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Mike Harrington: Return shaky, but Sabres GM did strong cleanup of cap, culture with big deal

So no matter what he might think of them as players, it's fairly obvious what Jason Botterill thinks of Evander Kane, Robin Lehner and Ryan O'Reilly as locker room influences.

The Sabres' general manager has been bent on improving the culture of his club, and moving out former GM Tim Murray's prime trade acquisitions has clearly been one talking point.

Kane had to go because the Sabres clearly weren't going to do a long-term deal with him. Lehner went because he didn't make nearly enough saves. But O'Reilly's case is quite a bit different.

He was a heart and soul player. A two-way demon at center. A prime member of the power play. A minutes cruncher. The guy who took every key faceoff.

The problem was when O'Reilly lost his heart and admitted it on locker cleanout day with quotes that were great for the media – and not so great for the team dynamic.

O'Reilly was supposed to be a leader and he truly was in his first season here. But his self-wallowing grew and it was hard to ignore. Was it real or, like some in the room believed, was it a show to deflect attention from his up and down play?

When Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart were rookies, they were among the players who stayed after practice for what was dubbed the "O'Reilly practices." They were on-ice skill sessions without the coaches present that often went 30-45 minutes after the official workout was done.

But as Eichel and Reinhart's stature grew, those sessions waned. Reinhart, in particular, pretty much stopped attending. The belief was that Kane, who relies mostly on his exceptional athletic ability over repetition, had lots of influence in that area.

O'Reilly was polarized in the dressing room as someone who specialized more in faux leadership than actual work at the head of the herd. After O'Reilly said he lost his love for the game, Botterill clearly lost his love for No. 90.

Botterill had many chances to simply say "he's a valuable piece of our team and we're not moving him." Instead, the GM doubled down on "teams will call about your good players."

It was a telltale sign Botterill wasn't letting the phone go to voicemail when it rang.

An O'Reilly deal looked dead when it didn't happen at the draft, as Botterill was shooting for the moon to try to land another top-10 pick. And it looked silent when Montreal GM Marc Bergevin disgustedly pulled out Sunday and the Blues spent $15 million to sign Toronto center Tyler Bozak.

St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong admitted the deal was dead Sunday morning. But he and Botterill redoubled efforts in the afternoon and into the evening.

The result was the first 5-for-1 trade in Sabres history, with three players and two draft picks coming to the 716. Overall, it's underwhelming from the return standpoint but a smash when viewed through the long-term prism of the team's cap.

Botterill is some sort of magician to get out from five years of O'Reilly's bloated $7.5 million cap hit – and a $7.5 million signing bonus that was due the 27-year-old at midnight. Terry Pegula will end up having paid just $20 million of the $52.5 million Murray promised O'Reilly in June 2015.

Patrik Berglund's cap hit is $3.8 million but only for four years, while Vladimir Sobotka is on the books for just two and Tage Thompson is on an entry-level deal. Pretty good there.

Now for the return on the ice. Not as good. Thompson is at best the Blues' fourth-best prospect but maybe will thrive on real ice time in real situations as St. Louis was a veteran-laden team with a coach (Mike Yeo) not very receptive at times to young players.

Berglund and Sobotka have some value as faceoff men in O'Reilly's stead and have lots of playoff experience. They're NHLers but neither sends shivers down opponents' spines.

A first-round pick next year, albeit top-10 protected, is a nice asset to have especially when you ponder what Botterill might be able to pull off by owning a trio of first-rounders in 2019. A second-round pick in 2021 is simply too far away to have any meaning.

Botterill didn't get any of St. Louis' top prospects in center Robert Thomas or wingers Jordan Kyrou and Klim Kostin. Nor could he get his hands close to defense stud Colton Parayko, Eichel's Team North America mate.

It's as if Botterill middled the deal. He got five pieces and long-term cap relief but didn't get any huge prospects for a guy who played 20-plus minutes every night.

It seems like he should have done better because the deal is more about futures than the present. But that's where the Sabres still are. As frustrating as it sounds, they haven't gotten to today yet.

Botterill wants you to believe development camp told you that point is coming soon. After watching all that young talent for four days, my sense is that he's probably right. At least he better be.

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