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Mike Harrington: Jason Botterill's impact a big factor in Penguins' run

PITTSBURGH -- Jason Botterill's fingerprints are all over the Stanley Cup final. Terry and Kim Pegula are hoping he will someday work similar magic in Buffalo.

The Sabres' new general manager left the Pittsburgh Penguins after they won Game Seven of the second-round series against Washington to take over the disheveled operation at One Seymour H. Knox III Plaza, but his impact won't soon be forgotten in the Steel City.

The Pens opened Game One of the final here Monday night against Nashville with Mike Sullivan, a Botterill hire for the AHL, behind the bench and many players Botterill hand-picked up and brought up through the ranks of the team's farm club in Wilkes-Barre in their lineup.

"I owe a lot to Jason Botterill, that's for sure," Pens goalie Matt Murray said on Media Day here Sunday. "He's very personable, very approachable. He's a genuine good guy. He treats you like a human being, not just a hockey player or a number."

Asked his thoughts on Botterill's future, Murray had plenty more to say.

"My first reaction was that Buffalo made a pretty good decision," Murray said. "Now, it's tough for us to lose him for sure but it was only a matter of time before he got a head job. He's a special person and he cares deeply about all his prospects.

"He spent a lot of time in Wilkes-Barre keeping an eye on guys and making sure they were taken care of. It's something this organization is so good at, giving you every resource possible and getting anything you needed to be successful. 'Botts' is a huge part of that. Tough to see him go, but very happy he got a head job."

Spend a couple days around the Penguins and there's plenty of chatter about Botterill. All of it positive. Good luck finding something remotely uncomplimentary. Pegula talked at length about character when dismissing Tim Murray, and again when hiring Botterill, and seems to have achieved that goal here.

The other point heard repeatedly here was that plenty of people were surprised to see the Penguins actually let Botterill go.

Owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle love Botterill. So did Sullivan, who was hired by Botterill to coach Wilkes-Barre Scranton before getting promoted back into the NHL 17 months ago. Pens GM Jim Rutherford called Botterill "a No. 1 pick as general manager" during an interview earlier this month on WGR Radio.

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Rutherford is 68 years old and enjoying the fruits of another Cup run. But instead of riding off on the potential of back-to-back titles, Rutherford is clearly intent to stay in the job a couple of more years. That seemed to hasten Botterill's willingness to move and seek a team of his own to run.

Botterill certainly had designs on running the Penguins. As the thinking goes from some observers here, Rutherford is already executive vice president of hockey and it's a surprise Lemieux & Co. didn't tell him to cede the GM title to Botterill after this season so they could keep him in the organization.

With no immediate future at being a GM, Botterill was more than willing to come to Buffalo. The Sabres obviously have a lot of work ahead but the immediate pressure is nothing like the Cup-or-bust mentality that exists here. Seriously now, if the Sabres make the playoffs next year and flame out in the first round in five games, isn't Botterill going to become one of the most popular sports figures in town?

"I think he’ll be a terrific general manager," Sullivan said as he sat at the dais with Rutherford. "He has a wealth of experience. He’s worked under some real good general managers, starting with the guy right beside me. I think he’s had an opportunity to really gain a lot of experience in a successful environment. I think Jason as a person is a terrific person. He’s a hardworking guy. He’s a diligent guy. He leaves no stone unturned to try to help his teams have success."

Botterill still needs a head coach and there's potentially three candidates here in Pens assistants Rick Tocchet and Jacques Martin as well as Preds assistant and former Sabres star Phil Housley. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach Clark Donatelli might get a look as well. And for that opening in Rochester just created by the firing of Dan Lambert, it stands to reason that Botterill will be looking heavily toward former Sabres and Amerks player Chris Taylor as the replacement.

Taylor spent this season as an assistant at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton after Lambert opted not to retain him when he took the Amerks job last June. Taylor played more than 500 games with Amerks over parts of nine seasons and would certainly be a wildly popular pick in Rochester, where fans grew quite sour with the Sabres the last two years.

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Botterill wants to build an organization that has players at the ready. The Penguins have received contributions the last two years from the likes of Murray, Conor Sheary, Jake Guentzel, Brian Dumoulin, Bryan Rust and former Sabres defenseman Chad Ruhwedel.

"Every player that comes up seems to be effective," said Ruhwedel, who played 34 games for the Pens this season after getting in just 33 for the Sabres over the previous 3 1/2 seasons. "If Jason instills that in the Buffalo organization like he did here, they will have success. The coaches were always updating us in Wilkes-Barre. You didn't feel as distant from the big club, that there was no hope of being here. Good play was going to be rewarded. That's been their track record here."

"Botterill was awesome to me," added Rust. "Whether I was in Wilkes-Barre or in college, he was in communication with me about my game. But he was also about how guys were as people away from the rink. That was big for development of all of us as young guys."

Guentzel, who has emerged on the top line along with Sidney Crosby, didn't even start the season in Pittsburgh. As Botterill said in his opening news conference with the Sabres, Guentzel was the kind of revelation a team wants to find: Players who might not be ready for the NHL in October are more than ready to contribute by, say, February.

"Jason has been huge for me," Guentzel said. "He gives you that script to go through in your career, what you need to do to get here. He helped me turn pro, helped me make the NHL  and guys here look up to him. "

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