If you're Buffalo GM Jason Botterill it's hard not to think there are some good things happening in the Sabres organization. Botterill took over as general manager in 2017 after leaving the Pittsburgh Penguins organization with their team deep into a Stanley Cup run. The rookie GM had a lot on his plate which included the upcoming Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft, the NHL Draft and the start of free agency. All of that would take place in a time-frame of less than two weeks.
For however difficult it was getting thrown right into the fire, in less than two years Botterill transitioned his Sabres team away from the previous GM and managed to point his team in the proper direction. After a last place finish in 2017-18, Buffalo is presently in a playoff spot and looks to have a very bright future ahead.
Botterill also placed a supreme focus on building up his AHL affiliate from the moment he took the job in Buffalo. The collateral damage the Rochester Americans felt as the Sabres tanked and tried a hasty rebuild was widespread and deep leaving the Amerks bereft of any semblance of quality talent to work with. They finished near the bottom of the league for three consecutive seasons prior to Botterill coming aboard but last season they made the playoffs and this year they spent nearly all season atop their division, which is where they stand now.
Things were so bad in the organization that the Buffalo's ECHL affiliate, the Elmira Jackals, struggled near the bottom of the league for those three seasons and eventually ceased operations in 2017.
Although it's not all on the previous GM or GM's, the path that the Sabres took to rebuild with high draft choices made life very difficult up and down the organization and with Botterill's predecessor at the helm, the Sabres tried to short-cut the rebuild. However, while that plan failed, leaving the entire organization in the dregs, a number of draft picks dating back to 2012 were working their way up the ranks. Last season we saw a big influx of youth in Rochester and with a number of college and pro free agents signed over the previous few years, the Amerks were able to get things on track rather quickly.
This season we saw another influx of draft picks and free agents come into the organization on both the NHL and AHL levels and we also watched as Botterill made some shrewd trades that have had a huge impact on the organization's successes. In all Botterill did a ton of work in a very short period of time and we're starting to see the fruits of it.
Tonight, three of his draft picks are in the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship Finals as Team USA takes on Team Finland at 8 pm ET. Skating for the Americans is defenseman Mattias Samuelsson, who was selected in the second round (32nd-overall) in 2018. Opposite Samuelsson and the Americans are goalie Ukka-Pekka Luukkonen (2017, 54th) and defenseman Oskari Laaksonen (2017, 89th) with the Finnish duo playing some key roles for their team. Not to take away anything from Samuelsson's contributions but Luukkonen and Laaksonen look like their well on their way to be NHL contributors in the not too distant future.
The Sabres meanwhile are on the road tonight and face a tough opponent without the services for their top player in team captain Jack Eichel. On Thursday the Eichel-less Sabres pulled out a gutsy win against a Florida Panthers team that had won the previous seven meetings. Buffalo started out strong in the game and jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period before hanging on for the 4-3 win. It was a complete team effort anchored by Linus Ullmark in net.
Ullmark's overall numbers are pretty strong and he only has one regulation loss so far this year (9-1-3.) To their credit the Sabres have been developing him every step of the way. Save for his first season in North America were he joined the Sabres on an emergency basis and ended up playing 20 games for Buffalo in 2015-16, Ullmark has been plying his trade in Rochester. The last two seasons he was the Amerks No. 1 goalie and faced ton of rubber while being named Rochester's MVP both seasons. Botterill started the off season without any NHL goalies but said Ullmark, who was a sixth round pick (163rd) in 2012, would be with the big club before signing veteran free agent goalie Carter Hutton to be the team's starter.
So far so good for Ullmark as he's been playing very well in a backup role. He had one tough stretch with Hutton out where he gave up 13 goals in three games on three consecutive starts for Buffalo but still came away with a 1-1-1 record. He gave up five goals on two other occasions but other than that has been solid and has two shutouts to his name.
Sabres bench boss Phil Housley told the travelling media today that Ullmark will get the start tonight in Boston against the Bruins.
Tonight's game is a big one as both teams are tied in the standings with 50 points. The Bruins just took over third place in the division from Buffalo and the matchup tonight represents the last meeting of the season between the two clubs. Boston has bragging rights now with a 2-1-0 record but Buffalo did get a loser point in one of their losses.
Housley also said that he's going with the same lineup he used against Florida meaning these will probably be the lines:
Skinner - Rodrigues - Reinhart
Sheary - Sobotka - Thompson
C. J. Smith - Larsson - Okposo
Elie - Mittelstadt - Pominville
The Sabres have plenty of World Junior connections on their team right now. Most recently center Casey Mittelstadt won gold with Team USA last year and was named Tournament MVP while defenseman Rasmus Dahlin played in that same tournament for Team Sweden as a 17 yr. old. Housley coached a gold medal-winning 2013 American team that was captained by defenseman Jake McCabe.
All great moments for sure, but it's hard to top defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen's golden goal for Team Finland on this very day in 2014.