Saturday, May 12, 2018

A look back at Jason Botterill's first year as GM on his one-year anniversary

Published by, 5-11-2018

The search for Tim Murray's replacement as Buffalo Sabres GM took about a month. Murray and head coach Dan Bylsma were fired on April 10th and owners Terry and Kim Pegula's coaching search lead to the hiring of Jason Botterill, a former Rochester Americans and Buffalo Sabres player, who came from the Pittsburgh Penguins front office.

This would mark Botterill's first shot at running his own team and it was out of the frying pan and into the fire for him.

Overall, the team he was taking over had just finished an underachieving 26th place season and amongst the troubles Botterill faces was talent deficiencies and a dressing room divided. Being hired at this time a year ago also meant that the NHL Entry Draft was just around the corner and free agency immediately after that. If that wasn't bad enough, the Las Vegas Golden Knights would be starting their first season in 2017-18 and the expansion draft was set for the week before the NHL Entry Draft.

Botterill left the Penguins while they were in the midst of their second consecutive run to the Stanley Cup and after they won it, he was invited on the ice to help celebrate with the team as he was an integral part of what they were able to build in Pittsburgh. The Pens have two superstars at the top followed by a small group of core pieces and high-end role players that ate up a good chunk of the salary cap. What Botterill and the Penguins were able to do was fill in the roster with quality players on entry-level deals to augment the superstars and core. The result was back-to-back NHL Champions for the first time since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.

The daunting task for Botterill in Buffalo was rebuilding the Sabres blueline which neither had the talent nor the style to be effective in the way the NHL is played today. Botterill's first move was to sign mobile rearguard Victor Antipin out of the KHL. Murray had actually begun the process with Antipin before getting fired and Botterill closed the deal. There would be more additions to the blueline as the Sabres traded with the Montreal Canadiens for Nathan Beaulieu and with the Minnesota Wild for Marco Scandella.

After the Antipin signing Botterill went to work on his goaltending. With Buffalo starter Robin Lehner under contract for one more season, the Sabres signed 2014 third-round pick Jonas Johansson to his three-year entry-level deal in May then re-signed Rochester Americans' starter Linus Ullmark to a two-year contract extension two weeks later.

The Ullmark deal was rather significant in that Golden Knights GM George McPhee was very much interested in plucking the young prospect in the expansion draft. Botterill swung a deal with McPhee sending a sixth-round pick to Vegas while also freeing up forward William Carrier for them to select from Buffalo, which they did.

Keeping Ullmark, the 2016-17 Amerks MVP in the fold, provided the basis of a foundation with which to rebuild Rochester. From his first presser as Sabres GM, Botterill revealed a pronounced focus on his AHL team and left the opening of free agency July with a bevy of players signed to help turn around the Amerks organization. Among the forward group were successful AHL players like Kyle Criscuolo, Seth Griffith and a player Botterill brought over from the Penguins organization, Kevin Porter, who was named captain of Rochester.

Also tabbed for the Amerks on July 1 was defenseman Matt Tennyson and goalie Adam Wilcox who would back up Ullmark for Rochester. That group of seasoned AHL vets joined a small group of prospects forming a core group to move forward with. Botterill tapped into the Pittsburgh organization once again when he brought over Penguins top scout Randy Sexton who would be his AGM in addition to taking over the reigns as GM of the Amerks.

Rebuilding the Buffalo Sabres would prove to be a much more daunting task as Botterill faced a situation where talent was thin and the cap situation rather bloated. The team he walked into was filled with heavies who would have trouble keeping up with the speed of the NHL and he didn't have a lot of leeway to address those issues. The new GM also had a new contract to negotiate with superstar Jack Eichel and a decision to make on winger Evander Kane, who was slated for free agency at season's end.

With bad contracts weighing down the organization, Botterill did little on July 1 save for signing   Chad Johnson as a backup for Lehner and bringing in a reclamation project in Benoit Pouliot. He also signed former first round pick Jacob Josefson for depth upfront.

Botterill went into the season with a rookie head coach in Phil Housley and there was a wave of positivity rolling through Sabreland up until the second week when it was pretty obvious that this going to be a rough year. An 0-4-1 start lead to a 3-7-2 month of October and by the end of November the season was lost for all intents and purposes as they went into December with a 6-15-4 record.

Much to the consternation of many in Sabreland, Botterill did nothing while his team took a nosedive right to the bottom of the standings. In what seemed like a desperate attempt to save what little of his vision remained, Botterill traded for former Penguin Scott Wilson and on the same day waived veteran Matt Moulson and his $5 million cap-hit. Those moves amounted to mere bandaids on a gushing wound leaving the team and the coach to figure things out for themselves heading into the new year.

Botterill and company got over a major hurdle when they re-signed Eichel to an 8yr./$80 million contract extension prior to the season but at the half-way point Kane was still unsigned and with each passing day his departure became more and more imminent.

Word on the street is that Botterill wanted to re-sign Kane but that ownership wasn't fond of the idea. There had been rumors throughout the season that Kane was on the block and that an offer which included a first round pick was on the table in December. Botterill, however, waited until the trade deadline where he pulled off a deal sending Kane to the San Jose Sharks for a conditional second round pick and conditional fourth rounder which wasn't the return most had expected. The law of supply and demand put the crimp on a good return as the Sharks were said to be the only team interested in trading for Kane.

In a year of heavy clouds and desolation, there were a few bright spots on the season as we in Sabreland got a glimpse of the future in defenseman Brendan Guhle and center Casey Mittelstadt. Expectations for Guhle had been high ever since his three-game stint as an emergency call-up from Junior in 2016. The Sabres had been taking their time with the 2015 second rounder (51st-overall) and he spent most of his time in Rochester logging big minutes in an all-situations role on the Amerks top-pairing. He spent 18 games in Buffalo and didn't look out of place.

Mittelstadt was Botterill's first-ever draft pick as GM. He was selected eighth-overall in 2017 after falling to the Sabres there. The new GM was rather giddy as he deadpanned to the media at the draft,  "Isn't that the cliche'? You've got to say, 'Oh, I can't believe that he was there!'"

He was there at No. 8 for Buffalo, the Sabres make their pick and after one full season at the University of Minnesota, Mittelstadt was signed to his three-year entry-level deal. In six games for Buffalo, Mittelstadt scored his first NHL goal and added four assists. He'll hit camp this year in a top-nine role with the possibility of being named the No. 2 center dependent upon what happens with center Ryan O'Reilly.

The rest of Botterill's 2017 draft class include two defensemen, two more forwards and a goalie. Of that class, positive things are already being said about left wing Linus Weissbach (192nd) and center Marcus Davidsson (37th.)

Although his first year as GM was rough and rocky travelling, Botterill heads into next season in decidedly better shape on the blueline. He re-signed the surprising Casey Nelson to a two-year contract extension and will have the opportunity to draft a franchise defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin with the first overall pick. In addition, he also is said to have come to terms with the SHL's defenseman of they year, Lawrence Pilut.

There was a bitter taste coming from the Sabres poor season and it was voiced in player interviews at locker cleanout day. Botterill himself was very angry at what had transpired and who his team dealt with it. It lead him to say changes, possibly to the core, were in the offing.

What seems rather obvious is that the first year GM had a lot of positives which included an eye for talent and for stabilizing his AHL club. The luck of the pingpong balls means he's adding a top-notch talent in Dahlin to some other gifted players like Eichel and Mittelstadt. But being a GM is more than that and his task at hand is laying the groundwork for a new culture that will finally move this team away from it's losing ways, something that's proved very difficult to shake.

Year-one under Botterill was a disaster record-wise and some doors, desks and nachos taking a beating because of it. He and those of us in Sabreland watched his apathetic Buffalo team often put on a pathetic display something that can only loosely be described as hockey. It was a tough season for all and perhaps we should simply deem it a very difficult season of transition.

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