the luster faded and apathy now rules basketball at the Olympics for me. I also remember how Team USA made asses of themselves by vandalizing Olympic Village after being ousted by Hasek and the Czech Republic in 1998.

For me, the meaning just isn't there any more. The U.S. proved that it can dominate when they put their best players on the court and Canada also proved that it's still the dominant force in the game right now. I'd rather watch the NHL's regular season, with all it's stars playing a regular schedule, and augment my hockey fixation by watching unknowns compete on a world stage.

However, those days are long gone but having the NHL allow lower-level pros and the best that college and junior have to offer seems like a good way to approach the Olympic dilemma. Having said this, I'm fully aware that if sound fiscal policy dictates NHL participation at some point down the road, I'll have no problem with that either.

It's hockey, and I'll watch it.





Friday, July 21, 2017

Botterill and Sexton's framework includes former Baby Pens and NCAA players

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 7-19-2017


Buffalo Sabres GM Jason Botterill and Randy Sexton, his Buffalo assistant and general manager for the Rochester Americans, have a couple of things in common. First off they both came over from the Pittsburgh Penguins organization on the heels of back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships and second, both Botterill and Sexton went to college in the U.S. and graduated with MBA's.

The two are in charge of building a winning culture from Buffalo to Rochester to Cincinnati, the Sabres new ECHL affiliate. To do so they need players they think will get the job done and to no one's surprise, they tapped into the roster of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins AHL affiliate to help jumpstart the program in Rochester.

It began on Day-1 of free agency when Botterill brought in a very familiar name in center Kevin Porter. The Detroit, Michigan native spent two seasons (2012-14) in the Sabres organization then spent a season with the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins (DET) before landing in the Pittsburgh where he spent the last two seasons.

Sexton tapped into the Pens organization yesterday when he signed defenseman Barry Goers and center Adam Krause to AHL contracts. The 31 yr. old Goers spent the last four seasons in WBS compiling 30 points (7+23) in 127 games while Krause played in 29 games over two seasons with the Baby Pens registering four goals and seven assists. The 6'3" 210 lb. Krause started his pro career with the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL scoring 26 goals and adding 26 assists.

“Our success story or what our model's been in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, what we'll try to implement in Rochester, is very much the same with an emphasis on creating a winning environment and a strong coaching staff that's very tied to what goes on at the National Hockey League level," said Botterill at his presser.

In a piece via Amerks.com, Sexton continued to lay out the philosophy of creating a winning environment, “We added depth across the organization, both in Rochester and in Buffalo, and there are three or four players that I think for sure will play games in Buffalo, and might even earn a full-time spot,” he said. “But if not, they’ll be the types of players that will come to Rochester. They will provide leadership, they will provide some offensive capabilities and some good defensive capabilities, so that our young kids can learn in an environment that has success. Building confidence and having success on a frequent basis in a winning environment, that’s about development.”

Part of that environment will also be leaning heavily on the influence of hockey players from the college ranks. From Jack Eichel to recently signed free agent defenseman Andrew MacWilliam, the Sabres organization is full of players and prospects with college ties. On July 1 Porter (Michigan) was joined by fellow college alum Kyle Criscuolo (Harvard,) Matt Tennyson (Western Michigan) and Adam Wilcox (Minnesota) in joining the Sabres organization.

Other college grads whom the Sabres  have signed recently include a group of C.J. Smith (UMASS-Lowell,) Adam Kile (Michigan,) Justin Danforth (Sacred Heart University, Atlantic Hockey Association) and MacWilliam (North Dakota.) Evan Rodrigues (Boston University) and Casey Nelson Minnesota State) were both signed out of college in 2015 and there are numerous drafted players that will either be attending college like 2017 eighth-overall pick Casey Mittelstadt (Minnesota,) are still in college like 92nd overall pick (2015) Will Borgen at St. Cloud State or graduated and have started their pro careers (Hudson Fasching, Minnesota.)

Sabres owner Terry Pegula has been focusing on the NCAA ever since he sold his interest in East Resources in 2010. The first thing he did was donate what would end up being over $100 million to his alma mater, Penn State, for a D-1 hockey program. Last month he was credited with laying the groundwork for the NHL's college hockey initiative, "a project to promote the growth of NCAA Division-1 men's and women's hockey," according to NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman.

The program is in it's infancy but it aims to explore adding D-1 college hockey programs across the U.S.

Bettman, who announced the program at the NHL Draft in Chicago last month, used Penn State as an example saying that they've already "achieved a level of great success in it's short history," noting that the D-1 men's hockey program, which began in 2012-13, was ranked No. 1 at one point in the 2016-17 season. Those direct results of Pegula's generous donation to Penn State was the driving force for an initiative that hopes to "incentivize and raise awareness for schools that may be interested in adding a D-1 hockey program," said Bettman.

The idea is to expand hockey's footprint in the U.S. using D-1 programs as a way of leading towards more youth hockey. "What we've found is, where high-level hockey is established," said Bettman, "youth hockey will also follow as well.

"By expanding our footprint at all levels for elite programs, we can inspire new players and parents to join the hockey family."

The reliance of NHL teams on college hockey has grown considerably as "a record 314 former college players skated in the NHL in 2016-17, comprising 32% of the league," wrote CollegeHockeyInc. "That number was just 20% at the turn of the century. The Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins featured more former college players than any NHL team in history."

Botterill and Sexton both played hockey in college with Botterill making it to the NHL at a time when the NHL relied heavily on players from the Canadian Junior Leagues. A lot has changed since with Pittsburgh being on the cutting edge of the movement more towards college players. Contributions at the NHL-level, like with Jake Guentzel (University of Nebraska-Omaha) have been well documented, but it should also be noted that the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have made the AHL's Calder Cup playoffs the last eight seasons, all with Botterill's guidance.

It's certainly something of interest in Rochester where the Amerks have missed the playoffs the last three seasons and have only made them thrice since 2004-05, which happened to be with Botterill on the roster in his final pro season.











Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Nico signed and ready to headline 3rd annual Prospects Challenge. Plus…

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 7-16-2017


The New Jersey Devils found some serious luck when the vaulted from the fifth-overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft all the way up to No. 1.  Although the Philadelphia Flyers trounced them on the luck-scale by going from 13th-overal to No. 2, the Devils got the pick of the litter and selected center Nico Hischier from Halifax of the QMJHL with the top pick.

Hischier shot up the draft with a 38-goal, 86 point season for the Mooseheads during the regular season (57 games.) Dennis MacInnis of International Scouting Services told The New York Times prior to the draft that he'd "seen guys go from the 20s to the top 10, but I don't really recall the last time we had a guy go from 20s to contending for No. 1." With most expecting the Devils to take Nolan Patrick first overall, MacInnis has now seen something that's never happened before.

The 6'1" 176 lb. Hischier is described a "worth the price of admission," by Dan Marr, Director NHL Central Scouting. Marr continued in his predraft profile of Hischier as a player that "has a high skill level. But what's most impressive is the way he competes, his drive and work ethic. He is a player who is first on the forecheck forcing a turnover and when the play transitions, he's the first player back. He's in that category as a special player."

Sabres fans will get to see Hischier in a pro-style setting as he and the rest of New Jersey's prospects hit the HarborCenter ice in Buffalo for the 3rd Annual Prospects Challenge. The event is from Friday, September 8 to Tuesday, September 12 in a round-robin format. Buffalo takes on New Jersey in the headliner at 7 p.m. that Friday. The afternoon game pits the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins.

This will be the third year that New Jersey and Boston will be at the event while the Penguins are first-time participants.


*****

There are plenty of Pittsburgh ties when it comes to the Buffalo Sabres, which includes new GM Jason Botterill and new AGM, Randy Sexton so it's good that they were able to lure the Pens to Buffalo for the Challenge.

Although the Penguins won't have a Hischier attending the tournament we could see NCAA Scoring Champion Zach Aston-Reese (2017, FA) plus two 2017 draft picks in defensemen Zachary Lauzon (51st-overall) and Clayton Phillips (93rd.)

Boston, meanwhile, touts defensemen Charlie McAvoy (2016, 14th) and Jeremy Lauzon (2015, 52nd) plus 2015 75th overall pick, goalie Daniel Vladar.

Rosters should be announced early September.


*****

Our friend Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com/Sabres.com have us his projections for Buffalo's Prospect Challenge roster which includes names like Alexander Nylander, Cliff Pu, Brendan Guhle and Jonas Johansson. He's also quick to point out that players in college and overseas will be either playing games or in camp at that time of year.

Some of the Sabres' most intriguing prospects will not at the Challenge including centers Rasmus Asplund (2016, 33rd) and Casey Mittelstadt (2017, eighth) who were both forces in the recently completed Sabres Development Camp. College defensemen Will Borgen and Casey Fitzgerald will not be attending nor will goalie Ukka-Pekka Luukkonen. Luukkonen had a stellar D-Camp and his progress is one worth watching.


*****

I couldn't help but think this after reading that former Sabres bench boss Ted Nolan was headed to Poland to coach the National Team there. Nolan had two stints with the Sabres, and I have the utmost respect for what he was able to do in Buffalo. And from all accounts, he's been even better off the ice.

Nolan's style is rather simple when it comes to hockey--work hard and give it all you've got. It's a rather old notion that kind of got lost in this new world of analytics which reminded me of the beginnings of World War II when the Polish Calvary tried to fight Nazi tanks and armored vehicles while on horseback. Those were some brave and noble soldiers, but the end result wasn't very pretty.

Then again, a systematic coach like Dan Bylsma probably would've have the tanks strictly follow his plan even if it meant ending up at the bottom of lake or river while on their way to Warsaw.


*****

Dom Luszczyszyn of The Hockey News had an interesting article a couple of days ago entitled, Star power in the NHL: Which teams have it, and how much does it take to win the Cup?  With superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leading the Pittsburgh Penguins to the last two Stanley Cups, along with superstars Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith leading the Chicago Blackhawks to three of the previous six Cups, it makes for good conversation.

Luszczszyn used a recent FiveThirtyEight NBA piece as a basis and came up with a way "to figure out how good a player needs to be to fit championship criteria." He tabbed the five top players on each of the last Cup Championship teams dating back to 2008. Using that info he established five tiers from "year-end award candidates" down to "very good players who are borderline stars in the right environment" giving him star tiers.

He then doled out points for each player landing in a certain tier and added up the top-seven players ranked by star tier to come away with a team ranking.

Like all analytics it does have quirks, like the Winnipeg Jets being ranked second overall lead by Blake Wheeler amongst the top-10 overall, but it does have the Nashville Predators (1st,) Penguins (3rd,) Washington Capitals (4th) and Blackhawks (7th) in star power.

The Buffalo Sabres come in at No. 23 in Luszczszyn's star power ranking with no player in the top "year-end awards candidates" tier but two in the next one--"elite players, among the best at their position." Jack Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly are behind the likes of Malkin, Marc Schiefele (WPG,) Joe Pavelski (SJS,) Max Pacioretty (MTL,) and Alexander Ovechkin (WSH.)

Sam Reinhart and Kyle Okposo made the final, "very good plyaers who are borderline stars in the right environment" fifth tier while Evander Kane never made it on the list.

For those interested, Connor McDavid (EDM,) Nikita Kucherov (TBL,) Crosby, Patrice Bergeron (BOS) and Brad Marchand (BOS) were the top-five players.


Sunday, July 16, 2017

US making inroads into Canada's game via USNTDP and NCAA

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 7-14-2017


Yes, we’re well aware that Edmonton’s Connor McDavid just signed an 8yr./$100 million extension. The Oilers captain had a spectacular season in which he lead his team to Game-7 of the Western Conference Semi-finals while also bringing home a sweet trifecta of individual trophies at the NHL Awards Show.

The 2015 first-overall pick deserved every accolade sent his way.

McDavid was drafted out of the OHL where most Canadian hockey players develop their game. For years the U.S. has been trying to catch up as the gulf between Canadian and American players was more like an ocean. On one side you have Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, atop a slew of others as the greatest players of all time. The U.S. has produced some great players in Pat LaFontaine, Mike Modano, Brett Hull, and even Buffalo's own Phil Housley, but there's a lot of catching up to do.

There's still a huge gap on a superstar-level although Buffalo native Patrick Kane is making his way up the various lists. Kane spent two years in the U.S. National Team Development Program before playing one season with the OHL's London Knights. Kane was a player that put the USNTDP on the map and less than 10 years later, two more USNTDP products are looking like players who should help close that gap--Buffalo's Jack Eichel and Toronto's Auston Matthews.

Matthews is a particularly interesting case as he was born in northern California but was raised in the desert watching the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes. The two-sport athlete chose hockey over baseball and had two remarkable seasons in the U.S. before heading to Switzerland prior to being selected first-overall by the Maple Leafs in 2016.

Boston native Eichel went a more traditional route as he went to Boston University following his two years with the USNTDP and hit the ice for the Sabres after being selected second-overall in 2015.

While CHL has always been a main feeder for the NHL, the Euro leagues and NCAA are beginning to make their marks as well. College in particular is a growing source for NHL talent and we can look no further than the 2017 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Of the 33 players to suit up for the club for at least one game, 20 of them came from the college ranks.

The NCAA is no stranger to producing quality players either and that includes superstars. Hull attended the University of Minnesota-Duluth 1984-86, Chris Chelios went to the University of Wisconsin from 1981-83 and Brian Leetch played a year at Boston College. Montreal Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden put his pro career on hold after being drafted in 1964 and attended Cornell University. After sitting out his freshman year, played three seasons for the Big Red.

As a feeder for the NHL, college hockey has really made some inroads. According to College Hockey Inc., "a record 314 former college players skated in the NHL in 2016-17, comprising 32% of the league. That number was just 20% at the turn of the century." And they went on to write that "the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins featured more former college players than any NHL team in history."

Tonight two Hockey East powerhouse in Boston College and Boston University are having an alumni game for charity. The Commonwealth Avenue Charity Classic Hockey Game with all proceeds to benefit Compassionate Care ALS and The Travis Roy Foundation. A game worthy in and of itself for the cause, but one that features some very notable hockey names from only two schools.

Eichel (BU) leads the Terriers while "Johnny Hockey," aka Johnny Gadreau (BC) leads the Eagles. Other names of note are Charlie Coyle (MIN) who will be skating for BU plus goalie Cory Schneider (NJD,) defenseman Noah Hanifin (CAR) and Stanley Cup winner Brooks Orpik (WSH) who will be on the ice for the Eagles.

There's still a huge gap between Canadian players and those from the States, and although the CHL still produces a majority of NHL players, the USNTDP and the NCAA are churning out some pretty good players at a steadily increasing rate. The superstar quotient isn't quite there yet, despite the notable career of Kane thus far and the talent-level both Matthews and Eichel have displayed as teenagers, but for those of us who remember hockey as Canada's game almost exclusively the U.S. (and Europe) is beginning to change the conversation.






Friday, July 14, 2017

Randy Sexton's relentless pursuit to revitalize the Rochester Americans

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 7-12-2017


Late last month, new Sabres general manager Jason Botterill poached Randy Sexton from the Pittsburgh Penguins and made him GM of the Rochester Americans, Buffalo's AHL affiliate. Sexton was Pittsburgh's director of amateur scouting and played a big part in having young, dynamic role-players fill in around high-priced superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Rochester is not an unfamiliar city to Sexton as he was involved with the Amerks while with the Florida Panthers from 2007-10. Rochester was the dual affiliate of both Buffalo and Florida in 2005 and 2006 before the Sabres moved on to an affiliation with Portland, ME from 2007-11 leaving the Panthers as Rochester's lone parent club.

After being replaced in Florida after the 2009-10 season, Sexton joined the Penguins organization on July 3, 2010 as an assistant director of amateur scouting. He would spend the next seven years working with Botterill and helping the Penguins win the Stanley Cup twice.

Botterill gave Sexton the dual responsibilities of being his assistant in Buffalo as well as the title of GM in Rochester but he also asked Sexton to lead the amateur scouting group for the organization. And if that wasn't enough on his plate, Sexton also said he offered his services to Rob Kopacz, Vice President of Business Operations for the Rochester Americans. In an interview with long-time Amerks broadcaster Don Stevens at the recently concluded Sabres Development Camp, Sexton said that he "has built franchises in the past from the business side" and "will do anything he can to help build a stronger business side in Rochester."

However, Sexton's role will be "mostly on-ice, mostly hockey related," he told Stevens. "We need to reshape our organization [in Rochester]. The guys before us have done a really solid job, now what we need to do is add more depth and strength and talent to the stable they've already built."

Botterill certainly helped in that respect as he had a very busy July 1 start to free agency. He began up-front when he started and finished the day by signing forwards Benoit Pouliot and Jacob Josefson, two NHL'ers who fill the NHL depth chart that will keep young players in Rochester for further development. He also signed forwards Kevin Porter and 2017 Calder Cup Champion Kyle Criscuolo to help guide the young Amerks players.

But maybe more important for the Sabres organization is what Botterill has done on the defensive side of the equation since taking over. The Sabres defense last season was a huge Achilles heal for the club and it was a main priority for the new GM. On June 15 Botterill hired Hockey Hall of Famer Phil Housley, who was a premier puck-moving, offensive defenseman in his playing career and was now having success in the coaching ranks with the Nashville Predators. As an assistant in Nashville Housley helped develop what was considered to be the most dangerous defense-corps in the 2017 NHL playoffs.

Botterill followed the Housley hire with trades that brought in defenseman Nathan Beaulieu (MTL) and Marco Scandella (MIN.) Both are mobile puck-movers who fit right into the direction Buffalo is headed with their defense and it's all an extension of what Botterill and Sexton were doing in Pittsburgh.

Sexton was running the 2017 NHL Draft for Pittsburgh before he left for Buffalo. The Pens took four defensemen in June that fit in with what they wanted. He told the gathered media after the Draft that the defensemen the Penguins were looking for "have to be mobile, they have to have vision and they have to be able to move the puck. We don't like Clydesdales, we like thoroughbreds. So all of these D-men can skate."

The additions of Beaulieu and Scandella, who are in that mold, would help transition Buffalo's defense by pushing the Sabres depth chart down to the Amerks. Solidifying the Sabres top-six means a player like Brendan Guhle will be able to stay in Rochester for a year of seasoning instead of being thrown into the fire in Buffalo. It gives Taylor Fedun another opportunity for top-pairing minutes on defense in Rochester and Casey Nelson will also be able to build upon a strong finish for the Amerks last season. Then there are the prospects that will (hopefully) follow like Devante Stephens, Will Borgen, Casey Fitzgerald and Oskari Laaksonen all of whom will be given ample time to develop at their own pace.

The key, according to Sexton, is building depth reaching all the way to their ECHL affiliate, the Cincinnati Cyclones. "The depth that's required across an organization, to ensure that all teams remain successful and competitive, is significant so we do need to add more depth," he told Stevens.

Buffalo's roster is looking pretty well set (barring a trade or unforeseen circumstances) and it looks as if there will be some stiff competition for a few roster spots. Those who don't make the cut will be sent to Rochester meaning Sexton will have some pretty good players falling to him from forwards to defensemen to goalie Linus Ullmark, last year's starter in Rochester. When Botterill signed veteran Chad Johnson to back up Robin Lehner, it meant Ullmark gets another season of development while the Amerks get their starting goalie back.

It's good news for the Sabres and real good news for the Amerks. Rochester has missed the playoffs the last three seasons and haven't made it out of the first round since 2004-05 when the NHL locked out its players for the entire season and Botterill played for the Amerks in his final season.

Botterill said at his introductory presser that he would focus upon revitalizing the Rochester Americans. Both he and Sexton have ties Amerks, both came from an organization in Pittsburgh that had a top-notch AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and it's something they both want for the Sabres. “We are not going to rest until we restore the Americans to what I think is their rightful place among the elite teams in the American Hockey League,” Sexton told the media during Sabres Development Camp. “It will come one day at a time, it will come one person at a time. But we will be relentless in our pursuit of that success.”


 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

2017 Sabres Development Camp closes. What's the word on the street?

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 7-11-2017


(Compiled from media outlets including The Buffalo News and Sabres.com)


The 2017 Buffalo Sabres Development Camp is in the books. The event which was shortened to four days concluded with the French Connection 3-on-3 Tournament, which was always the case, but missing this year was the popular Blue and Gold Scrimmage. New AGM Randy Sexton said that nixing the scrimmage, as well as shortening the camp from seven to four days, was in the best interests of the players.

"Summer training for players this age is critical," Sexton told the gathered media two days ago. "I've seen it happen in other development camps where you have these high-intensity scrimmages or practices. Kids are competitive by nature and now you've got five kids that are nursing injuries for 2-3 weeks. And that throws a serious wrench into their training regimens. So we need to be sure, back to helping these players becoming as good as they're capable of them becoming, that it includes a strong summer of off-ice training."

There was one injury, however, as defenseman Devante Stephens got tangled up with Hudson Fasching and crashed into the boards. Stephens incurred a shoulder injury "that won't require surgery," according to GM Jason Botterill. The injury will require a couple of weeks and Stephens "should be ready for training camp," said Botterill at the close of camp today. Stephens had just signed his entry-level deal with the Sabres two months earlier and there's an opening on defense in Rochester.

Other than that, the youngins were on display and from various reports, some players had themselves a pretty good camp.

Buffalo's 2017 first round pick Casey Mittelstadt looked to be the star of the show. The eighth-overall pick was mentioned often over the weekend and through Monday and with today's 3-on-3 tournament, his stature grew a little bigger. Before we anoint Mittelstadt as the next Jack Eichel, today's 3-on-3 tournament was played full-ice, similar to the NHL's overtime session. There was plenty of room to maneuver, plenty of ice to work with.

Mittelstadt's Team White marched through the tournament without a loss while on their way to the French Connection Trophy. In the championship game Mittelstadt twice was in the midst of wowing the crowd with some shifty maneuvering only to have the horn sound for a required line change. The next time, however, he weaved his way down low near the goal line and roofed a forehand from in tight to give Team White a 2-0 lead.

Winning seems to be a passion of Mittelstadt's. After he lead Team White to a semi-finals win, Brian Duff said that whether he's playing cards or checkers or whatever, "all Mittelstadt does is win." Place that atop his top-three skill-level and Sabres fans have a lot to get excited about.

The rest of Team White:
D, Bryson Martin
D, Erik Autio
LW, Brett Murray
RW, Hudson Fasching
C, Rasmus Asplund
F, Eric Cornel
G, Jake McGrath

Rasmus Asplund got some favorable mentions over the course of the camp and had some good words for Mittelstadt. "This is the first time I've seen Casey play, and I think he's one of the better players I've ever seen play," Asplund said to the media at camp's end. "He's so shifty and he's so hard to play against. I got to play with him today."

Asplund had himself a pretty good camp getting noticed for all the right reasons. Buffalo's second round pick (33rd-overall) heads back to Farjestad BK for his fourth season competing in Sweden's top men's league. Word is that he'll be placed in a scoring role for his final season in the SHL.

Autio, a camp invitee from Penn State also fared well as did Cornel in the tournament.

Finnish defenseman Oskari Laaksonen also appeared at Camp showing that he not only is real, but that he's got more on his frame than the 130 lbs. his bio's said he had on. The third rounder was selected out of no where by Buffalo, having not appeared on any draft lists.

In an interview after Day-2 of camp Laaksonen said to the media, "I was like, 'Oh my God, oh my God.' I ran to my mother. It was a special moment for me." After proving he was real he went about telling the media about the weight issue where he was listed at 103 lbs. "I was like, oh God, I have to correct that one," he said, smiling. He did. Laaksonen clocked in at just under 6' and weighed 152 lbs. It's still small for a defenseman, but the kid's got some definitive skills.

Fellow Finnish countryman Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen looked huge in goal, but was nimble and positionally sound. Laaksonen knows him from playing against him and said of the 6'4" 198 lb. Luukkonen, "He's great. He's a fun guy. He's so fun to be around. He's hugeee, man." On the ice he wasn't so fun to be around for the opposition as he was stout throughout most of the tournament.

Broadcast legend Rick Jeanneret was on hand for the play-by-play today and was joined by Rob Ray and Duff, among others. The Sabres had themselves a good crowd at HarborCenter with the team opening up sections as the fans filed in to fill the place for a 3-on-3 tournament in July. Which is not surprising.

Despite all the up's and down's Sabres fans have had, it's their team and they remained excited about them. Most players on the ice won't be representing the Sabres for a few years, but it's great to see where they are now, with that as a backdrop when we watch them three years from now. They're the future of the Blue and Gold.


*****

The future of the Blue and Gold can also be tied to 20 yr. old Jack Eichel. The No. 2 overall pick in 2015 is Buffalo's franchise player and will be entering the final year of his contract this season. Botterill and Co. know that, and they'd like to get an extension with Eichel done this off season.

"Our conversations with Jack and the group have gone extremely well," Botterill said to the media in HarborCenter after the close of development camp. "We'll continue this throughout the summer and see if we can find a common ground because, from our standpoint, we certainly want to get something done. And everything we've heard from Jack and his agents is they want to get something done too."

Connor McDavid, the first-overall pick in 2015 was re-upped by the Edmonton Oilers to the tune of 8 yrs./$100 million, or a record-breaking cap-hit of $12.5 million. That was on the heels of a breakout season where McDavid had 100 points (30+70) and won the Art Ross Trophy (most points,) the Hart Trophy (League MVP,) and the Ted Lindsay Award for most outstanding player as voted upon by his peers.

Eichel won't be getting too close to McDavid's cap-hit, but most think his AVV could be $10 million. An eight-year, $72 million deal might get the job done, but it might take the Sabres a bit more. Botterill wants to get it done, and one would assumed Eichel and Co. want to get it done as well.

Buffalo's other second-overall pick, Sam Reinhart (2014,) is also up for an extension but Botterill said that will be put on hold. "We're excited with Sam but I don't think Sam from a contract standpoint will happen this summer," Botterill said. "We have him under contract another year and we'll see how things play out."

Botterill also has two pending arbitration cases to get ready for--G, Robin Lehner and D, Nathan Beaulieu who the new GM acquired from Montreal for a third round pick.