Jason Botterill cannot be accused of dodging hard work.
The freshest general manager of a damaged Buffalo professional sports team chose to leave a team with the longest active NHL playoff appearance streak to run the one with second-longest active post-season drought.
This while the Pittsburgh Penguins, for whom Botterill helped build two Stanley Cup rosters, march toward a shot at back-to-back championships.
“The Sabres made a good choice. He’s got some work to do,” former boss Jim Rutherford told Hockey Central Friday, “but knowing Jason, he’ll be able to make the changes that are necessary there to help that franchise.”
The 40-year-old Botterill has vowed to make the Sabres, now six seasons removed from their last taste of the playoffs, competitive in 2017-18.
He says he wants an improved culture, better coach-player relations, and a group of skaters ready to play an “up-tempo, puck-possession, north-south game.”
In order to reach his objective and return this rebuilding franchise to the rails, here are the first six things on Botterill’s to-do list.
1. Hire a coach.
This is kind of an important position to fill properly after the Pegulas fired Dan Bylsma when he still had three years and $9 million left on his contract.
During his introductory press conference Thursday, Botterill said he’s looking for a “developer, educator, communicator,” a head coach with “presence” in the dressing room. A man whom players know the buck stops with him.
Botterill is putting no limit on previous NHL experience for the role. Leading the search himself, the GM said he’ll bring Terry and Kim Pegula in to approve his finalist and would like to have a coach in place for the June 23 entry draft.
Poor communication with players has been cited as a reason why things didn’t work out with Bylsma, and Botterill drilled home the importance of a coach’s ability to interact with his room, especially the core players.
“We understand the importance of this hire, of getting it right,” Botterill told Hockey Central at Noon Friday.
A laundry list of names has been thrown out there by pundits. There are current assistant or associate NHL coaches: Nashville’s Phil Housley, Washington’s Todd Reirden, Chicago’s Kevin Dineen, Anaheim’s Paul MacLean, Ottawa’s Marc Crawford, and Pittsburgh’s Rick Tocchet and Jacques Martin. There are fired NHL head coaches with tons of experience: Darryl Sutter, Bob Hartley and Michel Therrien. And there are potential AHL call-ups: Toronto Marlies’ Sheldon Keefe and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Clark Donatelli.
Interviews begin shortly.
2. Cultivate relationship with star players.
We may never know the exact nature of Jack Eichel’s friendship with the Bylsma-Murray regime, but we feel comfortable saying the 20-year-old superstar must believe in the new front office and coaching staff assembled by Botterill.
The rookie GM raves about the Sabres’ “high-end centres,” Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly, who are currently overseas repping their respective countries in the IIHF World Championship.
Eichel, as is the case with Connor McDavid, will be entering the final year of his entry-level deal in 2017-18 and can ink an extension as early as July 1.
What a statement it would make to fans and prospective free agents to lock up Eichel long-term just a few months into the gig.
“Here’s a player that wants to play in April and May,” Botterill said of Eichel. “Those are the type of players we want in our organization.
“You look at Jack’s track record of winning and success prior to joining the National Hockey League, he’s certainly a player I’m looking forward to working with over the next few years.”
Oft-injured, oft-criticized winger Evander Kane, 25, came on strong towards the end of the season. He scored 28 goals. He’s also a constant target of trade rumours and will be entering the final season of a deal that pays him $5.25 million per. Cut bait or commit to an offensive talent that may mature: a wise decision on Kane’s future must be made.
Sam Reinhart, Buffalo’s second-overall pick in 2014, is also nearing a crossroads. Like Eichel, he’ll turn RFA in summer 2018. His 47 points as a sophomore this season were solid, but there’s a sense he has more to give. The 21-year-old was infamously dressed and benched in late March for violating team policy.
“I have some opinions on what happened here from afar,” Botterill said Thursday, remaining purposely vague. “But it will be imperative I talk to a lot of players.”
3. Use cap space wisely… on defence.
One thing the Sabres have that the Penguins don’t is cap space, and in his previous role, Botterill maximized bang for buck by balancing pricey star power (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang) with steady injections of cheap, young talent.
He believes it’s imperative to incorporate young players into the lineup and develop them.
Captain Brian Gionta, 38, is a UFA who has expressed interest in re-signing. He actually attended Botterill’s press conference at KeyBank Center. Is he brought back at a price lower than the $4.25 million he earned in 2016-17?
Cody McCormick, Cody Franson, Taylor Fedun, Anders Nilsson and Dmitry Kulikov (who was on the outs before Murray was fired) are all scheduled to walk. Does the front-office overhaul change the approach with any of them?
More important: Does Botterill see value in committing to RFA forwards Marcus Foligno and Zemgus Girgensons — two guys who have flashed promise yet underwhelmed in 2016-17?
The Sabres defence goes from weak to atrocious if/when Franson and Kulikov walk, so investing on the blue line becomes paramount. Botterill could pitch UFAs like Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, Michael Stone, Trevor Daley and Michael Del Zotto.
4. Draft smart.
“I’m coming late to the party here,” Botterill admitted.
While he sees the Sabres “fairly well set up for the expansion draft,” the entry draft offers a field of opportunity for trades and prospect stocking.
In addition to the eighth-overall choice, the Sabres hold double picks in rounds 2 and 3 — excellent currency if he wants to trade for a defenceman.
It’s not just a coach Botterill must hire, though. He needs heads of amateur and pro scouting, plus a team of assistant GMs to help formulate a draft strategy. Time is of the essence.
5. Invest in Rochester.
Hey, did you know the Rochester Americans, the Sabres’ AHL affiliate, doesn’t have a general manager?
Well, Botterill, who served as GM of AHL Wilkes-Barre during his Penguins tenure, has stressed the importance of connecting the farm team to the big club in every interview he’s done.
This is a trend we’re seeing across the league, especially with rebuilding clubs like Toronto, Carolina, New Jersey and Vancouver, to name a few. They want a steady pipeline of development and the same systems taught.
“It’s something we really need to strengthen here,” said Botterill, pointing out that Rochester is just an hour away. There’s no excuse for Sabres management to not attend a chunk of Americans games and help bridge the gap.
The synergy between Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh, he explains, helped graduate Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Matt Murray, and Jake Guentzel at the right time.
“It’s exciting to see them come through our system and have success,” Botterill said.
6. Find a goalie.
The Sabres have reached the Calgary Flames stage of their goaltending depth cart. Which is to say, they don’t have an NHL goalie under contract for 2017-18.
Robin Lehner, 25, is a restricted free agent who posted nice numbers (.920 save percentage) behind a sub-par D core. Anders Nilsson quietly had a solid season (10 wins, .923 save percentage) backing him up, but he’s a UFA.
Murray had ties with Lehner stretching back to their Ottawa days, so it’ll be interesting if Botterill re-signs the Swede (the safest and most likely play) or shops a market that should see a few potential No. 1s available. Steve Mason, Jaroslav Halak, Mike Condon, Brian Elliott, and Marc-Andre Fleury come to mind.
Detroit’s Jimmy Howard is from Syracuse, N.Y. Just saying.
And this comment from Botterill perked my ears: “My first roommate in training camp here in Buffalo was Ryan Miller.”