The Pittsburgh Penguins shut out the Washington Capitals on the road in Game 7 Wednesday night, advancing to the Eastern Conference final. The game-winning goal came from Bryan Rust, who also broke the Tampa Bay Lightning’s heart in last year’s Eastern Conference final with a Game 7 scoring binge.
Rust was the 80th pick in the 2010 draft and, after finishing his college career at Notre Dame, spent a few seasons marinating with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the AHL. He joined the NHL Penguins mid-season in 2015-16 along with coach Mike Sullivan, brought up from the AHL. Rust’s speed fit Sullivan’s up-tempo system, so Rust was an ideal AHL call-up. Same goes for Conor Sheary, who went from undrafted AHLer to starring on Sidney Crosby’s line. Both played major roles in Pittsburgh’s 2016 Stanley Cup run.
Backstopping that championship: goalie Matt Murray, drafted 83rd overall in 2012, who’d spent a couple seasons dominating with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The Pens’ top goal scorer in the 2016-17 playoffs: Jake Guentzel, drafted 77th overall in 2013, who tore it up with Wilkes Barre/Scranton in the season’s first half.
The Penguins, like the Chicago Blackhawks, flourish using a top-heavy roster. The Pens pay the huge bucks to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang. They fill out the depth of their roster with a flourishing affiliate club, which has made the AHL playoffs 15 consecutive seasons. The players arrive from the farm NHL-ready.
The man who spent the past eight years as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton GM, the man who hired Sullivan, was Jason Botterill. He will be officially unveiled as the Buffalo Sabres new GM Thursday, and he’s an excellent choice.
Botterill played in the NHL. He was a Dallas Stars first-rounder in 1994 played 88 NHL games in his career. He spent his final seasons with the Buffalo Sabres and Rochester Americans, actually. Botterill retired in his late 20s because of concussion problems. He completed his MBA at the University of Michigan. He developed a strong business mind and became the Penguins’ salary-cap specialist when he joined their front office in 2007-08. He’s worked with Penguins GMs Ray Shero and then Jim Rutherford over the past decade, helping them manage the cap and juggle the big salaries of their stars while still finding room to make aggressive trades year after year, particularly around deadline season. He’s had as big a hand in the club’s AHL development as anyone in the organization and, since he arrived in Wilkes Barre/Scranton, the club has gone 366-207-43.
Botterill’s strengths cater to what the Buffalo Sabres need most. Their scuffling farm club, the Rochester Americans, hasn’t made the playoffs for three seasons. The Americans’ imprint on the NHL roster isn’t significant, either. The only hidden-gem forward to emerge after significant AHL development time is Marcus Foligno, drafted 104th in 2009, and the only impact blueliner is Jake McCabe, drafted 44th in 2012. Rasmus Ristolainen doesn't count in this context as he was a high-upside first-round pick from the start, and his NHL arrival wasn’t really the product of development. The Sabres saw Hudson Fasching, Alex Nylander, Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste come up from the minors for cups of coffee this season, but none has made a sizable splash just yet.
The bottom line is the Sabres’ best players have been acquired via trade, free agency or can’t-miss high draft slots, including Ristolainen, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. The franchise has struggled to harvest impact NHLers otherwise. The Penguins have insulated their stars with Sheary, Rust, Guentzel, Scott Wilson, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Brian Dumoulin, all of whom had long-term development time on a successful AHL club. The Botterill hire thus bodes well for overhauling Buffalo’s minor-league development.
The Sabres could also use some better cap management. Try to find a contract on the Penguins that makes your eyes roll. Not Crosby’s $8.7 million nor Malkin’s $9.5 million. The Leafs retained a chunk of Kessel’s salary. Letang’s $7.25-million cap hit sometimes looks steep but only because of his health woes. He’s worth every penny when he’s in the lineup. Patric Hornqvist’s $4.25 million is highly reasonable. Carl Hagelin is a bit overpaid at $4 million but played a crucial role on the 2016 Cup team.
The Sabres pay Matt Moulson $5 million and Tyler Ennis $4.6 million for two more seasons apiece. That’s $9.6 million for a combined 19 goals and 45 points in 132 games. Guentzel alone scored 16 goals in 40 games for Pittsburgh. Buffalo pays Zach Bogosian $5.14 million for another three seasons, too. This team has taken on some big contracts in risky signings and trades. Some have worked out – Ryan O’Reilly and, this season, Evander Kane – but the Sabres have saddled themselves with virtually unmovable cap hits more often than not. Expect that to change under Botterill.
The Blackhawks and Penguins are the most successful NHL franchises of the cap era and share a common structure, retaining their superstars with big contracts and using the farm system to repeatedly restock the depth positions with cheap yet effective contributors. The Sabres would be smart to build around Eichel, O’Reilly, Ristolainen and goaltender Robin Lehner similarly.
Botterill’s job won’t be easy. It will take some wizardry to wriggle out from under some of the Sabres’ pricey veteran contracts, and the AHL Americans won’t become a powerhouse overnight. But Botterill’s front-office track record shows nothing but success thus far. There’s little reason to bet against him.
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