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Tired of talk, Sabres' Botterill demands action to become winner

Jason Botterill knew what a winning organization looked like. Once the Buffalo Sabres started playing, he knew what a losing organization looked like.

"Right now we have a losing culture," the Sabres' general manager said Monday. "There certainly has to be change, and there will be change."

Botterill put an angry bow on a miserable season with his year-end news conference. Clearly agitated by the Sabres' last-place finish, the GM knows things have to change on the ice, in the dressing room and throughout the organization.

"When you finish where we did, we have to look at everything," Botterill said in KeyBank Center. "That means looking at even changing up our core players."

It doesn't mean changing the head coach.

"Yes, 100 percent, Phil Housley will be our coach next year," said Botterill, who added the assistants will be evaluated into next week. "We haven't won here. It's up to Phil and I to work with our players to work through that to make sure we change our culture."

The losing culture may have never been more evident than this week. Ryan O'Reilly, an alternate captain and the highest-paid player, said he became OK with losing and lost his love of the game at times.

"He gave you an honest opinion," Botterill said. "In today's sports world, that's a little bit unique. You look at Ryan, he was a big part of our team. He played hard throughout the entire season. But it's also an emotional game. When you don't win, when you don't get the results you want, it can be really draining on a player.

"What he said is probably indicative of a lot of our players within our organization, and that's what we have to work through right now."

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During Botterill's exit interviews with the players, he heard them say they were disappointed. They said that to others during previous exit meetings.

"There's been a lot of talk," Botterill said. "I don’t want to hear about how disappointed they are. I want to hear about what's going to change, what is the action plan moving forward here?"

The GM says it's not enough to be disappointed. The players to have improve their training methods, communicate better with each other and the coaching staff, and build stronger relationships. They need more intensity in practice.

Also, they have to listen to Housley. The players have to buy into what he is teaching, and they didn't.

"I wouldn't say 'uncoachable,'" Botterill said. "I think we have some players with some strong opinions.

"We have to make sure our coaches and our players are on the same page. You can just see it in any successful organization."

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Botterill saw it during his decade with the Pittsburgh Penguins. They won three Stanley Cups. Now he's in Buffalo, which hasn't made the playoffs in seven seasons – and hasn't even come close.

"If we think that we just maybe work a little bit harder in the summer or have a couple of conversations and all the results will come next year, then we're kidding ourselves," Botterill said. "But I do believe in some of our core players and our star players, and what excites me is they're still very young. There's a situation of developing them as players. It's also a situation where we're developing them as leaders."

The GM likes the increased maturity shown by center Jack Eichel. It needs to be mimicked.

"As excited as we are of Jack moving forward as a leader, it's imperative that we have more players in that locker room step up from that standpoint," Botterill said. "This game cannot have one player lead the entire team. It's imperative that we have stronger voices in there.

"We have some players who have some NHL experience in playoffs that need to be more comfortable stepping up in those roles. We have younger players who have been part of this organization now for three, four, five years who can't sit in the background anymore, have to be a part of it. We have to have a stronger leadership group."

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Botterill also has to increase the talent level.

"We're going to get a good player wherever we pick in the draft, whether it's one through four," he said. "A couple things that I really want to improve on is our team speed up front. We have to add more skill, and I felt that came with Casey Mittelstadt. We just have to get faster on the wings."

He hopes prospects such as Nick Baptiste, Justin Bailey, Alex Nylander, C.J. Smith and newly signed Andrew Oglevie of Notre Dame can step up. Botterill will also investigate trades and free agency.

"When you finish 31st, you pretty much need to improve in every category, let's be honest," Botterill said. "I believe we can have better results next year by changing certain things."

Like anyone who saw the Sabres, he knows things have to change.

"We do have all the resources here to have success," Botterill said. "Whether you look at the practice facility across the street, performance sports program, coaches, skills coaches, it's all here for success, yet it hasn't transpired here.

"It certainly seems very early to be doing exit meetings. It's not fun. It's certainly not fun. That being said, I think this year has reinforced to me my belief in what a good organization looks like and how it should function."

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