It was only a matter of time before Jason Botterill received the opportunity to become a general manager. Unfortunately, in his first few months on the job, Botterill’s Buffalo Sabres are struggling.
Botterill developed the reputation as being one of the top young executives in the NHL during his 10 years with the Penguins from 2007-17. He rose from director of hockey administration to associate general manager while helping the franchise win three Stanley Cups. He earned one under General Manager Ray Shero and two more as Jim Rutherford’s right-hand man in 2015-16 and 2016-17.
The Buffalo Sabres hired Botterill as GM on May 11. They tasked him with ending a streak of six straight seasons without making the playoffs. Thus, it will be a homecoming Tuesday night for Botterill when the Sabres visit the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena in the first meeting between the teams this season.
It is safe to say Botterill won’t win a fourth championship ring this season. The Sabres are 5-9-3 and their 13 points are third-fewest in the league behind the Florida Panthers (12) and Arizona Coyotes (seven).
This is not exactly what owners Tim and Terry Pegula envisioned when they brought in Botterill to replace Tim Murray after the Sabres finished last in the Atlantic Division and 15th in Eastern Conference last season despite a high-priced roster.
Botterill hired franchise legend Phil Housley as the coach to replace Dan Bylsma, who led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship in 2008-09. The Pegula’s expected Housley to bring structure, focus, and accountability but the Sabres have instead struggled and are next-to-last in the league in goals scored with an average of just 2.35 a game.
Botterill’s biggest offseason move bringing back popular right wing Jason Pominville from the Minnesota Wild with defenseman Marco Scandella and a fourth-round draft pick in a trade for left wings Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno and a third-round pick.
The 34-year-old Pominville has been one of the Sabres’ better players with six goals and 13 points. Scandella, though, is a minus-6 and has no goals and three assists.
Free Agent Signings
Botterill’s free-agent signings haven’t panned out so far.
Defensemen Victor Antipin and Nathan Beaulieu both have two points while standing on the wrong side of plus/minus. Antipin is minus-4 in his first season in the NHL after playing in the KHL. Beaulieu is minus-3. Backup goaltender Chad Johnson is 1-3-2 with a 3.69 goals against average and .885 save percentage.
The play of Scandella, Antipin, and Beaulieu has been particularly disappointing. Housley spent the past four seasons helping the Nashville Predators becomes Stanley Cup contenders — they lost to the Penguins in last year’s finals — as an assistant coach who built an up-tempo blue line.
The best two moves Botterill has made so far are retaining players he inherited from Murray. The Sabres decided not to trade left winger Evander Kane and signed center Jack Eichel, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft, to an eight-year, $80-million extension to prevent him from departing as a free agent at the end of the season when his rookie contract was set to expire.
Kane’s nine goals and seven assists are both team-leading figures while generating a team-high 82 shots in 17 games, putting him position to land a larger contract as a free agent next summer. Meanwhile, Eichel has four goals and 14 points, though his shooting percentage is just 7.69.
Losing Breeds More Frustration
The Sabres have yet to gain any traction six weeks into the season. They have won consecutive games just once and lost five of their last seven games, including back-to-back defeats at home to the Florida Panthers and on the road to the Montreal Canadiens last Friday and Saturday.
Housley, who played the first eight seasons of his Hall of Fame career from 1982-90 with the Sabres, is convinced he and Botterill have the franchise on the right track.
“I know our record doesn’t reflect where I think we should be, but that’s part of the learning process,” Housley told reporters last week. “There’s a lot of good things to look at in the structure of our game. We have to do it for 60 minutes, though.”
Yet there are signs that frustration is seeping into the dressing room, especially with the Sabres unable to build any momentum.
“It wears on you mentally that’s for sure,” said right wing Kyle Okposo, who has just two goals and five points in 15 games. “When things aren’t going well, it’s tough to play. It’s tougher to be confident in yourself and confident in your game. But you’ve got to find a way to show that confidence and just remember you can play this game.”