Botterill: 'At the end of the day, it's our fault that we didn't win more games'

May 27, 2020 - 9:19 am
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For a ninth-consecutive season, the Buffalo Sabres find themselves on the outside looking in of a playoff spot in the National Hockey League standings.

After the NHL's announcement of its 24-team Return To Play format on Tuesday, the 2019-20 season is officially over for the Buffalo Sabres. It was another disappointing one for the organization with a 30-31-8 record and 68 points in 69 games played. The team ended up finishing 25th in the overall standings, just two points behind the Montreal Canadiens for the 12th and final spot in the Eastern Conference qualifying round.

In his three years as general manager of the Sabres, general manager Jason Botterill has helped lead the Sabres to 31st, 27th and 25th place finishes in the standings. While the team continues to show flashes of hope and promise each season, it continues to find ways to fall behind and miss out on the postseason.

Last season, it was the franchise-tying 10-game win streak in November that was followed by a terrible stretch of games after the All-Star break that resulted in the firing of head coach Phil Housley. This season, the Sabres got off to a hot start to the season with a 9-2-2 stretch through October, followed by stretches of up-and-down play under first-year head coach Ralph Krueger.

At the NHL Trade Deadline, the Sabres found themselves in a situation where they started to pick up some steam with a 7-3-1 record in their last 11 games, while climbing to within six points of a top-three spot in the Atlantic Division. The proceeded to acquire forward Wayne Simmonds from the New Jersey Devils, while also moving out Evan Rodrigues and Conor Sheary for forward Dominik Kahun.

However, the Sabres went on to lose their next six games and fall almost completely out of the playoff picture before the season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"There was disappointment [of the season ending for us], but at the end of the day, it's our fault that we didn't win more games prior to that," Botterill said in his end-of-season press conference via a Zoom conference call with the media. "We shouldn't have put ourselves in that position. We should have been in a position that no matter what happens that we would be part of the mix.

"At the end of the day, we should have put ourselves in a better position. I think in the five or six games leading up to the start of the pause, we played well, but we didn't get the results that we wanted. In a situation when you get into February, March and April, you have to get results. We didn't get that."

While there is plenty of disappointment with how the season ended with the play just before the suspension of the season, Botterill is more disappointed in the fact that his team will not be able to get back together as a group and get some game action in as a team.

"The disappointment, from our standpoint, is I actually felt that our group enjoyed being together, and challenging each other, trying to get better as a group," Botterill said. "I think Ralph enjoyed communicating with the guys on a daily basis. That communication has certainly continued over the last couple of months here, but it's just not the same as being there every day out on the ice and interacting with each other."

The 2019-20 season for the Sabres was a very similar one to those of years past. The top talent on the team like captain Jack Eichel, forward Sam Reinhart and defenseman Rasmus Dahlin perform and produce up to their standards and help make the Sabres a competitive team night-in and night-out. However, the rest of the team lacks in production and makes the Sabres become a one-line team, often times resulting in more losses in the standings than wins.

Botterill understands that his job is to help build this roster to be a more complete roster from top-to-bottom, and where that may start to come into play is with some of the young talent in the pipeline, who could soon make their presence known at the NHL level.

"We have to do a better job of creating more offense throughout our four lines, having more depth scoring throughout our entire lineup. As a [general manager], I have to give our coach Ralph Krueger the ability to change different lines up, to have more depth through his forward groups. And I will certainly always support, and I truly believe in a lot of our young players that we have within our system here," Botterill said.

"I know with Tage Thompson, it was disappointing that he had to have the surgery, but I'm extremely excited that he's going to be back and part of our group here. I thought Casey Mittelstadt went down to Rochester with the right attitude, and now this is a great opportunity for him to continue to work throughout the summer on his strength. Dylan Cozens - this gives him a couple of extra months here in preparation for another NHL training camp. So I'm going to continue to believe in these young players, because I believe that these young players are going to help us get over the hump and give us depth throughout our organization. It's also going to be something that we continue to look at, whether it's through free agency or trades, that availability of different forwards to add to the mix here."

Along with the young talent in place to make an impact in the NHL, Botterill believes that his team has shown what it takes to win in this league if they can put up some consistency in their game.

"I think that we've shown the capabilities [to win and be successful], whether it's the 10-game winning streak the year before; this year what I was excited about was a very good start, but we showed glimpses [of success] throughout the rest of the year," Botterill said. "This groups has shown that in glimpses, we can be a very strong team. It's imperative that we add more depth to that group and prove our players to be legit NHL players and have success here moving forward. That's why I would think that our fanbase would be excited about the young players that we have coming in here, and we've shown that we can do it. Now it's imperative that we show that over 82 games."

Although the Sabres have some highly regarded talent on the verge of making their full-time impact with the team, and the glimpses of promise that come through over the course of a season, some fans in Buffalo are starting to get tired of hearing the same ol' song and dance, what seems like, every offseason.

The Sabres are just the fifth team in NHL history with playoff droughts that stretch nine seasons or longer. Buffalo is one more season away from matching an NHL record with the Florida Panthers and Edmonton Oilers for the longest stretches without a playoff appearance.

The messages have sounded very similar over the last several years with the promising signs of development with players on the NHL roster, the team as a whole, and prospects within the pipeline. It may feel for some fans that the team is treading through water, or that the tires continue to spin with the team but with little progress made going forward.

Botterill understands the fans' frustrations, and knows that what has been said over the years has a much deeper meaning that what is seems on the surface.

"I'm not surprised that our passionate fans want to see a winner on the ice. That's nothing surprising from our standpoint. We understand that's part of pro sports. In my communication with Ralph, we see them both being intertwined. We talk about the development of young players and they're like, 'Why do we talk about this?' We're not building towards three or four years down the road. We want our young players to step in and put the team in positions where they can succeed and where they can help out our core players right away. That's what we're talking about.

"When we talk about development, it also equates to trying to find a winning environment here. What we've tried to bring into our group here is certainly players who want to be here, want to be a part of our community. I think that's evident during this pause. You see what players such as Kyle Okposo, Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner, numerous of our players have done from a financial standpoint and being involved in the community. They're engrained here. They love being here. They want to support our community and show a winner to our community. That gets us excited, and we also have players who are certainly interactive with our performance staff, with our coaches on what the little things that they have to continue to work on to become better NHL players. We had that internal development to help win games, and as a [general manager], my responsibility is to oversee that development, but also see what players are on the market through trade and free agency that can come in and help support these guys."

Where Botterill has seen an improvement with this team is how the team has played on home ice at KeyBank Center, and the way they have responded to playing in front of the home crowd.

"There was an excitement about playing at home. There was excitement of having former alumni come back, just something simple as the white [anniversary] jerseys, how good they looked, the excitement in our own building. I think we've talked about having a lot of pride within our own city here, playing well in front of our own fans. That really shown through this year, which I think our players were very excited about that."

This offseason will be a different one for the Sabres with a number of contracts coming off the books and opening up some salary cap space. According to CapFriendly.com, the Sabres are currently projected to have $36.983 million of cap space this offseason, but that is likely to change given the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic's affect on the salary cap for the years to come. Heading into the 2020-21 season, Buffalo will only have 10 players under contract with eight players heading to unrestricted free agency, and eight players set to become restricted free agents.

There will be a number of notable players to re-sign heading into the season, such as the likes of Reinhart, Kahun, Thompson, Mittelstadt, Victor Olofsson, Brandon Montour, Lawrence Pilut, and Linus Ullmark. Botterill will get the chance to re-sign, or trade, those players, as well as get a chance to overhaul the roster again heading into the future. However, he is looking for more than just the talent or youth when it comes to building his team going forward.

"In this environment now-a-days, it has to be a group effort from a leadership standpoint. It's important that we continue to have players coming up within our system that feel comfortable about talking, and not only feel comfortable with communicating with our coaches, but [also] communicating with each other when things need to be challenged there.

"Our players that have been here and our core guys, whether it's guys like [Rasmus] Ristolainen, [Sam] Reinhart, [Jack] Eichel, they're open to ideas. They're open to understanding and what they have to improve on with their own games and interacting with our performance staff and with our coaches to see what they have to do to be better NHL players. But until you actually go through some of these experiences, it's difficult for them. That's why we've tried to bring in people that have Stanley Cup rings, players that have playoff experience for them to feed off of."

Along with Reinhart needing a new contract for the 2020-21 season, another circumstance to come into the picture is the potential of getting a player like Rasmus Dahlin a new contract extension. While he still has another year on his rookie contract, he is eligible for an extension that will kick in at the start of the 2021-22 season.

While those two contract situations are going to be a hot topic going forward, Botterill wants to let the salary cap situation play out first in the NHL before he begins to dive in to talking term and money.

"Until we have more clarity on where the salary cap is going to be, just the process of salary arbitration, what the timeframe is going to be; we've been in communication with most of our free agents, both restricted and unrestricted, and their agents and just letting them know where we're at. Obviously with the pause, I think a lot of teams are within the same boat, from that standpoint.

"From more of a contract standpoint, we'll wait until we get a little more direction from the National Hockey League before we make those decisions."

When it comes to the NHL Draft, the Sabres currently sit with the seventh overall pick ahead of the NHL Draft Lottery set to take place on Friday, June 26. The 2020 NHL Draft class is set to be a good class of prospects, especially within the top-10 range of players. If the Sabres happen to win any of the top-three picks in the draft, it may seem likely that Buffalo holds on to the pick and will draft a very talented prospect capable of making an impact in the NHL within a year or two. However, if the Sabres happen to stay put with the seventh pick or fall back any more in the draft order, Botterill is open to the idea of moving the pick in order to enhance his team's status heading into next season.

"I think you have to go through the lottery and see where it's at, and also just see what's available from that perspective both in making a selection there, but also what the trade market is. Obviously the 24 teams are a lot more focused on playing out the playoffs here right now versus focusing on making trades. It will be something that we'll certainly look at. We have been very open to talk a lot about different things that can improve our team. That's certainly something that we'll at least consider."

You can listen to the entire interview below:

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