Those who were at Jason Botterill's end of season press conference say that's the angriest they've seen a Buffalo Sabres general manager at season's end. Botterill helped build one of the best organizations in hockey, the Pittsburgh Penguins, over the past decade and was in the front office for all three of their recent Stanley Cups. He's also credited with drafting and signing young, cheap talent that flowed up and into the Penguins roster allowing them to win back-to-back Stanley Cups with five players taking up over half of their salary cap space those two seasons.
From what we've seen of him in his first go-round as a GM, Botterill has a very measured approach to his job and comes off as being pretty calm in public. Yet that calm demeanor seems to belie an internal intensity and competitiveness that can erupt at times. Just ask the nacho bar he apparently took out during one of his teams many disasters. He sees how much change this team needs and if he wants to transition them from the losing mentality of a last place team into a winning culture, he has the plan, but he's also going to need every ounce of that intensity and competitiveness to make it happen.
Botterill said twice yesterday that this being in this position at this time of year "sucks" and you can't blame him or his head coach, Phil Housley for feeling that way. Both of were with teams that competed for the Stanley Cup last season (Housley with the Nashville Predators) and this is something that they're not accustomed to. "I've been here for one year and I was pretty pissed off and upset throughout the year," said Botterill.
"I guess I could be articulate," he continued, "but I will just say, it sucks (with the emphasis on 'sucks') that we won't be watching live playoff hockey right now, it will just be all on TV." The last two days have been like that for him as he conducted exit interviews with the players to which he said, "going through those (the prior two days) flat-out sucked."
It's safe to say that the 2017-18 season sucked for everyone in Sabreland from owner Terry Pegula on down. We as fans saw the on-ice product, we read about the disaster at hand and we heard from the GM, coach and players how difficult the season was. It wasn't a pretty picture for the lion's share of the season as the problems were many, touching every facet of hockey ops, and the bright spots were few.
Botterill certainly saw it and one could assume that, from the tirades he was said to have had throughout the season to the anger on display yesterday, that he was not expecting anything close to what transpired. But, like he said in reference to his players, "we understand where we're at right now, there's a disappointment [but] I don't want to hear about how disappointed they are, I want to hear about what's going to change, what is the action plan moving forward."
From a players standpoint, Botterill expects them to put in the work beginning in the off season. "Training methods," said the GM, "is something that they personally can control. Something as simple as development camps, they're kind of just casual things, they're important for us. It's important for [players new to the organization] them to get really get acclimated to what we want to do here. It's important that they get things set up so they're better prepared for the start of the season."
Throughout his short tenure as GM thus far, Botterill has focused upon building a foundation with homegrown players and fostering a proper environment to incubate those players. "I talked about the losing culture (and changing it around) has to start somewhere," he said, "and that's why I've always been a big proponent of building things in Rochester."
The Rochester Americans represented a major area of focus for him when he first took over the job and he reiterated once again yesterday that building a team has to come mostly from within the organization. He brought in the best players and leaders he could for his young AHL players and the mix has the Amerks on their way to the playoffs for the first time in three years.
That foundation has worked as a jumping off point for a number of players who he said will be competing for spots on the roster next season. Botterill brought up names like Brendan Guhle, Nicolas Baptiste, Justin Bailey, Casey Nelson and C.J. Smith, all of whom are at different stages of development right now but look to be a part of next year's Sabres. Yet he still needs his NHL team to be a place where those players can come in and develop properly as NHL'ers.
"Everyone talks about NHL experience," said Botterill, "and how valuable NHL experience is. It goes both ways. It was great that Casey Mittelstadt got his first NHL goal. That's a positive experience. But he lost five out of six games since he was up here."
Botterill brought up Mittelstadt, his first-ever pick as a GM, a few times yesterday and the 19 yr. old is looked to as one of the focal points for what his Sabres team needs moving forward. When asked what those team needs were, Botterill said they needed improvement everywhere, but especially with "team speed up-front and more skill." Although Mittelstadt doesn't have blazing speed it looks as if he can easily keep up with the pace of the NHL. And what Mittelstadt also has plenty of is skill, and the GM doesn't want to see that wasted.
Next season will mark Botterill's first wave of young players trying to land a spot on the Sabres and it will be mostly players whom the previous GM's drafted or acquired. Bailey and Baptiste, along with goalie Linus Ullmark, stretch back to when Darcy Regier was Buffalo's GM, as does Sean Malone, a role-playing forward whom many in and around the Sabres believe will be a strong contributor. Guhle was drafted by Botterill's predecessor, Tim Murray, who also signed defenseman Nelson (2016) and forward Smith (2017) out of college. Nelson, who is a free agent, really made a name for himself in Buffalo after a slow start to his season while Smith finished third on the Amerks in scoring during his rookie year.
That wave of young players will be joining a group that's pretty young as well when you consider key players like Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen, all mentioned by Botterill, are 23 yrs. old and younger. The move towards youth is about to get serious but it will be all for naught if they can't move this team away from their losing ways.
This edition of the Buffalo Sabres, no matter how awful they looked through much of the year, skated with and defeated the leaders of the Atlantic Division--Tampa, Boston and Toronto--to the tune of going 6-1-0 over a span in February and March. They finished off the month of March with a definitive 7-3 win over the President's Trophy-winning Nashville Predators. And it's something that Botterill seems to be using as a jumping off point to turn it around.
"The good thing about this team," he said, "is whenever we get it, we have success. We finished 31st, we deserved to finish 31st. But against some of the top teams in the East we had some strong performances. When we were on the same page, when we played the system, when we were prepared, we had good results. We were just far too inconsistent with that throughout the year."
Botterill also pointed to the parity in the league and how it doesn't need to take a long time to turn things around. "Look, it's the beautiful thing about the National Hockey League right now," he said. "There's a lot of parity in the league and it's not like some other sports where it takes years to turn it around.
"You always have a chance going into the year but, if we think that we [can get by with] just working a little harder in the summer, or have a couple conversations and all the results will come next year, than we're kidding ourselves."
For as gloomy as the presser was, Botterill was adamant about some of the positives he has moving forward. "I do believe in some of our core players, our star players" said the GM, "and what excites me is that they're still very young and there's a situation [where we're] developing them as players and it's also a situation where we're developing them as leaders."
Botterill's first end of season presser after a train wreck of a season showed some surprising anger from a GM who had every right to feel that way. As we enter Year-2 of his tenure, the big question for him and his coaching staff moving forward is whether or not they can move this team away from a losing mentality, one that's been going on for at least five years. He has seen the way great teams are run and he's seen what types of players were on the team. Not only that, he's also seen what kind of coaches have been successful and not so successful with those players.
The Pittsburgh Penguins expect to win, and he was a part of that. The Nashville Predators now expect to win, and Housley was a part of that. Botterill said coming in that he "never underestimated" the losing culture that seemed to permeate this franchise, but he "did notice it." Now he's weathered the full force of that mentality first hand.
Changes are on the way, some small and some maybe even some bigger. He's hell bent on sticking to his plan and it would seem as if he's on the right path with more talent being introduced into his NHL roster. Not enough to be considered contenders at this point, but maybe enough, coupled with a change in attitude from his core players, to at least move the needle in a positive direction. He talked of losing tight games where they lacked confidence and how they need to get that fixed.
"Some could say, 'well, once you win those tight games you start building confidence as a group,'" said the GM. "But it's hard finding a way to win those games and that's what we have to improve on as an organization.
"We have to improve our habits. They don't come natural for us right now."
About the only thing that's come natural to this team is a losing mentality. Seems as if Botterill's hell bent on turning that around.
Botterill's presser via sabres.com: