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Mike Harrington: Lottery win a turnaround moment for a bedraggled franchise

TORONTO – Poor Jason Botterill didn't have a clue what he was getting into here 11 months ago. All he's known with the Pittsburgh Penguins was winning.

Maybe he brought some of that magic touch with him.

The Buffalo Sabres are losers on the ice. They've been perennial losers in acquiring franchise players to spark a turnaround. But that finally changed Saturday.

Rasmus Dahlin is coming to town.

Botterill joked with reporters here late Saturday night that "We want everybody to show up in Dallas" for the draft when he was asked about the franchise's first No. 1 overall pick in 31 years. But everyone knows what's going to happen when the Sabres take the podium on June 22.

And Botterill's description of Dahlin should tell the story quite succinctly. What's the best characterization the Sabres' general manager had of the 18-year-old Swedish dynamo who many call the next Erik Karlsson or Nicklas Lidstrom?

His words flowed easily: "The type of defenseman that pretty much 31 teams in the National Hockey League want these days."

Imagine that.

More specifically, this is the type of raw talent that will fit perfectly with what coach Phil Housley is trying to do on his attack and on his power play. Dahlin will become a franchise pillar on the blueline. That's what Botterill & Co. needed to shore up a terrible defense corps. Getting the franchise's first No. 1 overall since Pierre Turgeon in 1987 will do the trick.

Joy in Sabreland as Buffalo lands top pick in NHL Draft

Does any team in the NHL need a No. 1 defenseman who could be in their lineup for, oh, the next 10-15 years more than the Sabres do? You might say Edmonton but the Oilers already have Connor McDavid and have had far too many No. 1 picks over the years to deserve any more, especially that kind of help on defense.

Dahlin will be the best No. 1 overall on defense since Denis Potvin 45 years ago. The comparisons are everywhere. Karlsson. Lidstrom. A smaller Victor Hedman. Sweden is the current factory for producing defenseman, and the Sabres are about to get one now.

Think of what Dahlin will be able to do in terms of getting the puck out of the zone. Think of him feeding Jack Eichel on the power play. Think of the relief he will provide Rasmus Ristolainen, who proved this season he simply can't be relied upon to be a No. 1 defenseman who plays 25 minutes a night.

The best odds Saturday night meant everything. Dodging their recent history in these draws, the Sabres got the luck they needed and earned the No. 1 pick.  And Botterill's joke aside, they may as well move on to reshaping their roster and figuring out who they might take in the second round because the first round is a lock.

Darcy Regier's infamous "suffering" news conference was five years ago Sunday. The vice grip it appears to have on this franchise showed no sign of letting up until Saturday.

Inside the Sabres: Day of suffering lingers five years later

Think of what it means from a business standpoint. That mass exodus of season ticket-holders that was a given might become more of a trickle out the door than a flood.

Even getting Dahlin, of course, doesn't mean the Sabres can instantly start making playoff reservations for next spring. The party line in the wake of the 62-point disaster at the NHL level was that the real bright spot of the season was the improvement in Rochester, where the Amerks started strong and comfortably held a playoff slot the rest of the year while dealing with the inevitable callups to Buffalo.

Victory at last: Sabres win NHL Draft Lottery, will pick first

A long Calder Cup run would have really been a boost to the organizational culture as well as providing a good read on some of the top prospects who are supposed to make a difference in Buffalo.

Instead, the Amerks' postseason was an abject disaster. A three-game sweep at the hands of Syracuse with Alex Nylander invisible, top defense prospect Brendan Guhle struggling, Justin Bailey and Casey Nelson injured and goaltender Linus Ullmark giving up six goals in each game can be termed as nothing but disturbing. What does Botterill do in net next year now? Which middling veteran free agent does he have to go sign to team with Ullmark to try to get the Sabres through the schedule?

You say Botterill got a break last year when he was able to take Casey Mittelstadt at No. 8? Sure seems that way. The kid has great hands and didn't look totally out of place during his six-game stint at the end of the season. The Sabres made it clear they wanted him to play for Team USA at the upcoming World Championships in Denmark and the fit seemed like a good one, given Mittelstadt's head-turning performance at the World Juniors.

The roster was announced Saturday and what was the verdict? No room at the inn for Mittelstadt. Turns out he's nursing a groin injury. Another bummer for Buffalo.

It's how this organization rolls too often. No playoffs in seven years. No playoff series victories in 11 years. No Stanley Cups in nearly 50 years. It was way back in 1970 when a simple spin of a roulette wheel landed Gilbert Perreault in Buffalo and set the franchise up for nearly two decades of prosperity, although it never won a Stanley Cup.

The hope is that Eichel, Mittelstadt, Dahlin and perhaps a couple others will become the core for the new generation of winning hockey in Buffalo. It's been a long time.

"Whenever you're coming into a new situation, it's not going to be perfect," Botterill said. "Development is not always going to be every day we're 100 percent getting better. It's not as if we have a lot of players who are at the end of their careers. We have a lot of young players we can mold."

Including one every team would love to have. Botterill is about four hours by car from Pittsburgh. In hockey terms, he's about a million miles away. Maybe Saturday night will prove to be a long-awaited turning point.

Mike Harrington: Anger is awesome, but now Botterill has to match words with actions

 

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