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With East foes quickly improving, Sabres enter a critical time in their history

Mike Harrington

VANCOUVER – This was a four-hour show that needed to get done but it had nothing to do with the Buffalo Sabres' 2019-20 season. Now things start getting real.

Sure, the Sabres added to their organizational goalie stockpile Saturday at the NHL Draft with 6-foot-6 Swede Erik Portillo. And it was funny to hear Jason Botterill talk about the "intel" they used to get the pick, with Portillo coming from the Frolunda club that produced Rasmus Dahlin and having signed to go to Michigan, the general manager's alma mater.

Minnesota high schooler Aaron Huglen scored a "lacrosse" goal that's a YouTube classic at last summer's Hlinka-Gretzky Cup in Alberta. Czech forward Lukas Rousek, the only player Buffalo drafted Saturday who was in the building, put his nose in the corners by working through an English interview and using an interpreter for just a couple small parts.

Sideshows, really. Most observers loved the fact the Sabres picked up Lethbridge center Dylan Cozens at No. 7 overall here Friday night. As for the rest of this exercise, you can check back in about, oh, 2024 to see how it panned out.

"It's always intriguing to see winners and losers 24 hours after the draft," Botterill said in Rogers Arena. "With these kids, you're not going to see it (until) 5-6 years down the road."

This organization and Botterill, in particular, doesn't have 5-6 years, of course. To borrow a phrase we heard all weekend, the GM is now on the clock. Big-time. Owners Terry and Kim Pegula have to be exasperated by now owning the longest playoff drought in the NHL, and this is a critical offseason for this club as it heads into what figures to be a heavily promoted 50th anniversary season.

Still, the fact the Sabres made no moves here this weekend other than pick-swapping shouldn't be cause for alarm. Botterill's pattern is to set things up at the draft and then consummate his moves later. It's what he did in both trading Ryan O'Reilly and acquiring Jeff Skinner last year. Obviously, those two moves worked out quite differently but you get the point.

Botterill wasted no time getting started by flying back to Buffalo Saturday night so he could be in the office Sunday. He's got lots of work to do.

The New Jersey Devils, already basking in the glow of drafting Jack Hughes at No. 1 overall on Friday, set the draft on its ear Saturday by taking P.K. Subban off the Nashville Predators' hands for two prospects and two draft picks.

The Sabres finished four points ahead of the Devils last season. They're no longer better than them now. We learned on Friday that New Jersey will be the opponent for the Oct. 5 home opener in KeyBank Center, and a dud that night won't bode well.

"They've done a lot," Botterill acknowledged of the Devils. "Last year was a difficult year for them injury wise with Taylor Hall, so you add that to their mix, too. You've seen it for the last few drafts how the top picks have come to the Eastern Conference and it continues. ... We were very fortunate to get Rasmus [Dahlin] last year but a lot of our Eastern competitors are also getting high-end talent.

"Over the next week here, whether it’s through trades or the start of free agency, there’s going to be a lot of ups and downs. Teams are going to improve themselves. That’s why we have to continue looking at all avenues here."

The free agency interview period opens Sunday and the Florida Panthers are going to immediately talk to both forward Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky about heading south from Columbus. The Panthers, of course, added Joel Quenneville as their head coach a scant two hours before Botterill turfed Phil Housley the day after the season finale in Detroit.

The Sabres are chasing them too.

They're also chasing the New York Rangers, who added Jacob Trouba in a trade a few days ago and drafted stud Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko here Friday.

The Panthers, Rangers and Devils all missed the playoffs last year. It makes for a less-than-pretty picture in Buffalo.

The rumors continue to swirl around Rasmus Ristolainen and, depending upon who you ask, the big Finn has either been asking out of Buffalo or Botterill is bent on moving him for forward help.

One problem was solved Saturday when the salary cap for next season was finally formulated at $81.5 million. That announcement should really open things on the trade front, giving teams an actual figure they have to come in under. The guesswork is now gone and it's a number that's going to cause trouble in places like Toronto, Vegas, Pittsburgh and Washington.

Maybe teams interested in Ristolainen can now more easily step up with Botterill. They better bring good offers, particularly a No. 2 center or scoring winger. Ristolainen might need a change of scenery but it would be no major issue if he stayed either. Give Ralph Krueger a chance with him and see what happens.

It doesn't appear Botterill can go deep in free agency. You just paid Skinner and you're going to be talking to Dahlin about a long-term extension next summer. Matt Duchene is probably going to Nashville, with Preds GM David Poile openly saying after the Subban trade he needed cap space for help at forward and to facilitate a long-term extension for captain Roman Josi. Botterill is going to have to make trades. And good ones this time.

Sabres scouting director Ryan Jankowski admitted the team's amateur staff is well aware of the dilemma the organization is facing at the top level. But in this sport, when the draft is the complete opposite of the NFL and is all about futures, scouts can't be distracted by the issue.

"That's the focus with our group, stay in the now and don't play GM," Jankowski said. "Let's assess the talent, look at what the talent brings, feed us the information. We make decisions on the upside of the player, the potential of the player and at the end of the day, management really has to make the final decision of what this organization needs.

"There's a huge balance, taking a player that could play in two years vs. taking a player who's going to be better in seven years. It's a very different way of looking at things."

Jankowski's people have to keep their nose to the grindstone and mine talent for the future. The rest of this organization? Everyone better be hellbent on making the playoffs next April or that 50th anniversary is going to end up far from golden.

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