Share this article

print logo

How they got here: Impatience, attempts at quick fixes haunt Sabres

Jason Botterill was consumed by disappointment hours after he delivered the news to Phil Housley that the Buffalo Sabres would be making a coaching change.

The 21-minute news conference that followed was Botterill's first admission of failure in less than two years as general manager. In addition to firing his first coach, Botterill acknowledged his roster did not have enough skilled forwards or territorial defensemen.

More important, the decision to fire a coach after only 22 months deviated from Botterill's organizational strategy. He always planned to remain patient with a roster that needed to be rebuilt, a first-time coach and an organization lacking a winning culture.

"Buffalo is a great hockey market and has a passionate fan base," said Craig Button, an analyst for TSN and former NHL general manager, during a phone interview with The Buffalo News. "I understand why people are upset and anxious. ... You have to articulate [the need for patience] and have the strength and courage to follow it. When your team is good and strong then the fans are on board. That's what I call organizational courage."

Botterill acted after he sensed progress stalled. Though he shouldered responsibility, the fundamental flaws that led to an NHL-worst eight-season playoff drought can be traced back to more than a decade's worth of poor drafting by his predecessors, mishandled player development, and failed attempts at quick fixes through irresponsible free-agent signings and trades.

The Sabres winning the fewest games in the NHL since the start of the 2012-13 season is not the fault of one coach, general manager, player or ownership group.

State of the franchise

With a group of reporters gathered around him at the NFL owners meetings in late March, Terry Pegula expressed confidence in Housley's ability to grow as an NHL coach and used the New England Patriots as an example of why consistency is important within professional sports.

Pegula's remarks came almost five weeks after Botterill publicly endorsed Housley, despite the Sabres rapidly falling out of the playoff race.

In the end, Housley answered for the second-half collapse and became the Sabres' fourth consecutive coach to last fewer than three seasons.

While Florida, Philadelphia and Los Angeles quickly hired coaches, the Sabres remained patient and opted to interview a breadth of candidates over the past four weeks, including experienced coaches such as Jacques Martin and Dave Tippett. A resolution likely won't come until Botterill returns from his duties as part of Canada's management team for this month's IIHF World Championship.

Following the 10-game winning streak that invigorated the fan base, the team went a league-worst 16-33-8, posting a negative-55 goal differential during that span to earn a top-10 draft pick for the seventh consecutive season.

The Sabres became the second team in NHL history to miss the playoffs in the same season in which it won 10 games in a row, and did so in embarrassing fashion.

Before ending the season with consecutive wins, the team had not won back-to-back games since Dec. 13, and had been winless in 14 consecutive road games. Buffalo was shut out five times in 12 games from March 9 to 31, including three in a row, and won only two games during the month.

"We were very inconsistent," Botterill said following Housley's dismissal. "Our fans expect more. We expect more. In the end, I thought this decision had to be made for our organization to move forward. We are all responsible for the success and failures of this organization."

Housley-Sabres-Predators-KeyBank Center-Scull

When he was fired April 7, Phil Housley became the Sabres' fourth consecutive coach to last fewer than three seasons. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

The Sabres' goaltending, a crutch during the 10-game winning streak, finished with a .915 save percentage during 5-on-5 play. The team posted a negative-47 goal differential because of an inability to protect its own net and a lack of supplementary scoring.

Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart combined for 90 goals, or 40 percent of the Sabres' total for the season. Neither Casey Mittelstadt, who was Botterill's first draft pick, nor Tage Thompson proved to be ready for the NHL. Jason Pominville ranked fourth on the team with 16 goals, while much of the roster encountered debilitating slumps.

Rasmus Dahlin, the first overall pick in last June's draft, had a historic rookie season but was the lone bright spot on the Sabres' blue line.

"Their team isn’t deep enough," said former Sabres winger Matthew Barnaby, a co-host on SiriusXM NHL Network Radio. "I don’t think their defense is good enough. I wasn’t sure about goaltending. The expectations were raised so much, but when you look at the roster there were a lot of deficiencies."

Though the Sabres' deficiencies were worsened by trading center Ryan O'Reilly last summer, the talent gap between the organization and the NHL's elite began during Darcy Regier's tenure as general manager.

Draft failures

Though the Sabres' deficiencies were worsened by trading center Ryan O'Reilly last summer, the talent gap between the organization and the NHL's elite began during Darcy Regier's tenure as general manager. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

The Sabres' Stanley Cup contending teams were built through the draft, specifically the scouting department's ability to find talent in the mid-to-late rounds.

Defenseman Brian Campbell (sixth round, 1997), winger Ales Kotalik (sixth round, 1998), goalie Ryan Miller (fifth round, 1999), center Paul Gaustad (seventh round, 2000), defenseman Dennis Wideman (eighth round, 2002) and winger Patrick Kaleta (sixth round, 2004) were all discovered by scouts who were regarded as among the league's best. Wideman played 815 NHL games for five teams but never played for the Sabres.

There were also remarkable selections in the first and second rounds, including Derek Roy and Pominville (both second round, 2000), and Thomas Vanek (first round, 2003).

Neither of their top two picks in the 2005 draft (Marek Zagrapan and Philipp Gogulla) nor defenseman Dennis Persson, a first-round pick in 2006, ever played an NHL game. The Sabres' first pick in 2007, defenseman T.J. Brennan at 31st overall, would score only five goals in 53 games during his career.

The team's only mid-round contributor from 2005-07 was winger Paul Byron, who has played 419 NHL games but only appeared in eight for Buffalo.

"What ends up happening is now you’re chasing other players in trades and free agency," Button said. "Good teams are adding players from within. You just can't miss on that many draft picks."

The exodus of talent on the NHL roster awarded Regier with higher draft picks, beginning with his selection of defenseman Tyler Myers, who won the Calder Trophy after being selected 12th overall in 2008. The Sabres would also add center Tyler Ennis later in the first round that year.

However, the team missed on its six other picks and the trend continued for the following four drafts. Meanwhile, first-round selections were used on winger Zack Kassian, defenseman Mark Pysyk and winger Joel Armia. All are no longer with the Sabres.

Aside from Pysyk and Armia, the Sabres' other 13 picks in the 2010 and 2011 drafts played a combined 19 NHL games.

Tyler Myers won the Calder Trophy with the Sabres in 2009-10 and continued his career with Winnipeg. (Getty Images)

Upon purchasing the team, the Pegulas invested in additional resources for a scouting department that was relying on video to evaluate talent from international tournaments and had a number of budget restrictions under former owner Tom Golisano.

The financial commitment allowed Regier to send multiple scouts overseas to find the sort of prospects the Sabres missed on for years.

"There is no salary cap in the National Hockey League on scouting budgets and player-development budgets," Pegula said upon the sale of the team being finalized. "I plan on increasing, working with Darcy and the guys, increasing our scouting budget with bodies on the ground in areas we might not be hitting, and enhancing our video department."

With four first-round picks over his final two drafts, Reiger's staff would select Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov – failures that would eventually lead to the tank season.

Grigorenko is no longer in the NHL, Girgensons is a fourth-line winger likely to depart in free agency this summer, Zadorov helped the Colorado Avalanche reach the second round of the playoffs and Ristolainen has a minus-143 rating in his career. The only mid-round discoveries came in 2012, when Buffalo selected defenseman Jake McCabe and goalie Linus Ullmark in the fourth and sixth round, respectively.

Regier also spent a combined $52.5 million on Cody Hodgson and Ville Leino. Hodgson scored 44 goals over four seasons in Buffalo and buying out his contract in June 2015 will count $791,667 against the Sabres' salary cap for the next four years. Leino, meanwhile, had 10 goals over three seasons.

Of the 149 players Regier drafted, four of them became all-stars, and he was fired by the Sabres in November 2013. Tim Murray was hired two months later and immediately sought a quick fix for draft failures that have haunted the Sabres.

"You can look right at the drafts," said Chris Peters, an NHL draft analyst for ESPN. "The first thing that happened when the Pegulas came in, they started signing free agents and those were rather large Band-aids that you’re trying to put over a team that just had no depth at all and it didn’t work. Those guys didn’t work and there was nothing to support them after that. The draft is a key reason why they’re at this point right now."

Quick fix

In addition to firing Regier, the Pegulas dismissed coach Ron Rolston and replaced him with Ted Nolan, who was revered by former Sabres players for his ability to motivate but had not been behind an NHL bench for four seasons.

Additionally, Pat LaFontaine was hired as President of Hockey Operations despite having no management experience. LaFontaine would hire Murray as general manager before departing abruptly after less than four months on the job.

Murray's tenure included a number of  trades to try to speed up the rebuild, though his first important deal sent Miller and Steve Ott to St. Louis for a package of picks and players.

Then came the decision to trade two second-round picks and two prospects, including defenseman Brayden McNabb, to Los Angeles for Nicolas Deslauriers and Hudson Fasching.

McNabb posted a plus-23 rating in three seasons with the Kings and helped Vegas reach the Stanley Cup Final last season. Meanwhile, neither Deslauriers nor Fasching contributed much in Buffalo.

Over the next two seasons, Murray traded a second-round pick for Josh Gorges and a first-round pick for goalie Robin Lehner. The flawed strategy was best illustrated by his decision to deal Myers, former second-rounder Brendan Lemieux, Drew Stafford and a future first-round pick to Winnipeg for Zach Bogosian, Evander Kane and a prospect amid the tank season in 2014-15.

"What I would start with is the next quick fix is going to be the first one," Button said. "It seems to me there’s been a quest for quick fixes. Whatever your time frame is on quick, whether that’s two years, make the playoffs next year, be a Stanley Cup contender within a certain time frame, there are certain elements of a team that are essential. ... There needed to be more patience."

While Myers became a stalwart defenseman with the Jets, Bogosian has battled injuries and Kane would not post more than 43 points during any of his three seasons in Buffalo though Boterill later acquired a first-round pick for him from San Jose. Lehner failed to become a franchise goalie with the Sabres, posting a .916 save percentage while struggling with alcoholism and mental health in three seasons.

O'Reilly was unquestionably Murray's best acquisition, though it cost the Sabres Zadorov, Grigorenko, former second-round pick J.T. Compher and a future second-round pick to Colorado.

Murray had some success in the draft. Reinhart, selected second overall in 2014, is beginning to blossom into a promising power forward. The team also drafted Lemieux and Victor Olofsson that summer.

In addition to Eichel, 2015 yielded Brendan Guhle and Will Borgen, while Murray's last draft included Alexander Nylander, Rasmus Asplund and Cliff Pu, who was used to acquire Skinner last August.

However, progress was slowed further by handing out lucrative contracts to Ennis, Kyle Okposo and Matt Moulson, who counted $3.975 million against the Sabres' salary cap this season despite playing for the Kings' AHL affiliate in Ontario, Calif.

When Botterill was hired as general manager in June 2017, he took charge of an organization in search of another coach and in need of philosophical change.

"I'm maybe Jason's number one fan," said Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford, whom Botterill worked for prior to joining the Sabres. "I have a lot of respect for him. It's like anything. Unless you're right inside the group and understand what's going on with players and what their character is, it's difficult. But knowing the way he works I'm sure that he has a plan that identifies what needs to change, the culture or the way things work there. When you do that it usually takes a little more time."

The Sabres traded Ryan O'Reilly in July to the St. Louis Blues where he became a catalyst for the Blues' playoff run. "It's one of the worst trades we’ve seen in the last number of years," said hockey analyst Craig Button. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

Patience

When the Sabres were in need of offense during the second-half collapse, Olofsson and Nylander were surging in Rochester. However, neither player was recalled to the NHL until Buffalo was out of the playoff race.

Botterill's patience was maddening to some, yet the development plan followed the same organizational philosophy that helped the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups.

It also contradicted the sort of impatience that doomed Botterill's predecessors, specifically the decisions to rush Grigorenko and Nylander to Buffalo. Neither player was ready for the jump and that search for a quick fix may have permanently impacted the development of both players.

"Jason knows what he's doing," Rutherford said. "He played a big part in that when he was here in Pittsburgh with me. We feel that it's important in the development of players when they eventually get to the big team that their confidence level is high. When you push them too soon sometimes you can push a player's development back considerably."

That model is revered by people across the industry, including agents, one of whom told The Buffalo News that "few teams understand development like Botterill, Rutherford and everyone who was with the Penguins over those years." Many of those players should help the Sabres over the next three to four years, including goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, defensemen Jacob Bryson, Oskari Laaksonen and Mattias Samuelsson, and winger Matej Pekar.

Botterill used that same patience with the roster he inherited in Buffalo. He didn't rush to make drastic changes. Instead, he tried to make subtle improvements to the team's depth by re-acquiring Pominville and adding Nathan Beaulieu.

Significant, franchise-altering change came after the Sabres won 25 games in Botterill's first season. After expressing a loss of passion during locker cleanout, O'Reilly was traded to St. Louis for Thompson, Patrick Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and two high draft picks.

The move seemed to address the roster's lack of depth and added a high-end prospect who was potentially ready for an NHL role. But O'Reilly became a catalyst in the Blues' playoff run, while the three Sabres combined for 14 goals.

"I don’t care what the rationale was; there’s no rationale for a terrible trade," Button said. "Look at good teams and their depth at center. …. It's one of the worst trades we’ve seen in the last number of years."

On the other hand, the Sabres acquired Skinner and Conor Sheary, the former of which scored a career-high 40 goals. Defenseman Brandon Montour was added on the eve of this season's trade deadline for one of the two first-round picks acquired by trading O'Reilly and Kane.

Botterill has been lauded for each of his first two drafts, which led Peters to say, "It feels like the tide is turning." Rochester reached the playoffs for a second consecutive season, while Olofsson, Asplund, Nylander and Borgen took positive steps in their development.

Equipped with more than $23 million in cap space this offseason and the seventh overall draft pick, Botterill will attempt to re-sign Skinner and address the roster's shortcomings. The core of the roster now includes Eichel, Reinhart and Dahlin, but much more talent is needed and Botterill has repeated that his plan is to build from within.

Though the Sabres are amid another offseason of drastic change, there are signs of tangible progress during a critical offseason for Botterill and the organization.

"It's not a quick fix. It's a fix that when it falls into place it will be very good and last for a long time," Rutherford said. "That's the path that I see him on right now."

Story topics: / / / /

There are no comments - be the first to comment