Friday, May 5, 2017

On Sabres GM front-runner, Jason Botterill

Published by hockeybuzz, 5-4-2017

Perhaps the Buffalo Sabres and the Pegulas were due for a little luck and perhaps that luck, timed well with their present general managers opening, lead them to the path they're seemingly on now.

At the end of the Sabres 2016-17 season the laundry list of negatives emanating from KeyBank Center included GM Tim Murray, who'd done some good things and done some bad, but from media reports didn't have enough answers for owners Terry and Kim Pegula to move forward with. So on April 20th the Pegulas fired him along with his coach which created a GM opening for the Sabres.

The Pegulas, with Terry unabashedly stating he'd be involved the GM search unlike before, reportedly have interviewed at least seven candidates for the vacant GM position, none of them with experience as an NHL general manager. It was a curious move considering Terry Pegula had just fired a first-time NHL GM and at that presser mentioned that "experience" would be a part of the equation.

According to a source, of the candidates interviewed, the Pegulas were enamored with three--Jason Botterill and Bill Guerin, both with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Craig Conroy from the Calgary Flames. But only one so far has reportedly come back for a second interview--Botterill--and with the Pegulas beginning to head another search, this time for their open GM position with the Buffalo Bills, all roads seem to lead to Botterill as the front-runner to becoming the Sabres eighth general manager.

Amongst first-time GM's, Botterill definitely has the resume. He's a former first round pick (1994) who played until concussion issues lead to his retirement in 2005 at the age of 28. He started his post-playing career with the team that drafted him, the Dallas Stars, received his MBA in economics from the University of Michigan in 2007 and was hired as director of hockey administration by the Penguins after graduating that year. The Pens promoted him to assistant general manager less than two years later and on June 6, 2014 he was named associate GM with the club, a position he's held since.

While rising through the ranks Botterill was credited with having a strong hand in helping build GM Ray Shero's 2009 Stanley Cup-winning team and was also right-hand man for GM Jim Rutherford when the Pens won again in 2016. In addition to personnel successes, which includes bringing present Pens bench-boss Mike Sullivan into the organization, Botterill knows the in's and out's of the CBA and is considered a salary-cap guru who's mastery of the cap has allowed Pittsburgh to remain perennial Cup-contenders while annually dancing on the edges it.

It's no wonder that after the Penguins won the Cup in 2016 that Botterill was amongst the candidates being considered for the GM position of the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights. The Knights, however, went with experience and hired George McPhee a long-time hockey man whose roots in the NHL date back to 1983 as a player with the NY Rangers.

One team's loss could end up being another's gain as Buffalo may have gotten lucky when the Knights passed on a first-timer like Botterill and went with the experience of McPhee.

Simple fact is, no one knows how things will pan out for a first-time GM. We just witnessed that with Murray. But if that's the determined route a franchise is taking, hiring one that's been with two Cup-winning teams in Pittsburgh who've also remained Cup-contenders while he made key decisions, makes for a pretty strong resume.

When the Edmonton Oilers were searching for a GM back in 2012, Botterill's name was already being mentioned and Jonathan Willis of the Edmonton Journal gave us a nice outline of the Edmonton native's GM plusses and minuses. Within his short synopsis Willis noted that in addition to Botterill's known qualities as an assistant GM in Pittsburgh, "he’s also in charge of knowing the entire league – where teams are coming from, their respective salary cap situations, their internal pressures and weaknesses," as cited by a piece from Mike Colligan of The Hockey Writers.

Colligan called it "The Botterill Factor" in a 2011 multi-part series called, Penguins Blueprint, and after a quick introduction he began with the quandary facing Pittsburgh as they headed towards the 2011 trade deadline. "Botterill and Shero face a near-impossible task," wrote Colligan at the time. "In just ten days they’ll attempt to overhaul an offensive group they spent most of the season simply preparing to tweak. Almost a dozen players are missing from the Penguins lineup due to injuries and suspensions, most notably irreplaceable stars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby."

The Penguins ended up trading for Dallas Stars forward James Neal with Shero leaning on Botterill's leg-work before pulling the trigger. “A big part of my job," Botterill told Colligan, "is giving Ray an understanding about what’s going on in the league. If he’s talking to Team X, he needs to know where they are with the [salary] cap. He needs to know if they have a player coming back from long-term injury so they’ll be looking to move a defenseman. Just making sure when he goes into these conversations with other GM’s he has a clear understanding of what their thought processes are and what their salary cap situation is.”

Cap-management and preparedness are big ones for the Sabres and so is creating a winning environment, which Botterill knows about from Pittsburgh. But the Sabres also need a GM to attract and develop talent. A new GM in Buffalo will need guide the development of the prospect pool which will (hopefully) have waves of prospects coming through the system via the 2013-16 drafts.

Time and again we've seen the Penguins bring up young players that leave us in Sabreland asking, "Where's our Connor Sheary (undrafted FA, 2014) or Jake Guentzel (2013, third round) or Bryan Rust (2010, third round)?" All of those fit right in and are having big-time success at the NHL level but were developed in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, home of the Penguins' AHL team which Botterill oversaw.

Although scouting is not his forte, Botterill directed the scouts to find players to fit the system the Penguins played. “There’s certain traits that we’ve talked a lot about and tried to emphasize with our scouts,” Botterill told Colligan in another part of his the Blueprint Series. “We look for good hockey sense. The ability to skate well. We play a system that’s fairly up-tempo, so the players need the ability to keep up with that pace of play."

But it's not limited to that. “Then we’re also looking for intangibles," he continued. "We want to see a certain compete level, on and off the ice. Are they going to get bigger and stronger? Also, our mandate here is we have to win Stanley Cups so we ask ‘Do these players have a track record at all? Have they played and been successful in big games?”

At 40 years old, Botterill knows the game well but isn't a dinosaur clinging to by-gone ways of the NHL past which is good news for those on both sides of the battle between analytics and the eye-test. He learned to use both criteria when evaluating players. "What Ray [Shero] has developed here is he wants his scouts involved with stats, but we also want input from the scouts on ‘what are your eyes seeing, what is your projection on this player?’" said Botterill, "and that’s how we go about trying to evaluate a player.

"I’m going to look deeply into the stats and try to figure out any trends that he has or how his stats compare to other players out on the market, but I’m also going to rely heavily on my coaching staff and how they see his development as a player, and also the scouts on what they see from his development standpoint and who else is out there.”

It's not hard to see why Botterill is the leading candidate for Buffalo's open GM position. He knows the game from having played it, he had the foresight to plan for life after hockey and earned an MBA which lead him to the front office and he was a big part of helping build the Penguins' Cup teams. He's well-versed in the CBA, has a grasp of players and what makes them tick and has been a part of an organization in Pittsburgh that's always close to the cap-ceiling so he knows the numbers game. He uses new tools like analytics but also relies heavily on the eye-test.

Botterill also has a championship tradition. In addition to the Pittsburgh's two Stanley Cups with him in the front office, as a player he was on three consecutive Team Canada World Junior Championship gold medal teams (1994-96) and was also a part of the Michigan Wolverine 1996 NCAA National Championship team.

He seems to be about as well-rounded a candidate as one could find.

As with Murray and a long list of other first-time GM's, no one knows for sure how it might work out in Buffalo with him in charge. It's a whole different world when you're the man. Not only is there a learning curve involved but in Buffalo's case, there's a ton of work to be done in a very short period of time. Botterill, or any other GM signing on with the Sabres, will need to use every bit of experience and every resource in his tool box just to get this team on solid footing for the upcoming season.

It's part of the reason many thought that the Sabres would look towards a GM with vast experience. Such doesn't seem to be the case and if the Pegula's wish to go the first-time GM route, Botterill seems to fit what they and the team might be looking for.

Much thanks to Mike Colligan for some outstanding work which helped immensely in putting this together. And thanks to Jonathan Willis who's short piece lead to the discovery of Colligan.

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