Mike Harrington: As kids thrive, Sabres' new leaders exude veteran feel - The Buffalo News

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Mike Harrington: As kids thrive, Sabres' new leaders exude veteran feel

It is less than three months since the Sabres fired Dan Bylsma and Tim Murray. Less than three months since they essentially started over in the middle of their rebuild. People around the NHL were downright baffled.

As far down as the franchise had fallen, who pulls the plug on the coach and the GM after just two years? What happened to the plan? It seemed like things were in chaos.

Well, you really can relax. There is no chaos here.

There is a level of confidence and professionalism around this organization we haven't seen in a long time. No one knows how that's going to translate to wins come October. Frankly, if you picked the standings right now, you still would not have the Sabres as a playoff team.

And let's not forget that for all of their varied experience, Phil Housley is still a first-time NHL head coach and Jason Botterill is still a first-time NHL general manager.

But it just doesn't feel that way.

A huge first step is fortifying the prospect pool and things looked good in that regard the last four days in HarborCenter. The Sabres need more defensemen, especially on the right side, but they have some elite forwards coming and you could feel the buzz in the building at Saturday's opening practices and Tuesday's 3-on-3 tournament, which saw so many fans show up at 9 a.m. that the Sabres had to open what was planned to be a closed side of the feature rink.

Those that came got quite a show.

First-round pick Casey Mittelstadt absolutely knocked your socks off and so did last year's second-rounder Rasmus Asplund, who came with the pick Murray will forever point out was the reason Mark Pysyk was traded for Dmitry Kulikov. Cliff Pu got the crowd chanting his name like they do in London of the OHL -- and like 17,000 Canadians probably will in KeyBank Center when the World Juniors hit town in December.

Casey Mittelstadt lives up to hype at first Sabres development camp

All that pre-draft talk about needing a young goalie? Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen looked great with his bright orange gear straight from Finland and played great too. It will be fun to follow Will Borgen develop as a junior on the St. Cloud State blueline and wonder if he can turn into a form of Jake McCabe with some snarl.

The GM's first draft looks very promising. On Monday, he hired Hockey Canada personnel director Ryan Jankowski as his director of amateur scouting, a move widely applauded in the sport. Randy Sexton, his new assistant GM, just about had a revival session with reporters Saturday when talking about the Rochester Amerks and hoping to raise another Stanley Cup in Buffalo after doing it the last two years with Pittsburgh.

Stop and think about this. There's a former NHL head coach on Housley's bench in Davis Payne, a former NHL general manager working with Botterill in Sexton and a long-time NHL scouting exec and World Junior strategist in Jankowski now about to take over Botterill's scouting operation. And the guy who ran it for this year's draft, longtime Anaheim scout Jeff Crisp, seemed to do a fine job and got promoted to Jankowski's assistant.

This is a long way from Darcy Regier and Ron Rolston.

Botterill will need to keep a steady hand this summer. Things might get quiet on the trade and free agent front until September but the contracts for Jack Eichel and Robin Lehner need tending to. With Connor McDavid getting eight years at $12.5 million per year from Edmonton, you wonder how high the Sabres need to go with the face of their franchise. Eichel is obviously about to become the highest-paid player in club history.

"Our conversations with Jack and the group have gone extremely well," Botterill said Tuesday. "We'll continue this throughout the summer and see if we can find a common ground because, from our standpoint, we certainly want to get something done. And everything we've heard from Jack and his agents is they want to get something done too."

The national profile of both the Sabres and Eichel will increase immeasurably this season with the team slated to play in the Winter Classic Jan. 1 in New York, so having Eichel signed long-term is clearly one of the franchise's key summer goals.

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"To be able to get a contract done for a star player, a player who's a face of the organization is great for our league," Botterill said. "Connor has had an amazing season and I'm sure people in Edmonton are very excited about having him under contract. I've been through some of those discussions before whenever we did Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang. You're excited to get an elite player under contract."

Botterill seems to be laying low on Evander Kane -- whom the Sabres probably need to go into the season with and then re-evaluate when the calendar turns to 2018. But the GM made it clear for the first time Tuesday he has no plans on an extension for Sam Reinhart. Like Eichel, he's in the final year of his entry-level deal.

"We're excited with Sam but I don't think Sam from a contract standpoint will happen this summer," Botterill said. "We have him under contract another year and we'll see how things play out."

Message sent to the former No. 2 overall pick: We expect more than 17 goals. Work harder. Come to camp ready to play and produce.

Now, Botterill will make mistakes. Firing longtime scouts via a letter after using their work during the draft isn't the best look. Still, most of them had to figure they were one foot out the door anyway when Murray was pushed through it by the Pegulas.

And while we've had a glimpse of how Botterill wants to draft and fill out the roster (Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu, Jason Pominville), we have no idea how Housley will be behind the bench.

So far, so good with Housley's staff. He is doing background work on his final assistant coach hire and retaining Andrew Allen as goalie coach was a great move, especially with the affinity Lehner and the returning Chad Johnson have for him.

Said Botterill of development camp: "I thought it was a great four days for the organization."

It was. In fact, it's been a good summer so far. Let's see what that means come fall.

Scandella on Sabres: 'I’m super excited about the new challenge I have'

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