Tom Pepper The Hockey Writers
Sabres’ Jason Botterill: What Went Wrong
The Buffalo Sabres fired general manager Jason Botterill on Tuesday.
“This morning, we informed Jason Botterill he will no longer be the General Manager of the Sabres,” owners Terry and Kim Pegula released in a statement earlier this week. “This decision was made after many candid discussions with Jason during a full review of our hockey operation. We recognized we have philosophical differences regarding how best to put ourselves in a position to compete for a Stanley Cup. So, we decided to make this change.”
The firing comes after the Sabres’ ninth-straight season of missing the playoffs, extending what is currently the longest active playoff drought in the NHL. Although Botterill was only around for three of those seasons, the damage he dealt during that time may still be felt by the franchise for years to come. Through lopsided trades, regrettable contracts, poor draft picks, and questionable free-agent signings, he has managed to put the team as far from Stanley Cup contention as they have ever been.
Now, let’s take a deeper look at some of the things that went so wrong for the Sabres during Botterill’s three-year tenure as general manager.
Botterill Executes One of the Worst Trades in NHL History (July 1, 2018)
The infamous Ryan O’Reilly trade to the St. Louis Blues is considered by many as one of the worst trades in NHL history. In exchange for now Stanley Cup, Conn Smyth Trophy, and Frank J. Selke Trophy-winner O’Reilly, the Sabres received an abysmal return of Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson, Patrik Berglund, a first-round pick in 2019 (D Ryan Johnson), and a second-round pick in 2021.
Since the trade, the trio of players sent to Buffalo have produced a combined total of just 32 points in 174 games for the Sabres. On the other hand, O’Reilly has put up a whopping 138 points in 153 games for the Blues, an average of 0.9 points per game. He even went on to lead St. Louis to their first-ever Stanley Cup championship in 2020, earning himself playoff MVP honours in his first season as a Blue. With Sobotka in-and-out of the lineup, Thompson spending time with the Rochester Americans in the AHL, and Berglund retiring from the NHL after just 23 games with the Sabres, this trade only continues to look worse as time goes on.
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Botterill Signs Jeff Skinner to an 8-Year, $72-Million Contract Extension (June 7, 2019)
Jeff Skinner is currently the second-highest paid player on the Sabres roster, only second to Jack Eichel. After putting up career-high 63 points in 82 games in his first season with the Sabres, Botterill and Skinner agreed to a mega-contract worth $72-million over eight years… a very high-risk contract for the Sabres after a single-season trial run.
With a new cap hit of $9 million, Skinner underperformed in the 2019-20 season, recording a measly 14 goals and 9 assists (23 points) in 59 games. Producing just 0.39 points per game, Skinner was certainly expected to put up better numbers with a higher cap hit than NHL superstars Sidney Crosby ($8.7-million), Steven Stamkos ($8.5-million), and Leon Draisaitl ($8.5-million).
It looks as though Botterill’s massive leap of faith has fallen through. To make matters worse, Skinner’s contract comes with a full no-movement clause, meaning that he cannot be waived, assigned to the minors, or traded to another team without his approval. There is likely no escaping this salary-cap catastrophe anytime soon, at least not for the next seven years. All that Sabres fans can do now is hope and pray that Skinner can return to his former 2018-19 self.
Botterill’s Poor Draft Record
In three NHL Entry Drafts, Botterill drafted a total of 18 players. Of those players, only two have taken the ice in an NHL game—Rasmus Dahlin (2018 first-overall pick) and Casey Mittelstadt (2017 eighth-overall pick). Dahlin just finished his second season with the Sabres with a promising 40 points in 59 games, while Mittelstadt played the majority of his season with the Americans in the AHL.
Although it is true that some prospects take longer to develop, it is rather surprising that only two of Botterill’s drafted players have been able to crack the Sabres lineup, and only one of them is a regular starter. Also, keep in mind that Dahlin and Mittelstadt were both no-brainer selections with Dahlin being the top-ranked prospect in 2018 and Mittelstadt being a consensus top-10 prospect in 2017. Time will tell if any of Botterill’s other sixteen draft selections see any sort of success at the NHL level, but the clock is ticking for the Sabres.
Lack of Free Agent Signings
Free-agent signings were one of Botterill’s weakest points during his time as the Sabres’ general manager. Over the past three seasons, big-name players such as John Tavares, Matt Duchene, Artemi Panarin, Joe Thornton, and James van Riemsdyk have hit the free-agent market. With so many top-class players being available in recent years, you would have to think the Sabres would have picked up at least a few high-quality players along the way…
But, no. During Botterill’s tenure, the Sabres’ biggest free-agent signings have been left-wing Marcus Johansson, who put up 30 points in 60 games this season, and goaltender Carter Hutton, who has recorded a GAA of 3.00 and 3.18 over the past two seasons. With so many missed opportunities for the Sabres to recruit franchise-altering players and settling for mediocrity instead, it is easy to see why Buffalo was never a playoff contender under Botterill.
With Jason Botterill’s time coming to an end in Buffalo, the future of the Sabres is up in the air. As part of Tuesday’s announcement, the Sabres also named Kevyn Adams, former senior vice-president of business administration for the team, as Botterill’s successor at the general manager position. Adams comes into the role with no former hockey management experience.
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As rumours continue to swirl around the potential of Sabres stars Jack Eichel and Rasmus Ristolainen wanting out of Buffalo and multiple players, including Eichel, speak out about their disappointment with the team’s losing culture, the Sabres will be a key franchise to watch in the upcoming months. Adams has a lot of work ahead of him if he plans on cleaning up the mess that Botterill left behind.
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