Monday, May 15, 2017

Buffalo has two centers teams "are craving for." Botterill looking to fill wings

Published by, 5-13-2017

Perhaps there is truth to the rumor that the Buffalo Sabres are looking to trade Evander Kane. Still, according to some.

The logic seems simple enough--on the ice he's a helluva player but off the ice he's had issues and after coming off of a resurgent season scoring 28 goals in 70 games, his value has never been higher since the Sabres traded for him.

Kane's most recent off-ice issues are no more as he spent a six-month probationary period issue-free and the judge in his case from last summer dropped the charges and sealed the case. How much damage was done inside the Pegula Sports and Entertainment offices is yet to be determined and where he stands without fired GM Tim Murray, the man who traded for him, will be revealed sometime this off season.

Buffalo just announced the hiring of Jason Botterill as Murray's replacement and he just finished his first couple of days in his new position. Botterill's been making the rounds in the media while presumably meeting and greeting everyone he can within the Sabres offices. He said one of his first major priorities is sitting down with the scouting department to compare notes for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft and he's also keeping an eye on the IIHF World Junior Championships which are going on in Europe. Buffalo has three participants in centers Jack Eichel (USA,) Ryan O'Reilly (Canada) and Zemgus Girgensons (Latvia,) a goalie prospect in Cal Petersen (USA) and a potential free agent signee in Viktor Antipin (Russia.)

At his introductory presser Botterill was thrilled with his top two centers saying, "people are craving for centermen like O'Reilly and Eichel." This, of course, was coming from a Pittsburgh Penguins organization that has two dominant centers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. "This is a league that thrives on centermen," he would also say, "and the fortunate thing [in Buffalo] is that we have a couple of amazing high-end centermen."

It's something we've known somewhat as fans of the team the last two seasons. O'Reilly lead the team in scoring two years ago and was second last season. He's also an every-situation player who's one of the top faceoff centers in the league and is considered one of the better two-way centers in the game. Eichel looks to be a superstar in the making. He lead the team in points last season despite missing 21 games and were in not for some fits and starts to his career, especially with the injury last season, he'd be mentioned more often in the same breath as some of the exceptional young guns making an impact in the NHL before the age of 21.

Botterill stressed and "up-tempo, puck-possession, North/South" game for his new team which fits right into the strengths of his top two centermen. Filling the wings will be a priority for him and he gave some indication as to what he looks for in his top-six wingers in an appearance on WGR550 radio yesterday morning.

"We dealt with it with Malkin and Crosby," Botterill told the hosts. "If you look at the history of [their] wingers they're all very different, but the one thing I would say is there's a high compete, high battle level.

"Whether it's a Patric Hornqvist-type player who gets to the front of the net, " he continued, "or you look at, now, Jake Guentzel having success with Crosby. A big part of that is, yeah he has great hockey sense to make plays but he gets in on the forecheck. Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, not the most skilled players, but they had a lot of success with Crosby just because they got in on the forecheck and got him pucks.

"For top line players like Jack or O'Reilly, it's a scenario of guys who want to get in on the forecheck, get after pucks so that star players can have the puck."

Who on this Sabres team can do that?

Kyle Okposo is one. He was having a great season before a concussion knocked him out of the lineup and a reaction to medication had him in the Intensive Care Unit (thanks to Kris Baker for the early work on that scoop last month.) From all indications he'll be 100% for training camp.

The much-maligned Kane is another one. Rumors of him being on the trade-block may follow him for the rest of his career, as will his youthful indiscretions that may or may not be a thing of the past. Kane is exactly the type of player that Botterill mentioned to play an up-tempo, North/South game. Puck possession might be a weak point but he made great progress last year in working with his linemates as well as curbing his propensity for wild shots that ended up wide and going the other way. And one can almost guarantee that every defensemen in the league knows when he's barreling at them with a head of steam.

Zemgus Girgensons, who has spent more time at wing than at center, may not be a top-six player by trade, but he gets on the forecheck and is great with the puck in the corners. He doesn't seem to have high-end skill or elite hockey sense, but Botterill intimated there is room for players like that. "We've tried, whether it's in Pittsburgh or Wilkes-Barre (their AHL club) where we have less skill," he said at his presser, "you can still play a high-percentage, high-intensity game.

Botterill was in awe of the overall size on the Sabres roster. He's got a few young wingers in William Carrier, Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste who not only have good NHL size (at least,) but are fast skaters. All of them have paid their dues in the AHL-level, have had success there and are ready for the opportunity to stick in Buffalo.

Evan Rodrigues doesn't have the size, but he had enough skill, skating and sense to hang on Eichel's wing at Boston University while Sam Reinhart, whom Botterill is projecting as a winger at this point, played with and succeeded on Eichel's wing.

The forward ranks are stocked with varying degrees of talent and, based upon the last two seasons, all Eichel and O'Reilly need are two more wingers to make their line whole. This group had a horrible go of it under former head coach Dan Bylsma in that the system was complicated and he constantly changed things up outside of his dedicated forward pairings. Botterill mentioned something else and his presser that should be of interest to all those in Sabreland.

"I think some of the success in Pittsburgh is from the standpoint of simplicity," he said

The Sabres have plenty of what he's looking for up-front. Always have. But perhaps that last aspect will remove the seeming impediment that kept them from reaching higher than their talent would dictate.

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