Jason Botterill has no plans to hire a dictator as coach. The Sabres’ general manager wants someone who can relate to players, get on their level and turn communication into development.
But make no mistake, the next coach will be in charge – which is important since that didn’t always seem to be the case last time.
“With so many young players in our organization, a developer, an educator is going to be very important, a communicator,” Botterill said. “In today’s world, today’s game, they have to have that strong communication with the players.
“Finally, I think they need to have that presence in the locker room, making sure that the players understand the head coach is in control and certainly leading the charge.”
The tug-of-war between players and Dan Bylsma contributed to the ouster of the coach and GM Tim Murray. As Botterill meets with people in the organization to determine the root of the problems, disruptive players could depart, too.
Whoever skates in training camp next season can expect to be under a coach who has a better grip on the dressing room. While there are obvious candidates – Phil Housley, Rick Tocchet and Todd Reirden have been suggested – Buffalo’s new GM plans to cast a much-wider net. He hopes to have a coach by the NHL Draft on June 23, so that gives him more than a month to find the right guy.
“I look forward to talking to a lot of people,” Botterill said.
The GM had hiring duties during his 10-year run with Pittsburgh. He brought Mike Sullivan aboard as the American Hockey League coach for 2015-16, and the Penguins promoted Sullivan at midseason. He promptly won the Stanley Cup.
The hiring and success of Sullivan taught Botterill a few things that he’ll bring to Buffalo’s coaching search:
* Don’t get boxed in by first impressions.
Sullivan was the right-hand man for John Tortorella for six seasons, following the fiery coach from Tampa Bay to New York to Vancouver. Tortorella has burned bridges with players through the years, and Sullivan had a similarly gruff reputation.
“When I first interviewed him for the Wilkes-Barre job, I had an impression – just John Tortorella – that was a little different,” Botterill said.
During the interview, Botterill learned a lot more. After Sullivan was fired along with Tortorella in Vancouver, he joined Chicago as a player development coach. He worked with forwards throughout the Blackhawks’ system.
“His focusing on development and communication with a player really surprised me during that interview process,” Botterill said. “I think that made him an even better coach. He interacted with coaches at the college level, got different perspective, I think really understood where a lot of these young kids came from, and then he just became a better communicator in that aspect.”
* The right candidate isn’t always nearby.
The Penguins’ coaching model is easy to figure out. The road goes from Wilkes-Barres to Pittsburgh.
Michel Therrien was coach of Wilkes-Barre, then took over the Penguins. Bylsma did the same thing. Mike Yeo and Reirden served as assistants for the minor-league Penguins, then accepted the same role in Pittsburgh. Wilkes-Barre coach Clark Donatelli spent five seasons working with the Penguins’ ECHL affiliate before moving up to replace Sullivan.
“We’d had a pretty good track record,” Botterill said. “We’d always been an organization that had sort of elevated our coaches from within.”
Sullivan was a step outside the box. It worked.
* No one is perfect, so find the right help.
Sullivan is 83-37-16 with the Penguins. Donatelli is 73-42-10 with Wilkes-Barre. Winning is one of the few things they have in common.
“The two of them are completely different, and I think it just goes to show you there are different ways in developing players,” Botterill said. “It’s talking about a staff. Clark has an amazing personality with the players. Maybe not as structured, so then you have an assistant coach who’s more structured.
“Mike Sullivan has two great assistants with him in Rick Tocchet, who has a great relationship with the players, and Jacques Martin, who is a former head coach and had so much success in the National Hockey League. Whenever he has a problem to face, he has two guys who can really help him out.”
When Botterill hires the Sabres’ coach, he’ll identify the strengths and weaknesses. He’ll use that to help find assistants.
“It’s not only just the head coach,” Botterill said. “It’s going to be important to select a good person as the head coach and then make sure that the entire staff is rounded out in the proper manner to offset some of the coach’s weaknesses.
“It can’t be just one guy fostering a relationship. Over an 82-game schedule, head coaches, assistant coaches, people have to find a way to interact with our young players and continue their development.”
* Get someone who won’t rest on his laurels.
With Sullivan’s track record, he likely could have found a job as a well-paid NHL assistant. Botterill was impressed the coach didn’t want that.
“He wanted to get back in the American Hockey League, be a head guy again and earn his role and keep as a head guy,” Botterill said.
Donatelli was even hungrier. After working for Providence College, he accepted a job as an assistant in the ECHL.
“Trust me, we don’t pay assistant coaches in Wheeling too much,” Botterill said. “But here’s a guy who wanted to earn his keep and develop as a coach within our organization and did a great job at the East Coast League level.
“When you’re playing in the East Coast League, you’re not in a good spot. He found ways to round out their games to get them up to the American Hockey League and eventually get to the National Hockey League.”
The Sabres have been preaching development for years. Botterill will be searching for a coach who can make it happen. His guidelines are in place.
“I’m not going to put any limits on an experience standpoint,” he said. “You have some opinions from the outside, but until you actually ... get a view of an assistant coach or a coach, they can always surprise you.”