Thursday, May 25, 2017

Of captains, goalies and the coaching search in Buffalo

Published by, 5-24-2017

New Buffalo Sabres GM Jason Botterill was on The Instigators program yesterday talking with hosts Andrew Peters and Craig Rivet. They covered many subjects over the course of the interview, but one moment really stood out to me--the future of the captaincy for the Sabres.

After talking about communication and trust between various aspects of the team, Botterill was pressed for a little more insight as to who might be a good captain for Buffalo. His response was that it would be more of a team effort saying rather emphatically, "the days of Mark Messier, the one guy leading the charge, is so long gone. It's long gone."

Messier, of course, is known as "The Captain's Captain." In the 80's he captained the Edmonton Oilers to a Stanley Cup without Wayne Gretzky and for an encore carried the weight of a 54-year NY Rangers Cup drought on his shoulders and almost single-handedly willed them to the 1994 Stanley Cup.

Botterill followed up the Messier quote by saying "there's a lot more leading by example...that it has to be a collaboration model. You may name a captain, whoever it may be named here in Buffalo," he continued, "and if there's not a good support group, it's not going to work."

Which begs the question. Is this just GM-speak as he's left with a tough decision concerning three players, who all may or may not be captain material? Or does he truly believe this?

Botterill was in the Dallas Stars organization when they won the Cup over Buffalo in 1999. The captain of that team was hard-nosed defenseman Derian Hatcher. It was a team that had stars like Mike Modano, Brett Hull, Joe Nieuwendyke and an aging, but extremely effective Eddie "The Eagle" Belfour in goal. While in the Sabres organization from 2002-04, Buffalo went from the captaincy of Stu Barnes, to a rotating captain after he was traded. And in Pittsburgh, Crosby was captain the entire time Botterill was in the front office. The Pens won two Cups and are on the verge of a back-to-back SCF appearance.

As mentioned, the Sabres have three candidates with none being a clear-cut favorite. Franchise center Jack Eichel could be the choice based upon his team-leading skills while forward Ryan O'Reilly seems to have the experience and character to wear the 'C'. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen has always been a mature player both physically and mentally and would be a good choice as well, but they all have their flaws too.

It's a touchy situation for Botterill as ego comes into play. It's a sad but true fact. How will Player X react to Player Y getting the captaincy? Or how would either or both react to Player Z getting the letter.

Botterill is much closer to the pulse of the NHL than any of us outsiders so a deference to his position is in order. But in hockey I'm still of the opinion that a captain defines what the organization wants from it's team and that a strong figure, one who's willing and able to carry that weight, can take the team farther than they thought they could go. Carrying the weight like Messier did in '94 might be a thing of the past, but having a leader everyone respects and follows on the ice may still be very much in vogue.


Parity has proven to be more attainable in the NHL than in the NBA to which it's often compared to. But unlike basketball where NBA superstars can and almost exclusively do take over a game, NHL stars and superstars can and usually do take over games and series but have a wild card in goaltending to deal with. A hot or cold goalie can make or break a series and often times a great goaltending performance can be the great equalizer in a game or series.

It doesn't happen often, but you'll see a team get to the Stanley Cup Finals, and even win a Cup, riding a hot goaltender. We're seeing that right now as Pekka Rinne has already lead the 16th seeded Nashville Predators to the SCF representing the Western Conference while Ottawa's Craig Anderson could do the same for the Senators in the East. Yesterday they forced a Game-7 against a talented, albeit injury-challenged on defense Pittsburgh Penguins club. The Sens finished second in the Atlantic Division with 98 points while the Pens finished second in the conference with 111 points..

Bucky Gleason of the Buffalo News has a good article today talking about the rise of the Predators. He rightfully points to an organization that stuck to it's plan and after he throws a token jab at "tanking," tells of how Nashville made it to their first ever Finals appearance this year after backing into the playoffs with 94 points. He also notes that in the salary-cap era, only two teams made it to the Finals after entering the playoffs with less than a 100-point season--the 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins and the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings.

The NHL is on the verge of having two sub-100 point teams make it to the Finals and it can be attributed mostly to goaltending. After a sluggish regular season, Rinne has been stellar. He started his run by allowing a mere three goals to the Chicago Blackhawks, followed that up by outdueling an equally impressive young goalie Jake Allen of the St. Louis Blues. Rinne and the Preds finished off the Anaheim Ducks in six games and he'll be heading into the SCF with a 1.70 GAA and .941 Sv% while facing the third-most shots these playoffs.

The leader in shots-against is Anderson who has faced 548 shots in 18 games these playoffs. He's sporting a very respectable 2.36 GAA and .922 Sv%. Anderson just came off of a 45 save performance against the Pens in Game-6 to help the starless Senators reach a winner-take-all game tomorrow night.

Whether he's making $7 million/per season like Rinne or $4.2 million, like Anderson, having that goaltender get hot in the playoffs makes a huge difference. Even in Pittsburgh where the Pens have superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury--a former first-overall pick who is making $5.75 million per season--is second in the playoffs in shots against and had been tremendous for the Pens. He faltered and back-up Matt Murray, the goaltending hero of last year's Cup win for Pittsburgh is working his magic once again.

What it comes down to is goaltending is the great equalizer and it's the main reason why lower seeds consistently upset higher seeds and why we may see a matchup between a No. 16 and No. 12. It's something you'll never see in the NBA.


For those interested in the Sabres coaching search, Botterill mentioned on The Instigators that he'll be casting a pretty wide net and admitted, "I don't know who I want, but there are certain people I want to talk to."

TSN's Pierre LeBrun tweeted out today a handful of names that most fans are familiar with, "On Sabres' HC radar, I think, in no particular order: Krueger, Tocchet, J. Montgomery, J. Martin, Housley, Reirden, Boughner..."

Ralph Krueger has international coaching experience and had a one-season stint in Edmonton, but is now chairman of a Premier League Football club in Southampton, Hampshire, England. How his name keeps popping up is rather curious as his NHL coaching resume featured only 19 wins in 48 games during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

Both Rick Tocchet (PIT) and Phil Housley (NSH) are still in the playoffs and both are considered to be favorites at this point. Jim Montgomery has had a very successful college coaching career and is coming off of a national championship with Denver. Jacques Martin started his head coaching career in 1986 and has coached almost 1300 regular season games.

Tom Reirden has ties to Botterill after a nearly four-year stint in Pittsburgh (2010-14) and spent the last three years in Washington as an assistant coach while Bob "The Boogieman" Boughner was a very successful coach for the OHL's Windsor Spitfires who won back-to-back Memorial Cups in 2009 and 2010.

Botterill is taking a methodical approach to the huge pile of work he has with Buffalo and has said that the coach will probably be in place before the NHL Draft. He spent last week getting to know his scouts while comparing notes on prospects plus the World Championships were just completed and he may be interested in overseas free agents other than defenseman Viktor Antipin who's said to be signing in Buffalo. The NHL Scouting Combine begins this weekend and runs through June 3, with Buffalo as the host city once again so he and his scouting staff will once again be focused upon prospects.

The measured approach Botterill's employing right now is perfect for the mountain of tasks at his feet right now and to his credit he knows a hasty decision does no one any good. Besides, the two front-runners are still in the playoffs and there's a chance that both may not be available for an interview until June 14, the potential last game of the SCF.

Although it doesn't give them much time between then and June 17, the day that Expansion Draft Protected Lists are due, most of the work for that may fall on Botterill anyway. At least that's what we in Sabreland are hoping.

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