Before Paul Gaustad anchored the Buffalo Sabres’ bottom six for nearly seven years, a different big forward wore #28 in the red and black. That man was Jason Botterill, now the new Buffalo Sabres general manager, who skated 37 games with the team racking up 8 points along with 28 penalty minutes under Lindy Ruff and then GM Darcy Regier. I honestly can’t say if I remember Botterill as a player or not. His name and face seem a bit familiar, but perhaps I am just thinking that now. He was a stud for Michigan State in the mid 90s which resulted in him going 20th overall to the Dallas Stars where he amassed 0 points in 21 games with the big club. Botterill then bounced around the AHL a bit and eventually landed with the Sabres organization in 2002. Unfortunately for him, his playing career came to a screeching halt on Halloween of 2004, when he suffered a career-ending concussion while playing for the Rochester Americans.
Tough break for a once promising power forward from Alberta, even if he never was able to find his scoring touch at the pro level. But maybe that’s what will drive him to be a great GM – he has unfinished business. After retiring from playing, Botterill almost immediately went back to Michigan State and got his MBA. Shortly thereafter, he was hired by the Pittsburgh Penguins’ front office where he rose to Assistant GM after seven years in the organization. His former employer called him a “key architect” of their 2009 and 2016 Stanley Cup winning teams. Not a bad job reference and little nugget to throw on your resume.
So here he is back in Buffalo in 2017 and man, what a mess this guy has taken on. A team that hasn’t made the playoffs in six years with a fan base and media thirsty for blood and quick to point fingers after years of failure and empty promises. Now as a first time GM (although he was interim GM with Pittsburgh for 3 weeks in 2014), he must prove why the Pegulas were right to trust him to steer the seemingly lost at sea ship that is this Sabres organization safely to shore. If he does, he’s a hero. If he doesn’t, well then he just becomes another brick in the #OneBuffalo wall.
Allow me to play armchair GM for a moment and perhaps try to predict some early moves that will likely define the beginning of the Jason Botterill era…
1) Head Coach.
This is the first and most important order of business for the new general manager. If the moves in Pittsburgh during his tenure are any indication, he isn’t opposed to first time NHL head coaches. Dan Bylsma, Mike Johnston, and Mike Sullivan all got their starts behind the bench with the Penguins. I don’t think anyone is expecting him to bring Dan Lambert down the I-90 from Rochester to Buffalo, and Clark Donatelli in Wilkes-Barre Scranton is an intriguing idea, but even he is a bit raw and no way Penguins organization are parting ways with him at this point. Penguins assistant coach and former NHL power forward Rick Tocchet certainly makes sense and would bring a some much needed fiery behind the Buffalo bench.
But what about a former NHL coach? In his first press conference has Sabres GM, Botterill emphasized “speed” and “north-south hockey”, maybe he should think about Paul Maclean. Besides having a Grade A mustache, Maclean has had some success as Ottawa’s coach including a Jack Adams trophy and now works as an assistant under Randy Carlile in Anaheim. The wildcard could be Kevin Dineen, a well traveled hockey mind with ties to the team from his days as head coach with the then Sabres AHL affiliate, Portland Pirates. Plucking him from the Blackhawks staff isn’t too far-fetched. No matter who he picks to lead the Sabres in 2017, it’s his first big decision as the man in charge and the coach’s success will be a direct reflection on the man who hired him.
As it stands going into the 2017 season, Buffalo has Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe, Josh Gorges, Zach Bogosian, and Justin Falk returning from last year’s back-end disappointment. Word around the rink is Sabres’ 2015 2nd round find Brendan Guhle wil push hard for a roster spot next year, after putting up 29 points in 32 games in the WHL before netting a goal and an assist in six games with the Amerks this Spring. And now with Tim Murray gone, it’s anybody’s guess where talks are with potential KHL defecter Viktor Antipan are, who was supposed to come in and add some offense from the blue line. Other Amerks like Casey Nelson or Mat Bodie may get a shot too, but even so, they would be bottom pair guys at best and another top 4 defensemen or truthfully a top 2 pairing defensemen is sorely needed. I’ll even agree with The Buffalo News and say trading Buffalo’s 8th overall pick in 2017 to get that guy is a mighty fine idea. Maybe Duncan Keith can be convinced to waive his NMC and Chicago will gladly accept a 1st rounder to get that lofty contract off their books. Maybe the same could be done with Anton Stralman down in Tampa.
Maybe that’s all just dreaming, but Botterill needs to address this D corps badly. On the free agent front, two of Washington’s defensemen in Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner will be looking for new deals July 1st. I’d take either one you can get, with Alzner a steady shutdown force and Shattenkirk a great puck mover. In the end, I’d make Shattenkirk #1 FA priority, as will many other teams this summer. Lack of back end production was a big part of the Sabres’ woes in 2016, especially early on. The wildcard here is re-signing Dmitri Kulikov. He had a forgettable first season in Buffalo in part to injuries but proved in Florida he can play big minutes and be counted on in both ends of the ice. A new coach and another chance in Buffalo may not be a bad idea, as much as Sabres fans may oppose the notion.
3) Evander Kane.
I don’t think anybody knows how Jason Botterill will handle the saga of Evander Kane, or how he will handle any personnel situation for that matter. Kane was a wrecking ball when healthy last year putting up 28 goals in 70 games and his departure would be a huge loss for Buffalo’s top line. That said, if the new GM decides he’s not willing to commit to Evander beyond his remaining 1 year deal with the team, it could be best to ship him out sooner rather than later. Teams will certainly be inquiring around draft time, and I would imagine Botterill will consider all serious offers.
If any of those offensively starved teams like New Jersey, Los Angeles, or even gasp, Toronto are offering one of their top 2 defenders, he should be all ears. Evander Kane to the Maple Leafs for Jake Gardiner and a low round pick. Imagine that, it would fuel the rivalry and fill a need for both teams. The wildcard here will be if the new regime re-signs Kane long-term. Who knows, the new coach and him could hit it off, Evander grows up a bit (he’ll be 26 in August – it’s possible, right?) and the Sabres get to keep one of the grittiest goal scorers in the game for the next 4+ years.
4) 2017 Draft.
As a disclaimer, I haven’t spent enough time studying this year’s NHL Draft class to give a truly fair road map for what I’d like to see the team do, but if you look at Pittsburgh’s recent draft history, that should shine some light for us. I was surprised to see that looking at their recent history, the Penguins really have not drafted well over the years. Since the 2013 Draft, the only player drafted to have any impact on the NHL level was Jake Guentzel who went 77th overall four years ago. That said, the Penguins have had an incredibly low number of just four picks in the top 20 since they took Sidney Crosby first overall in 2005.
Their talent emphasis has absolutely been seen though, as evidenced by prospects like the previously mentioned Guentzel along with top pipeline guys like Daniel Sprong and Derrick Pouliot. Expect more of the same for Botterill in Buffalo. Eeli Tolvanen, the quick Finnish sniper currently playing for Soiux City in the USHL is an intriguing option at #8. 2017 doesn’t appear to be the strongest for defensemen, so unless your #1 guy is a defensemen and he falls into your lap at the eighth pick, I’d go for a goal scorer and hope some of your own defensive prospects (Brendan Guhle, Brycen Martin, Anthony Florentino) blossom. The wildcard here is the San Jose Sharks finally realizing they need to rebuild and offering Botterill Logan Couture for Buffalo’s first round selection.
5) Free Agency.
Kevin Shattenkirk will certainly be one of the big prizes, and Botterill should do all he can to convince the New Rochelle, NY native to bring his diverse defensive skills upstate to a team that hasn’t been to the postseason since his second year in the league. Assuming he doesn’t succeed in that, impending UFA and current Penguin Trevor Daley obviously has a connection to Botterill, and could come provide some veteran leadership and depth to the blue line. Speaking of veteran leadership, a roster riddled with turmoil and knack for blowing leads could certainly use some more stablity and professionalism in that locker room.
Chris Kunitz, another impending UFA and longtime Penguin would bring along winning experience with ability to still score 35 points next year even at 38 years old. I wouldn’t be opposed to bringing Sabres captain Brian Gionta back for another year too if the price was fair, especially given the lack of similar depth vets like him hitting the market this off-season. Brian Boyle or journeyman Dominic Moore could fill a similar role, but I’d rather have Gionta. Wildcard: Buffalo lands T.J. Oshie and he’s named team captain days before the season opener.
So yeah, you could say Jason Botterill has his hands full. On top of those five glaring things to address, the new GM must also handle the Expansion Draft, decide if Robin Lehner is his guy in net for the long haul, and deal with other impending RFAs’ including Marcus Foligno, Zemgus Girgenson, and Johan Larsson. The Sabres were supposed to compete for a playoff spot this past season, and while they had some stretches of solid hockey, they never got it going enough to really be in the picture. A new general manager and new head coach means lots of changes, but does not mean starting from scratch. The pressure will be on Botterill from the very beginning to get this team back into contention and playing games in April and May. There are some good pieces in place and a fan-base fiending for some excitement – it’s now on the former Sabre to finish some business and bring a winning hockey club to Western New York.