New Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill said he couldn’t get to work right away on the team’s frayed culture.
In his introductory news conference, Botterill, who was hired Thursday from the Pittsburgh Penguins where he was the assistant general manager, indicated this will have to wait until September, just because players have all scattered for the summer.
“There is going to be a delayed process in creating that culture into the fall,” Botterill said. “I think it’s going to be important once you name a head coach for the coach to go out and interact with the players too – especially some of our core players in the leadership group sort of what the expectations are going to be come September.”
But Botterill, who won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins, believes he knows how to build the right type of attitude with a group and thinks once he truly gets to work he can start molding Buffalo into a competitive team.
Botterill joined the Penguins as their director of hockey administration in July 2007 after serving as a scout for the Dallas Stars in 2006-07. He was later promoted to assistant general manager in 2009 before becoming the associate general manager in 2014.
“The bottom line is we will be better, but at the same token I have a lot of respect for this league and there were some teams that didn’t make the playoffs this year that will be better next year and it will just be a more competitive environment in that regard,” Botterill said. “It’s the same thing with what a long-term goal needs to be. You can’t predict, in my mind, in three years or four years or five years, that’s when we’re going to be going for the Stanley Cup. In this league of injuries and different things that come up it’s just difficult to predict from that standpoint. I came from an environment in Pittsburgh, yes we’ve had success the last couple of years but for numerous years we didn’t achieve those results or we had injuries. To me the goal of the organization needs to be year-in, year-out competing at a high level and one of those years you break through.”
Botterill spent some time discussing the foundation in Buffalo and how he can further unlock potential from a team that missed the playoffs for the sixth straight year and saw conflict boil over after the season. The Sabres fired coach Dan Bylsma and Tim Murray shortly after it was reported young superstar Jack Eichel did not want to re-sign with Buffalo in his next deal if Bylsma stayed with the organization.
Eichel quickly slammed that report but was outspoken about wanting the culture around the team to improve.
In order to calm the tension within the Sabres, Botterill needs strong relationships with players, but he also needs to find the right type of coach. When asked about the coaching search, Botterill was mostly vague on the type of guy he wants behind the bench.
“I’m not going to put any limits on what the experience standpoint is at. I look forward to talking to a lot of people. I think there are some great candidates out there. I think the things I look at with so many young players in our organization – a developer and an educator is going to be very important. A communicator. In today’s world and today’s game they have to have that strong communication with the players,” Botterill said. “Finally, they need to have that presence in the locker room – making sure the players understand that the head coach is in control and certainly leading the charge.”
Botterill did note that he favored a system like the one used in Pittsburgh, which accentuates team speed.
“The type of team I would like to create here, and it will be in conjunction with the head coach we bring in, is a team that plays a high tempo,” Botterill said. “A lot of times when people think high tempo it’s dump and chase. No. It’s a high tempo, puck possession game.”
Botterill also brought up the importance of player development at the minor league level. According to Botterill, part of the Penguins’ success had to do with their foundation at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL.
“Development will be a big part of it,” he said. “It’s not just our young prospects or the players that we’ll select in June. It’s our young players at the NHL level, and continuing their development as players. I think one of the successes from the organization I’m coming from is their relationship between Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh. And we want to re-strengthen the relationship with Rochester and Buffalo because for us, developing an organization that’s going to be year-in, year-out successful in the NHL, you have to have that development and you have to have that in place.”
Botterill said he sees some solid building blocks within he organization. Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly form a nice 1-2 punch at center and Botterill believes having a skilled duo down the middle is a key for any team.
“What I like about the group right now is that this is a league that thrives on centermen and the fortunate thing here is we have a couple of amazing high-end centermen,” he said.
He also praised Eichel and said the organization wants guys who have the young superstar’s passion to play late into the year. Getting off on the right foot with Eichel seemed important for Botterill and he wanted to get this message across.
“Jack is an amazing player and from afar, I’m not going to say here that I know Jack from a personal standpoint but I look forward to talking with him just like numerous players on the team and get a feel for what really makes him tick but for me, what is exciting about working for him is the drive that has,” Botterill said. “You look at his track record in college and junior. Even for the simple thing right now that he’s playing at the World Championships. Here’s a player that’s liking, wants to play in April and May – those are the players we want in our organization.”
Despite these pieces, the Sabres still have a lot of holes. Their defense is somewhat thin outside of blue liner Rasmus Ristolainen. Also, though goaltender Robin Lehner had a decent season with a .920 save percentage in 59 games, he still hasn’t really asserted himself as a big-time starter in the NHL.
But Botterill has experience and pedigree from working with multiple Stanley Cup champions. He knows what a winning team looks like and he comes in with a fresh perspective, without any association with the previous losing season with the Sabres.
“He’s pretty much did everything you need to do in hockey, from being a player, being evolved in evaluating, drafting, developing and molding those players between two teams, the AHL and the NHL,” owner Terry Pegula said. “That takes a lot of discipline and a lot structure.”
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