It's a two-pronged attack going on this week in KeyBank Center. While Jason Botterill is charging through the revamping of the Buffalo Sabres, assistant general manager Randy Sexton is doing likewise for the Rochester Amerks.
It's a heavy lift for both.
Botterill is trying to fix the worst team in the NHL (and drafting Rasmus Dahlin, of course, is a good way to start). Sexton is working on a different task: Getting the Amerks to take another big step after they qualified for the Calder Cup playoffs in April for the first time since 2014.
Rochester, however, still hasn't won a playoff series since 2005 and remains well behind rivals like the Toronto Marlies and Syracuse Crunch, the farm teams of the Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning, respectively.
The Crunch overwhelmed the Amerks in a three-game series sweep in April, while the Marlies won the Calder Cup earlier this month with a Game 7 victory over Texas. If the Sabres want to someday overtake the Leafs and Lightning in the Atlantic Division, they know they're going to have start competing with them on the AHL level as well.
They can't yet. When he met the media Saturday in Dallas after the NHL Draft, Sexton offered a frank assessment of where the Sabres are currently at in the minor leagues.
"I've seen it over the years where if you want to compete with elite teams and go deep in the playoffs, you need your veterans but you also need a very good core of talented young players," Sexton said. "And we're just not quite there yet, to be candid."
"We have to learn how to win consistently, and it's easier said than done. We have full confidence with the development staff and coaching staff we have, and as we start to put those young players in with quality vets and leaders we have, we'll be able to accelerate that process. But we're not there."
Tampa Bay has been years ahead of the Sabres, winning a Calder Cup in 2012 when the franchise was in Norfolk, Va., and coached by current Lightning coach Jon Cooper. Toronto, meanwhile, has reached at least 96 points five times in the last seven seasons – and has won 13 playoff series in that span – while most recently being directed by wunderkind Kyle Dubas, now the Leafs' GM.
Syracuse was swept by Toronto after it had blanked the Amerks but still managed its first 100-point season in 10 years. The Crunch has won seven postseason series in the last six years.
"We have to plow more young players there," Sexton said of Rochester. "I used to chuckle because [the Leafs called the Marlies] the 'Baby Buds' and the average age was about 29 but in the last couple years, Kyle and his guys have done a very good job putting young, talented players there. Same thing in Syracuse, where the young players carried them. We as an organization have to do that."
Need for Nylander
One player Sexton focused on that the Amerks need to see a breakthrough from is winger Alex Nylander, Buffalo's No. 1 pick in 2016. Nylander has just 18 goals and 55 points in 116 games in Rochester the last two years, getting dogged much of last season by a groin injury that limited him to just 51 games and eight goals.
Nylander is still only 20, but to date has shown little of the progress needed to justify former GM Tim Murray's selection. The Sabres know they're reaching a crossroads with him.
“Probably the most important offseason of training in his young life, really," Sexton said. "It’s critical for him. He’s going to be a third-year pro, and I think everybody gets wound up because Alex may or may not have delivered at the same offensive output that people may have expected or anticipated. But I think we have to recognize his age.
"If he was playing in Mississauga in the OHL, he might have had 140 points. People would be saying, 'Eureka, what an offensive gem we have.' Everything needs to be held in perspective, particularly with younger players. The American League is a very good league, and it’s a very difficult league for young players. It’s not unusual for them to struggle a little bit, and Alex is no different."
Pilut adds to defense depth
Sexton is working hard this offseason on free-agent forwards and goaltending for Rochester but the good news is the Sabres appear fully stocked on defense in the AHL level. Between prospects, the re-signing of veterans like Nathan Paetsch and Zach Redmond and the free-agent addition of Swedish blueliner Lawrence Pilut, there's plenty of depth.
Sexton was effusive in his praise for the 5-foot-11 Pilut, a player ticketed to start the season in Rochester but who could certainly have NHL impact sooner rather than later.
"He’s a mobile, puck-moving defenseman," Sexton said. "He’s not necessarily the biggest guy, but you don’t need to be big to play anymore, particularly on the back end. You need to be smart, you need to have vision and read the play well and you need to be able to identify your options quickly and execute with precision. And that’s what he does."
There's going to be adjustments for Pilut from the larger European ice sheet to the 85-foot-wide version in North America. As Sexton noted, you have less time and space with the puck on this side of the ocean. And forechecking systems are more detailed and fierce in the AHL and NHL. The transition, however, is not something that has the Sabres overly concerned.
"That happens with all Europeans that come to play in North America," Sexton said. "We do believe because of his hockey IQ it won't take him that long to get adjusted."