Jason Botterill sees a straight line in building a successful development model. There’s scouting, drafting and winning.
“If anything falls apart in that line, it just doesn’t work,” the Sabres’ general manager said.
The winning part is where the Sabres’ development has gotten stuck.
Buffalo’s minor-league team has won one playoff series in 12 years, an opening-round victory by the Portland Pirates in 2009-10. The prospects have missed the playoffs four times in the past seven years, including the last three. They got swept in two of the three postseason appearances.
Botterill knows it has to change.
“We want to build two teams – one in Buffalo, one in Rochester – that are highly competitive year in and year out,” he said. “One of the successes in the organization I’m coming from is the relationship between Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh. We want to restrengthen the relationship between Rochester and Buffalo because for us developing an organization that is going to be year in and year out successful in the National Hockey League, you have to have that development in place.”
As a Pittsburgh executive who served as GM of the American Hockey League affiliate, Botterill saw how success breeds success. The Baby Penguins have made the playoffs for 15 straight years. Pittsburgh is making its 11th straight appearance.
“Winning is a part of development,” Botterill said. “What our model has been about in Wilkes-Barre, what we’ll try to implement in Rochester is obviously having strong coaching, a coaching staff that is very tied to what goes on at the National Hockey League level. It will be having veteran leadership there.
“We want to make sure there’s opportunities for our young players, but they also have to compete for jobs. They’re going to be competing for jobs at the National Hockey League level, so they better go through the experience of competing for jobs at the American Hockey League level.”
Former Sabres General Manager Tim Murray tried to take steps in Rochester. Dan Lambert worked as Dan Bylsma’s assistant before becoming coach of the Amerks, an attempt at building similar systems for the teams. Murray signed several established veterans for Rochester – including Cal O’Reilly, Bobby Sanguinetti, Jason Akeson and Derek Grant – but they underperformed, got hurt or couldn’t help the Amerks overcome their lack of depth.
While Murray made trips to Rochester, he also concentrated on Buffalo and scouting. Botterill will name a GM specifically for the Amerks.
“Someone from our development staff, someone from an assistant general manager, will clearly have the title of general manager in Rochester and will work closely with that coach down there,” said Botterill, who will decide whether to keep Lambert or start with new coaching staffs for both teams.
Botterill takes “work closely” seriously. The GM said either he or another Penguins executive attended 95 percent of Wilkes-Barre’s home games during a three-season span.
“Players notice when management is around and making that a priority,” Botterill said. “I think it just gives them a little more incentive to get up to the National Hockey League.”
The Sabres’ prospects had a path to the NHL this season. There were 15 players who split time between Buffalo and Rochester. There was very little production, however. The forwards combined for 14 goals and 15 assists in 186 games.
“If they’re not ready in September or October, we have to have sort of more NHL depth players ready to take on those roles,” Botterill said.
Botterill pointed to forward Jake Guentzel as someone who thrived under the Penguins’ developmental system. Guentzel left college and joined Wilkes-Barre late in 2015-16. He immediately gained playoff confidence and experience, recording five goals and 14 points in 10 playoff games.
He couldn’t earn a spot on the Penguins out of training camp this year, so he went back to Wilkes-Barre. He torched the AHL with 21 goals and 42 points in 33 games, getting the call to Pittsburgh. He is the leading goal-scorer in the Stanley Cup playoffs and is tied for sixth in points.
Botterill wants the Sabres’ prospects to have similar success stories. It will all start with winning.
“You want players with track records of having success in playoffs because we’re not just trying to develop National Hockey League players,” Botterill said, “we’re trying to have players have success in the playoffs up here in Buffalo.”