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Mike Harrington: Botterill doing things his way, bizarre as it may seem

DALLAS -- There was blind faith in Tim Murray, and we all got burned. Fans. Media. And clearly, Terry and Kim Pegula, too.

Jason Botterill is in a difficult spot as Sabres general manager because patience is so thin from all precincts. First key point: There's no gold stars awarded for drafting Rasmus Dahlin because, like the saying goes, a hamster could have made that pick. And, after all, the reason the Sabres got to make what could be a franchise-saving choice in the first place was that Botterill's initial Buffalo team was so bad it got handed the best lottery odds.

To be blunt, what we've seen from Botterill in his first two drafts are a lot of bizarre moves.

Just 13 months into the job, it's far too early to tell if any of them will work. But the bottom line is he's got the Stanley Cup rings that you and I don't have. So part of me says he's going to get plenty of benefits of the doubt for a while.

And part of me wonders if this is too much blind faith again.

You think back to last year in Chicago, when Botterill & Co. took Finnish blue-liner Oskari Laaksonen with the third-round pick -- even though he wasn't noted on any Central Scouting lists. That's not something I've ever seen so high up in the draft.

It is bizarre to ponder the fact the Sabres have not drafted a single player from the Canadian Hockey League ranks in Botterill's two seasons at the helm. No one from the Ontario, Quebec or Western leagues. The OHL had 35 players taken this weekend, the most of any league.

That's truly outlandish. It's not a great look for the Sabres, who have gone all European, U.S. college or USHL in these two drafts. So the first question Botterill got Saturday was if he had some sort of problem with taking Canadian junior players. Perfectly legitimate inquiry, too.

"There's nothing to shy away from at all," Botterill insisted. "I just believe, especially with mid- to later-round picks, that if you only control their rights for two years, you have to make a quicker decision on them. You have a more extended period of four years for Europeans or players going to college, and it gives you more opportunity for them to develop."

The logic probably makes sense for now. And only for now. The Sabres are a thin organization Botterill is trying to fortify. They just turned away from signing three Canadian juniors taken by Murray in 2016 (Vojtech Budik, Brandon Hagel and Western New York native Austin Osmanski). You can't drop guys that quickly when you're trying to improve your collective depth.

"Jason and I worked together seven years in Pittsburgh, and there was never a strong desire either way to select CHL players or not select them," added assistant GM Randy Sexton. "I would say it’s really just the luck of the draw."

Sexton acknowledged there's "some strategy" to going the non-CHL route to have the longer development windows but that the Sabres are open to anyone in the early rounds based on position and skill.

Fair enough. Next issues.

How many more Swedes and former Boston University players can you collect? Aren't five defensemen in six picks this weekend excessive? Especially with the overall lack of depth in goal and on the wings? No goalies?

That's seven defensemen drafted in two years, plus the recent trade acquisition of ex-BU captain Brandon Hickey from Arizona and the free-agent signing of Lawrence Pilut. Before you get all Game 7 of 2006 in Carolina on me when it comes to defensemen, there aren't nearly enough snipers in this organization.

"You can never have too many defensemen," Botterill said. "It was something we did talk a lot about, adding more defensemen. The way we want to play, you look at our pipeline right now, we had to have more defensemen into our group, so we're very happy how the day turned out.

"We're very excited about developing a young player like Brendan Guhle," Botterill said. "You've seen some of our decisions to get a player like Hickey. We're obviously excited about [Casey] Fitzergald. As much as we're excited about Brendan Guhle, we want to make sure there's more Brendan Guhles coming. That was a point of emphasis for us the last couple of days."

Forget about Dahlin for a moment because everyone knows he's going to be a star. It should be noted that Pilut and second-round pick Mattias Samuelsson are pretty highly regarded by scouts. Sexton has already brought back Zach Redmond and Nathan Paetsch to Rochester on AHL contracts, too. Botterill is known to be high on Boston College's Fitzgerald, a Murray pick like Guhle was.

So the talent pool is set on defense. Not so up front.

Relaxed Rasmus Dahlin welcomes Mattias Samuelsson, who quietly takes it in

The fourth-round pick this year, Muskegon center Matej Pekar, was the USHL Rookie of the Year last season and that seems like a plus. But you wonder if the Sabres are ever going to increase the talent pool at wing in their system.

Botterill was talking C.J. Smith, Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste, and you would think Smith would get the best shot this fall after a big season in Rochester. Sexton was left to discuss how this is the most important summer of training in Alex Nylander's life. Not a lot there so far.

Twitter, which is hardly a reliable focus group most times, went apoplectic when Botterill traded his sixth-round pick to Toronto for the Leafs' choice next year. Maybe if that deal had been with, say, Carolina, nobody would have cared. The GM said he wanted more assets next year. In the wake of the Evander Kane trade, Buffalo currently has nine picks for the 2019 draft in Vancouver.

That's good but there are immediate needs, too.

Botterill admitted priority No. 1 is to get two goalies stat -- including an NHL starter to play around 50 games and a key veteran for Rochester. The Ryan O'Reilly talks may continue another week. The Sabres need to get into the left wing market in free agency, although Toronto's James van Riemsdyk appears much too pricey, or push the envelope on a deal for Carolina's Jeff Skinner.

This isn't the NFL, where you can instantly try to judge a draft a winner or loser. Hockey is all about futures. It will take a while to find out how many of these players actually have one.

Botterill can start free agent interviews Sunday, and he's also got work to do on players like Sam Reinhart, who need new deals. It will take a while to find out about the GM, too.

He's got the panache and the Stanley Cup pedigree Murray was lacking. Here's hoping Botterill doesn't end up with the same results.

NHL Draft notebook: Sabres stay quiet on trade front – for now

 

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