Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill has all his players signed. Botterill and the arbitration system got the Sabres through the final four cases when the arbiter decided terms for Evan Rodrigues, Remi Elie and goalie Linus Ullmark while the team and Jake McCabe reached a two-year agreement prior to his case being heard. In all, Buffalo has used up 46 of the 50 allotted pro contracts and are presently about $1.1 million over the NHL's cap ceiling for 2019-20, which doesn't bother him one bit.
As a capologist for the Pittsburgh Penguins, among other duties that eventually came with the title of Associate General Manger, Botterill was responsible for keeping the Pens on track and under the cap with a top-heavy roster featuring a combined cap-hit of over $25 million for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang (which by today's standards doesn't seem like a lot for three probable Hall of Famers.) Botterill wasn't fazed by the cap problem facing the Sabres as he told the hosts of The Instigators yesterday. "We don't have to do anything until the start of October," he told Andrew Peters and Craig Rivet while also stressing that the team was not pressed into dealing one of their players. "We like the situation we're in right now. We don't have to make a trade to be cap compliant. We've gone over a 'zillion' different scenarios, and we don't have to make a trade to be cap compliant."
For those looking for a reason to jettison one or more of Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian, Matt Hunwick and Vladimir Sobotka among others, to get under the cap, it doesn't seem as if that's a priority. If the opportunity arises for Botterill to better his team by making a trade, he will do so but it will be more on his terms than anything else. The third-year GM stressed flexibility which is how he was able to land defenseman Colin Miller from the Vegas Golden Knights, defenseman Henri Jokiharju from the Chicago Blackhawks and it was how he was able to sign free agent winger Marcus Johansson to a two-year deal.
"We have three year and five year projections (when it comes to the cap,)" said Botterill, " but within that we also know that when a trade comes along [or] a player like Marcus Johansson becomes available, you have to have the ablility to adjust. And that's what we're trying to have, we're always trying to have that flexibiliy."
Buffalo has 10 pending unrestricted free agents on Buffalo's 2019-20 roster and those who point that out are often accused of being apologists for team that always seems to be pointing to "next year." After eight playoff-less seasons and an organization that's been in total disarray, that type of skepticism is warranted to an extent. However, the magnitude of the mess Botterill inherited shouldn't be underestimated and it's something that doesn't lend itself to a two-year cleanup job, especially when you consider that the AHL and ECHL support systems were a train wreck and the drafts prior to Botterill coming on board left very little to work with.
Botterill is building the team his way and it started with Rochester. Sure, the NHL team faltered while he rebuilt the Americans but in solidifying the AHL club, the structure is in place for players to move through a winning system while on their way to the NHL. The importance of a strong AHL affiliate is something Botterill has stressed time and again as the players there will be the future of the big club and those players coming up on entry-level deals will help ease the burden of huge contracts paid out to the stars and superstars of the team. Which is exactly what they did in Pittsburgh.
That being said, everyone in Sabreland knows that this team must show progress this season. Botterill hired a new head coach in Ralph Kruger and he stressed to his players that a coaching change isn't nearly enough. "The first thing I told them was, OK, we've changed coaches. But if we think that's going to resolve all of our issues, we're in a lot of trouble."
Botterill has done his part, mostly, in trying to fortify his roster. The pieces he acquired this year all fit the mold he's looking for in his players. He has forwards that are versatile, are skilled, can skate and some bring leadership to the club while the defensemen he brought in are also good skaters, move the puck well and can make that first pass. It will be up to Krueger to formulate his roster to best use the players he's been given. Although the biggest hole of 2nd line center was not addressed Botterill indicated that second year center Casey Mittelstadt and 26 yr. old Evan Rodrigues will be in that role and that they intend to surround those two with quality wingers two of which--Johansson and Sam Reinhart--will hopefully be able to drive a line if needed.
The Sabres were great last season when they were on a roll, but they fell apart the second half as teams amped up their play for a playoff drive. Botterill pointed to Jack Eichel, whom he believes needs manage the 82-game schedule a bit better this season and Ristolainen, whom he said lost energy on the latter portions of his 25 minutes/night, as players that will need to manage their season and games better. But he also pointed to the need for more leadership when the team went into it's death spiral.
At the end of the season Botterill asked his players, "In certain situations where we were in a two-game or three-game losing streak, why didn't we stop it at two or three? What continued to sort of pile on?" He continued, "I think you saw it as a team throughout the year, when things were going well, we rode the wave. As a young team we had the momentum to keep going. When things weren't going well, we didn't have enough things to stop it, whether it was a timely goal, a big save, a big hit, it just didn't work for us. We always talk about leadership and our veteran leaders need to be stronger in that development, but we're trying to have a roster of leaders. A roster of doing your part to help the group out.
"Leadership's not always this amazing 15 minute speech, it's going out there and making a big play at a key time, it's supporting a teammate in a key situation. Sometimes those little things are forgotten and we're just trying to make sure they're a part of our everyday situation."
Botterill added players like Johansson, who has versatility and a ton of playoff experience, and Miller who contributes leadership and more playoff experience (the two combined for 12 playoff appearances in 13 total NHL seasons.) He added more movement from the back end in Brandon Montour, Miller and Jokiharju and some 5v5 scoring in big winger, Vesey. He's got some young players like Mittelstadt and Victor Olofsson whom he'll be looking to to take that next step and he also touched on the value of checkers like Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson. Of Girgensons in particular he said, "You look at a player like 'Z', he brings an element of being able to get on the forecheck, being able to finish his checks, it's an element we don't have a lot of."
As of now it sounds like the roster we see right now will pretty much be what we'll be seeing come opening night although there will be some moves. It might not be a trade of Ristolainen or Scandella, like many in Sabresland would hope for, but part of the "zillion" cap-scenarios he and his staff went over may include Long-term Injury relief and a player that might fit that bill would be Hunwick. Perhaps he's also considering, although he's said to really dislike the idea, buying out a player like Vladimir Sobotka which would save additional cap-space. Then again, there might be a trade (or two?) in the works but as per the M.O. of this regime, all cards are being held close to the vest.
It's not very good for us, especially a rumor site like this, but it's good for the team and what's good for the team is good for this writer. And for as much as I'd like to see Botterill address that second-line center position, I'm willing to ride it out if that's what the cards hold.