The Buffalo Sabres are playing out the string to this season, but next year – and beyond – is already front and center for General Manager Jason Botterill.
Botterill was in the house Friday in Sioux Falls, S.D., for one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history as Atlantic Hockey champion Air Force became just the second No. 16 seed to beat the overall No. 1 with a 4-1 first-round victory over St. Cloud State.
That stunner had major ripple effects back to Buffalo as it meant the end of the junior season of St. Cloud defenseman and Sabres draft pick Will Borgen, and gives Botterill two major projects to attend to in Minnesota.
University of Minnesota center Casey Mittelstadt, the team's No. 1 pick last June, saw his freshman season end last week before the NCAAs. It didn't finish on the ice, as the Gophers were eliminated by a mind-boggling combination of six conference tournament results that went against them and dropped them just under the cut line for a tournament berth in the PairWise rankings.
With both players' seasons over, Botterill can now go to work trying to lure them to sign their professional contracts and leave school. While Sabres fans are clamoring to see Mittelstadt in Buffalo for a look, or at least in Rochester during the Calder Cup playoffs, the 19-year-old's decision could be on hold while awaiting what takes place with Minnesota's coaching search.
Veterans Gophers bench boss Don Lucia stepped down on Tuesday after 19 seasons in the wake of the NCAA miss and declining attendance at the school's games. He won two national championships, including the 2003 Frozen Four title in Buffalo when future Sabres draft pick Thomas Vanek was the team's star.
One possible Lucia replacement? St. Cloud's Bob Motzko – who coached Mittelstadt on Team USA during the World Junior Championship in Buffalo earlier this year. With Motzko's season over, he becomes an instant top candidate in Minneapolis and Mittelstadt would have more food for thought about staying in school for another year and playing for a coach he's familiar with.
Botterill, in fact, may have more pressing work to do with Borgen in getting him signed before his senior season. NHL teams have become much more cognizant of getting their college players signed early because they can skip out on the team that drafted them and become unrestricted free agents after four years.
That's how Jimmy Vesey said no-thanks to Nashville and signed with the New York Rangers in 2016 (after also saying no to the Sabres, who had traded for his rights over the summer). And that's how former Notre Dame goalie Cal Petersen said no to Buffalo last summer and eventually signed with the Los Angeles Kings.
That was a big loss for the Sabres. Petersen leads all AHL rookie goalies with 20 wins while playing for the Ontario Reign. Among rookies still in the league, he is tied for the best save percentage at .916 and is second in goals-against average at 2.35.
The Sabres have an even more critical need for depth on defense. They definitely want to get the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Borgen into their organization and not risk losing him to free agency next summer.
Borgen, a fourth-round pick in 2015, was named the National College Hockey Conference's Defensive Defenseman of the Year this season and was also tabbed an honorable mention all-conference selection. He entered the NCAAs with two goals, 12 assists and a plus-10 rating in 35 games this season as St. Cloud State took a 25-8-6 record into the Air Force game and was tied for second in the nation in wins.
Borgen was one of four collegians to play on the U.S. Olympic team in Pyeongchang but did not play in any of the games. Team USA went 2-1-2 in the tournament and was eliminated by the Czech Republic in a shootout in the quarterfinals.
If the Sabres signed either player and brought them directly to the NHL, it would burn a year off their entry-level contracts. Another viable option could be an amateur tryout contract with Rochester and a ticket to the rest of the Amerks' season and possible ice time during the upcoming Calder Cup playoffs.