Jason Botterill's second year as general manager of the Buffalo Sabres has been a huge improvement over his first. From 31st place in the league, the Sabres have surged into the top six in the overall standing as Jack Eichel has become an MVP candidate and the roster has been augmented by the additions of Jeff Skinner and Carter Hutton as well as the drafting of No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin.
Botterill had a one-on-one conversation with The Buffalo News before Tuesday's game against the Florida Panthers in KeyBank Center.
Here are his responses to the key questions:
Buffalo News: Has the mindset and the objectives going forward changed based on the way the team is playing? Instead of hoping to be in contention for the playoffs, do you have to think in a bigger prism because of the record?
Jason Botterill: I don't believe it changes, just because of how competitive the league is. We're very happy with how we've played through 35 games so far but our mindset needs to remain the same.
The things that have allowed us to have success like young players developing, winning tight games, certainly hasn't changed the mission or the goals for the year. It's something that all GMs say that you're looking to improve your team when you evaluate it, but our views haven't changed on things like, for example, a rental at the deadline.
We still believe a big part of our push in the second half can come from our younger players developing and what our fans haven't seen yet in players we can bring up from Rochester that can contribute. It's tough to put a player from the AHL into the lineup in Buffalo and think they will be a go-to player but the fact is that we have, especially at forward, a few players that can give our team a spark and not have to be a go-to player. It's something we're very excited about.
BN: The money question in town is right now is, how do you approach Jeff Skinner's contract situation? When are you going to start talking dollars with him?
JB: The bottom line is it's a great situation to have. Really. I'm very happy people are concerned about Jeff Skinner's contract because they've loved how Jeff has played for our team, loved the chemistry he's had with Jack Eichel. That's the same way we look at it.
We're excited for Jeff, how he's come in, his practice habits, how he's handled himself off the ice, the relationships he's built with our veteran players and the way he's interacted with our young players. He's been outstanding. You see the chemistry on the ice.
What's made him and Jack so effective is they have that ability to score off the rush and down low. Every week, they get more comfortable. It's been great to watch. At the start of this process, I'd say it's worked very well on just letting him get acclimated to Buffalo.
There's always going to be time to discuss the contract situation. We're happy with how he's progressed. We've stayed in touch with his agents. We haven't decided to talk about contracts because it's working now. There will be plenty of time down the road to do that.
BN: What will be your memories of the 10-game winning streak?
JB: It was excitement. From our team. From the way we won tight games and especially those two games around Thanksgiving in our building. The way our fans rallied around and reacted to our team was special.
The other thing that was a real key was that our 'D' corps was healthy and playing well. We had the minutes very balanced. We had three strong pairs. You see how quickly it can change. Marco Scandella goes down, Jake McCabe goes down, Casey Nelson goes down. Boom, boom, boom. It puts a lot of pressure on other guys. You're glad to be help to have guys to call up like Lawrence Pilut, like Brendan Guhle, to be able to put a veteran like Matt Hunwick in the lineup when we need to. That's very important.
BN: Is Phil Housley the NHL's Coach of the Year through 35 games? Was his practice in Los Angeles where he changed all the lines a seminal moment for the franchise's rebuild?
JB: In my mind, yes, he's been the best coach to this point. But I know I'm very, very biased. That practice just shows you how our group has grown mentally stronger. When things don't go right, we can recover. We saw it here again just a week ago when we didn't have a very good effort against Philadelphia and instead of turning it into a seven- or eight-game losing streak, we turned it around.
Even in the winning streak, we got down and I remember it was 4-1 against Pittsburgh and we showed an ability to recover and stay focused. That's what gets me excited about our team. We have mental strength and a belief in each other.
In the second half, we're going to face adversity and disappointment. Hopefully we go back to the 10-game winning streak and say, "Hey, we have the ability to recover from that."
BN: After all the hype during the draft months, now that you've gone through 35 games with him on your team, how have your impressions of Ramsus Dahlin evolved? Has he exceeded what you thought he'd be in year one?
JB: Yes, and not because of just his play on the ice but because of our interaction with him. You see how he plays, his puck movement and how he helps our team in all aspects of the game, defensively, creating offense, power play.
But our interactions off the ice have been outstanding. He learns so quickly from his mistakes. He has a thirst for knowledge, whether it's from our coaching staff, our performance staff, everyone. He's come as advertised for sure.
BN: Is Jack Eichel's season to date reminiscent of the way Taylor Hall (Devils) and Nathan MacKinnon (Avalanche) carried their teams to the playoffs last year and put him in the Hart Trophy discussion?
JB: It has to be right up there. Now, the challenge is that those guys did it over 82 games and can Jack do it too? What I love from Jack's game is just the way and the intensity he's playing the whole game. His defensive coverage now is having success against top matchups all the time. The offensive game has always been there but how hard he's tracking back is something. Even in the neutral zone. We don't have to be in our defensive zone to see how he's tracking back and going back the other way.
At the start of the season, he had a lot of assists and was creating more. Now he's shooting more, there's more off his shot. He's becoming a very well-rounded player. He's the one who ignites our practices, ignites our game out there and it's been so much fun to watch.
BN: Why did you choose to develop Tage Thompson as you did, in the NHL, as opposed to some of your other prospects in Rochester this season?
JB: He demonstrated some things in the preseason games and you saw glimpses of what he could bring. Was it consistent? No. But that's what we saw in practice. Some great things and some times he needed to work on his game.
His physical tools are great. He's a big kid with NHL skating skills, size and shot. He needs to get stronger but we felt we had the traits that we could work with at the NHL level. There's no manual that says "this is how we will go about this" for every player. To me, we're not sitting here saying that we're experts in development. There's give and take, discussion all the time with our coaches, the player.
He kept his confidence and work ethic in this. He had his confidence where he could still make plays. When they lose that, you do have to get them to the American League. He didn't fall into that, especially on offense. We saw with Tage, the swagger was still there with the puck and shot and that's why we were comfortable.
BN: Do you anticipate a trip to Sweden next year for regular-season games in the wake of Dahlin coming into the organization?
JB: We've talked to the NHL and told them we're very open to that discussion. We have a lot of Swedes and we know Ristolainen is from Finland and that all might make us attractive. If an opportunity presented itself, we're absolutely willing to go over there. We're very comfortable with it.