It all sounded so good. Opening news conferences usually do.
Jason Botterill checked all kinds of boxes Thursday in KeyBank Center. He reached out to the longtime passion of fans of both the Sabres and the Rochester Amerks. He preached development. He talked about structure and culture in the locker room. He said the Sabres would be better, but certainly didn't promise any parades or even playoff berths right away.
In so many ways, Botterill is the anti-Tim Murray – except for the part about also being a rookie GM. Murray is the rumpled rink rat who loved to pile into his pickup truck and drive for hours to scout a junior or college game. Botterill is a former NHL first-round pick and ex-Sabre. His suit was impeccable, and he looked and talked the part of a University of Michigan MBA grad.
He spoke eloquently, in the kind of Sean McDermott corporate cliche that clearly causes swooning from Terry and Kim Pegula as well as Russ Brandon.
Botterill's key traits for his new coach: "Developer, educator, communicator." A few seconds later came "presence."
Playing style he wants from said coach? "Uptempo, puck possession, north-south game." (A cynic will note Dan Bylsma spent much of his first presser 24 months ago talking about puck possession. He never got anywhere with it.)
But even before hiring a new coach – a job that might stretch past the Stanley Cup final – Botterill is swamped with work. So he will have to turn his words into actions. As they say in hockey, he will be GM-ing on the fly.
Botterill has no head of amateur or pro scouting. He needs to build a team of assistant GMs. He needs to get up to speed for the franchise's plan for the expansion draft. Help reformulate the plan for the amateur draft (Unsolicited advice: Dangle that No. 8 overall pick in a package to get help on defense). Try to sign Cal Petersen if the highly touted Notre Dame goaltender opts to leave school, too.
He has key decisions to make about the NHL roster, specifically whether Robin Lehner will be his man in goal like he was for Murray and whether he needs to negotiate with Evander Kane or trade him. Can he lock up KHL defenseman Viktor Antipin? What kind of expansion draft deals can he make with Vegas GM George McPhee? Is he ready to talk a $7 million or $8 million a year deal with Jack Eichel? What about Sam Reinhart?
With so much to do at this point in their rebuild, you could easily say it's a little goofy for the Sabres to hire another first-time general manager. Instead, they have installed a 40-year-old who is the second-youngest GM in the league – and it seems like a good call.
The Sabres have never had such a rising young executive in this role. In fact, since 1970, they've only had eight GMs. This is a pretty coveted chair Botterill owns, long ago held by the likes of Punch Imlach, Scotty Bowman, Gerry Meehan and John Muckler.
Times are different now, of course. Botterill is a savant with the salary cap, which is huge because he was forthright in admitting the Sabres are "facing a cap crunch" – especially once you factor in Eichel's potential new deal. There will be no more Zach Bogosians, no more $25 million for the likes of Matt Moulson. It's the Pittsburgh model: Stars get paid, the rest of the roster is filled in by carefully chosen veterans and prospects.
Look at the Penguins' results and that's sure hard to argue. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury chew up their cap space like Pac-Man on skates. But the Pens survive through daring moves (think Phil Kessel), unheralded moves (Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley) and by getting prospects to contribute (think Connor Sheary and Jake Guentzel).
It's good news for the opportunity that will be presented to the likes of Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste and Alexander Nylander, among others. It's very good news for the good folks in Rochester, who have suffered through terrible teams in recent years and haven't won a playoff series since 2005 – or two years before the Sabres' last postseason triumph.
"Success comes from structure," Botterill said. "We want to build two teams, one in Buffalo and one in Rochester, that are highly competitive year in and year out."
Botterill also served as GM for Pittsburgh's Wilkes-Barre/Scranton team, a club filled with prospects that also produced two Stanley Cup-winning coaches in Bylsma and Mike Sullivan. He talked about his time running the Baby Pens so much that folks in Rochester have to be thrilled at what's to come for the Amerks.
That's all fine and well, but the Sabres need to win now. And who's going to coach this team? Botterill said he will be in charge of the coach search until the final 2-3 candidates are brought to the Pegulas for the final chats.
My vote would go to Hall of Famer Phil Housley, the ex-Sabres standout who is getting huge credit for his work with Nashville's star-studded defense corps. Botterill is likely to pick the brains of several candidates young and old. Pittsburgh assistants Rick Tocchet and Jacques Martin could both be in play. Maybe former Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter or Chicago assistant and former Florida coach Kevin Dineen. In the AHL, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's Clark Donatelli and Toronto Marlies boss Sheldon Keefe seem like logical names.
Once that coach is hired, the Sabres need to repair their frayed locker room. Do some players need to go or was Bylsma the issue and everything will be fixed by having somebody – anybody? – else in charge?
"I have some opinions on what happened here from afar," said Botterill, in the afternoon's most eyebrow-raising comment. "But it will be imperative I talk to a lot of players."
Botterill and his coach have to build a positive relationship with Jack Eichel, an area Bylsma obviously failed. Eichel is currently in Germany at the World Championships playing for Team USA.
"Here’s a player that’s liking, wants to play in April and May," Botterill said of Eichel, who wants to be playing in June someday, too. "Those are the type of players we want in our organization.”
Thursday was the day for talking. Friday will be the day for Brandon Beane to do the same thing in Orchard Park as he takes the reins of Pegula's football team.
For both teams, the Pegulas have decided to oust the scouts from the GM's office and bring in the executives. Are they learning from their mistakes or making new ones? We'll see.
Even as good as it all sounded Thursday, talk is cheap. It's time for Botterill to roll up the sleeves on the neatly pressed suit and get to work on living up to some strong first impressions.