TORONTO – This has been a rough few months for Jason Botterill. He finally got to puff out his chest for a few minutes Monday evening. I actually saw him have multiple reasons to smile, too. Good for him. He deserved the moment.
Botterill's dream of becoming an NHL general manager has been mostly a nightmare in his first season for the Buffalo Sabres. The first team he's put together is an abject disaster, worse than non-tank version Tim Murray or Darcy Regier ever put on the ice.
No one knows if Phil Housley, Botterill's first choice as an NHL head coach, has what it takes to succeed in the job. Social media's instant experts, of course, have already deemed Housley a scrapheap choice but, as I reguarly remind folks, it was Botterill who put together a team that even Toe Blake couldn't win with.
Botterill put together a terrible defense corps, breaking even worse something that needed to be fixed. He froze and did nothing when the team started poorly. Claiming Jordan Nolan off waivers at the end of training camp? Whatever. The trade deadline netted him nothing and he sold off Evander Kane for pennies on the dollar and is now left with the prayer of a re-sign or a Sharks Cup title to get a first-round pick.
But one thing Botterill clearly knows is prospects and how to bring them along. We have no idea if he can sign an NHL free agent or win a trade but we know he can draft and you have to like his philosophies on development.
Monday in Air Canada Centre, the beleaguered GM was able to talk about a pair of victories off the ice and then enjoy a big third one on it as the Sabres posted a 3-2 victory to snap the Toronto Maple Leafs' 13-game home winning streak.
St. Cloud State defenseman Will Borgen is signed and headed to Rochester, where he will fortify the Amerks' blueline the rest of the season and into the Calder Cup Playoffs. And then came the big fish Monday morning: Just as the Sabres were wrapping up a routine pregame skate, the word emerged that Casey Mittelstadt had agreed to terms.
The Minnesota kid made it into Buffalo Monday night, will take a physical Tuesday and then sign his entry-level deal. He'll practice Wednesday in HarborCenter – where he wowed the crowd at summer development camp a scant eight months ago. And then the big moment comes Thursday in KeyBank Center against Detroit when Mittelstadt will make his NHL debut, only nine months after coming up on the stage in Chicago as the initial first-round draft pick of the Botterill era.
Botterill isn't about taking plaudits for himself so we'll give him some. His pregame talk with reporters centered around having Mittelstadt ready to go come October, to be a full-timer next season. Next season started for Botterill weeks ago. As it should have.
It was striking to see how happy Sabres players were when word of the agreement filtered through the dressing room. Some of them skated with Mittelstadt last summer, either in Buffalo or in Minnesota summer leagues. Others watched parts of the World Junior Championship in Buffalo, either the Team USA opener the night before heading to New York for the Winter classic trip, or games on television while they were on the room.
They see what Botterill and everyone else does. Those hands. Silky smooth. The way the puck moves. If you were in HarborCenter in the summer, remember how Mittelstadt moved the puck around during drills? Summer stickhandling drills and the crowd was cheering. Never saw that before.
Mittelstadt is probably better than five or six of the forwards the Sabres put on the ice here Monday night. In terms of raw talent? You could easily say only Jack Eichel has more. (Eichel, by the way, was spectacular Monday and said point-blank this team's success lies with him). Ryan O'Reilly joked Mittelstadt does things he can only dream of with the puck.
Thursday will be a familiar setting in KeyBank for Mittelstadt. Nice way to start. But the nights to really watch Mittelstadt will start Saturday in Nashville. And here next Monday in another game against the Maple Leafs. And April 5 in Tampa Bay.
You want a gauge of how ready he is, watch how he does against those teams. Those are some NHL elites.
Botterill and assistant GM Steve Greeley have kept a close watch on Mittelstadt all season at the University of Minnesota. Same with Borgen at St. Cloud. Things actually went in the Sabres' favor – sorry, guys – when their teams' college seasons when belly-up. Mittelstadt's Gophers needed only one thing to go well out of six possible scenarios and none came in so they were a stunning omission from the NCAA Tournament. Borgen's top-seeded team was the victim of a 1-16 UMBC-style upset at the hands of Air Force.
Botterill was in Sioux Falls, S.D., for that game. He said the approach was simple. Don't pounce. Let the kid ruminate over the loss and the end of his college season. Give him the time he needs. Reach out to the agent. Let the agent start the conversation with his client. Then move back in.
Botterill set out all the scenarios – his favorite word by far in any conversation – and waited for the response. Mittelstadt could have waited to see who Minnesota was going to hire as its new coach but he decided he'd come for an NHL deal and the Sabres knew they needed him. So they were willing to burn the first year of the deal in the final six games this season. Borgen wasn't getting that but now has a great chance in the Calder Cup playoffs.
It's a good move for all. In a season where almost nothing has gone well, this was Botterill's shining moment. After the stunning victory, the GM was all smiles again in the dressing room talking to young defensemen Brendan Guhle and Casey Nelson, two potentially key pieces going forward. Nelson, however, is a pending free agent. Botterill has more talking to do.
Starting Thursday, we get a look at what Mittelstadt means. Here's hoping Botterill's offseason goes as well as the last couple days did. The GM has a good head start on reshaping this club.