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Will Jason Botterill's firing be enough to fix the Sabres?

As Buffalo's playoff drought reached a league-high nine seasons, the axe had to fall on the GM. But hiring an inexperienced replacement suggests ownership will have a heavy influence on hockey decisions going forward, which may be a problem.
Buffalo Sabres/Bill Wippert

Buffalo Sabres/Bill Wippert

Buffalo is one of hockey’s most passionate and knowledgeable markets, fan for fan. People there love the game so much that they regularly produce some of the top TV ratings for national playoff broadcasts even with their Sabres not competing. It feels particularly cruel, then, to see one embarrassment after another heaped on a fan base that deserves so much more.

On May 26, Sabres co-owner Kim Pegula gave GM Jason Botterill a vote of confidence when speaking to the Associated Press.

“He’s our GM. Our plan is to continue with him,” Pegula said at the time. “I realize, maybe it’s not popular with the fans, but we have to do the things that we feel are right. We have a little bit more information than maybe a fan does, some inner workings that we see some positives in.”

On June 16, exactly three weeks later, the Sabres announced Botterill’s firing. He’s been replaced as GM by Kevyn Adams. "This decision was made after many candid discussions with Jason during a full review of our hockey operation,” said Kim and her co-owner, husband Terry Pegula, in a statement issued by the Sabres Tuesday. “We recognized we have philosophical differences regarding how best to put ourselves in a position to compete for a Stanley Cup."

So it appears we should know better going forward than to take a vote of confidence as, er, a vote of confidence. Botterill is out.

The timing was certainly awkward, but that doesn’t mean keeping Botterill would’ve been the right idea. He got the job May 11, 2017 and, in his three seasons helming the Sabres, they finished 31st, 27th and 26th in the NHL in points percentage. With every impassioned, frustrated speech from captain Jack Eichel, the sense of urgency around turning this franchise into a winner has intensified, and Eichel’s season-ending comments May 28, claiming he was “fed up with the losing,” caused a social-media frenzy that included wild trade rumors.

Buffalo finished its 49th season with a ninth consecutive playoff miss. That’s the longest active drought in the NHL by five years. Rebuilds simply cannot take a decade in today’s salary-cap world, in which teams need to become competitive while at least some of their core stars are on their entry-level contracts. Blue-chip blueliner Rasmus Dahlin has just one season left on his first pact, while Eichel is already two seasons into his second contract at eight years and $80 million. He turns 24 in October and will commence his sixth season, which might not arrive until January 2021, with no playoff games to his name. The Sabres are in danger of wasting his prime, especially considering most stars need a few years of playoff experience to learn how to win before they can make deep runs.

If there’s one factor more than any other that gave the Pegulas itchy trigger fingers to make a change at GM, it’s probably Eichel. Not that Eichel’s vocal frustration was the only domino. Not by a long shot. Multiple missteps led Botterill here. We may as well lead with the tenure-defining flop: the 2018 Ryan O’Reilly trade. The Sabres’ minute-munching two-way center, like Eichel today, was vocal about his frustration losing year after year, and Botterill decided to take a home-run swing with a blockbuster off-season deal to ship the disgruntled veteran away. On paper, it could’ve been a foundational trade that shaped Buffalo into a winner. The package secured for O’Reilly included a high-end prospect in Tage Thompson plus a 2019 first-rounder that Buffalo would use to pick defenseman Ryan Johnson, and while O’Reilly’s defensive presence would be missed, veteran two-way forwards Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka came to Buffalo in the deal as well.

It’s difficult to remember the last time every element of a major trade skewed so heavily in one team’s favor. O’Reilly won the 2018-19 Selke Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy, helping the Blues win their first Stanley Cup. On the Buffalo side…whoa. Berglund left the team after experiencing depression, walking away from more than $13 million in guaranteed money remaining on his contract. Injuries limited Sobotka to 16 games this season. After struggling in his rookie year, Thompson started 2019-20 in the AHL and, in his first NHL game of the season, blew out his shoulder and required season-ending surgery.

The element of the O’Reilly trade that really sunk Botterill is a name who wasn’t involved in the deal at all: Casey Mittelstadt. He was the Sabres’ No. 1 prospect and had dipped his toes in for six NHL games at the end of 2017-18. He was the 2018 World Junior Championship MVP. Our Future Watch panel of active NHL scouts and team executives named him hockey’s No. 1 NHL-affiliated prospect that year. The O’Reilly trade was pretty clearly contingent on Mittelstadt being ready to step in as Buffalo’s No. 2 center behind Eichel. While it hurt as well that Berglund wasn’t around to help fill O’Reilly’s void as a checker, Mittelstadt obviously struggled. He ended up demoted to the AHL this season.

Without an all-situations center to check opposing teams’ best players, the Sabres stalled developmentally. None of Botterill’s moves hurt the team’s long-term timeline more, but it wasn’t his only error. From Conor Sheary to Jimmy Vesey to Marcus Johansson, Botterill’s stopgap veteran additions failed to move the needle. And then there’s the Jeff Skinner contract, which obviously looks disastrous after he managed 14 goals in 59 games in Year 1 of his eight-year, $72-million deal, though it almost feels unfair to criticize Botterill for it. Skinner scored 40 goals the year prior playing with Eichel, the Sabres had the cap space to keep Skinner, and they badly wanted to start competing for a playoff spot, so what was Botterill to do?

Alas, Botterill is out. Even if he doesn’t get a chance to work as an NHL GM anytime soon, he’ll likely catch on again in a supporting role. As an AHL GM, he was extremely successful helping build the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins into a model affiliate that churned low-to-mid-level prospects into viable NHLers, from Sheary to Bryan Rust to Jake Guentzel to Brian Dumoulin. Botterill was instrumental in helping bring Stanley Cups to Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017. He just couldn’t get the pieces to fit together properly at the NHL level once he got his shot as a GM. Buffalo sat in the league’s bottom third in offense and defense each of his three seasons. Eventually, prospects drafted under his watch such as center Dylan Cozens and goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen could become major NHL contributors, but Botterill ran out of time to see if that happens. The Pegulas want to start winning immediately.

The question is…will Botterill’s replacement give the Pegulas what they want? Adams is the franchise’s third consecutive GM hire who had no prior experience in that job. He had been a development coach in the past and worked most recently as the Sabres’ senior vice-president of business administration. Was there no search for a more experienced candidate? Botterill was “still the Sabres GM” just three weeks ago, after all. What Adams does have going for him is time, as the Sabres could well end up going almost 10 months between their last game in March 2020 and the opening game of 2020-21. Adams gets a lot of runway to work out important RFA extensions for right winger Sam Reinhart, left winger Victor Olofsson and goalie Linus Ullmark, and Buffalo has just 10 players under contract for next season so far: four forwards, five defensemen and a goalie.

Adams, then, could theoretically remake this team drastically before we see it play again. But how much agency will he have to do so? In naming a peached-fuzzed GM who has worked so closely with them, the Pegulas will likely loom large over hockey decisions in the near future. That might not be a good thing judging by their track record since purchasing the team in 2011.

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