Within three weeks of receiving a public vote of confidence from owner Kim Pegula, Buffalo Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill was issued a directive that he needed to reshape his vision for building a consistent Stanley Cup contender.
Botterill was told his hockey operations department would need to become “leaner,” Sabres owner Terry Pegula said during a Zoom conference call Tuesday. A disconnect emerged through what Pegula called “detailed” conversations and ownership quickly decided to fire its third general manager since it purchased the team in February 2011.
Botterill, along with assistant general managers Randy Sexton and Steve Greeley, were fired Tuesday in another sweeping overhaul of the hockey operations department.
Kevyn Adams, formerly the team’s senior vice president of business administration and a confidant of the Pegulas, was elevated to full-time general manager and will work in lockstep with coach Ralph Krueger in attempting to halt the Sabres’ playoff drought at nine seasons.
Adams' first day as general manager came with having to deliver the news of firings in a series of phone calls to more than 20 people, a source said.
Chris Taylor and his two assistant coaches with the Rochester Americans, amateur scouting director Ryan Jankowski and assistant director of amateur scouting Jeff Crisp were among those dismissed. In all, 12 scouts were let go, a source said. Development coaches Mike Komisarek and Krys Barch were also among those fired.
Botterill did not respond to messages seeking comment.
"We as owners had a vision to where we need to go in these uncertain times," said Terry Pegula. "We don’t know if we’re going to have fans next year and what not as far as competitive sports go. Looking ahead, we need to make some adjustments in the business side of our operations that we provide that foresight to the organization. We felt like we weren’t being heard. I’m not going to sit here and dish on Jason Botterill, but we have a vision and we want to see our vision succeed."
The effort to get leaner has extended beyond the announcements Tuesday. Botterill was among the more than three dozen executives who were given a temporary tiered pay cut in April when Pegula Sports and Entertainment announced that 21 people were laid off, 104 were being furloughed, including members of the hockey operations department.
There was no formal search for a general manager, Terry Pegula confirmed. He and Kim Pegula explained there was comfort in promoting Adams, whom they’ve been grooming for a high-level job within the organization since he was hired as vice president and director of the Academy of Hockey at LECOM Harborcenter in 2013. Adams, 45, played 11 seasons in the NHL before joining the Sabres as a player development coach and he spent two seasons as an assistant coach on the NHL staff from 2011-13.
Without citing a specific example, Terry Pegula said communication breakdowns also resulted in Botterill's dismissal. After receiving a vote of confidence from Kim Pegula during an interview with the Associated Press, Botterill told reporters May 27 he had not been given any financial directives.
“It’s a results-driven industry and if you look at our past, we haven’t been happy with the results,” Kim Pegula said. “This was an opportunity to say ‘OK, how can we do things differently? What’s really not working instead of maybe repeating past mistakes or repeating different processes?’ That’s what we were really trying to look for is find some new insight, some new thoughts on how to go forward and what the future looks like. That’s without getting into real details, but some philosophical discussions we had and felt that Kevyn was better equipped to get us down those roads.”
The Sabres failed to qualify for the NHL’s 24-team return-to-play format because they finished .007 percentage points behind the Montreal Canadiens. Buffalo’s 206 points in three years under Botterill rank 29th out of 31 teams, and the Sabres are expected to own a top-10 selection whenever the draft is held in 2020.
The NHL’s decision to delay the draft until possibly the fall encouraged ownership to make a change at general manager, Terry Pegula said. Botterill never deviated from his vision for the Sabres, even when faced with the possibility of losing his job.
Terry Pegula denied he had an issue with Botterill’s vision to build the Sabres through the draft. Botterill, who won two Stanley Cup championships as assistant general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, planned to supplement the core of his NHL roster with a wave of prospects that includes Dylan Cozens, Tage Thompson, Casey Mittelstadt, Mattias Samuelsson, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Oskari Laaksonen, among others.
Botterill also prioritized building a winner in Rochester, where the Americans were on track to qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs for a third consecutive season before the coronavirus pandemic canceled the AHL season. The Amerks’ roster this season included forward Scott Wilson, who was paid $1.1 million to score 11 goals in Rochester and one in Buffalo.
Upon joining the Sabres in May 2017, Botterill revamped his scouting staff by hiring Ryan Jankowski as amateur scouting director. The Sabres’ website lists 15 amateur scouts, three pro scouts and a one-person analytics department led by Jason Nightingale. It's possible that Pegula wants to shift to using more video to scout players, particularly on the pro level.
"Today’s sports world – and I’m the last guy to know anything about technology, I can’t even mute this thing we’re talking on here – but I can tell you this, with all the existing technology that exists in the world of sports today, we can move forward much leaner than we operated in the past and much more efficient," Terry Pegula said. "We have all the tools to look at and fine tune, replay it over and over, slow it down in slow motion, back it up, look at it again, of a player and what he does in a split second. So, we’re – you’re right – we’re going to get leaner. It’s just the way the world’s heading."
Additionally, Botterill’s roster moves created a precarious situation with the Sabres facing an uncertain salary cap next season. The problem began in January when he traded a fourth-round pick to Calgary in exchange for winger Michael Frolik, who was owed a prorated amount of a $4.3 million salary. Frolik scored one empty-net goal in 19 games and failed to rejuvenate the team’s struggling penalty kill.
Why did the Sabres fire Jason Botterill and a bulk of the hockey operations department?
Posted by Buffalo News Sports on Tuesday, June 16, 2020
According to CapFriendly.com, the Sabres owe $7.1 million in performance bonuses to players on entry-level contracts, a total that will be subtracted from their cap space for next season.
“I’m going to label communication as one of the biggest issues with the Sabres,” Terry Pegula said. “We believe in open communication between all the powers that be in the organization and sometimes that breaks down. Sometimes, it could be anybody’s fault, but this happens. There’s only one Stanley Cup winner every year and, again, our goal is to enthusiastically face the future with our new regime here and try to win a championship. I’m enthusiastic about that with the gentlemen we’re working with in the organization now.”
There was some progress on the ice. The Sabres were a long-shot contender at the trade deadline when Botterill chose to add veteran power forward Wayne Simmonds, and roster moves led to an improvement in 5-on-5 play. Rasmus Dahlin, Victor Olofsson and Henri Jokiharu, all of whom are under the age of 25, emerged as building blocks.
But the NHL roster still lacked enough offensive punch to win close games against the league’s elite teams. Over Botterill's three seasons with the organization, the team ranked 30th in goals scored. The Sabres scored only 10 goals during a six-game losing streak from Feb. 26 through March 7, effectively ending their long-shot chance at qualifying for the playoffs.
Skinner scored a career-low 14 goals in 59 games after signing an eight-year, $72 million contract and Marcus Johansson, a free-agent acquisition in July, finished with nine goals in 2019-20. Botterill also did not receive as much production as expected from trade acquisitions Conor Sheary and Jimmy Vesey.
The team’s offense was impacted by the decision to trade center Ryan O’Reilly to St. Louis in exchange for Thompson, Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund and two draft picks, including a first-round selection that the Sabres used on defenseman Ryan Johnson.
O'Reilly went on to lead the St. Louis Blues to the Stanley Cup and he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player of the playoffs. Berglund left the Sabres after only 23 games in 2018-19, Sobotka had six goals in 85 games over two seasons and Thompson's on-ice development was stalled by a season-ending shoulder injury in November.
Botterill also was criticized by fans and media for having too many defensemen on the NHL and AHL rosters. In April of 2019, defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen expressed an openness to be dealt by the Sabres, but he remained on the team and Botterill created a surplus on the blue line last summer by acquiring Jokiharju and Colin Miller.
When Zach Bogosian returned from hip surgery in November, the Sabres inserted Bogosian into the lineup and waited until February to place him on unconditional waivers despite his public expression of displeasure with his role. The surplus prevented the Sabres from playing defenseman Lawrence Pilut, who signed a two-year contract in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League last week.
It’s now Adams’ responsibility to build around Jack Eichel while facing an uncertain cap situation and financial directives that will change how the Sabres attempt to build a playoff contender.
"When we were in detailed discussions with Jason and how we felt we needed to move forward effectively, efficiently and economically running this franchise, we felt that there were too many differences of opinion going into the future that we just thought -- since we had more time -- it would be best for us to make this change," Terry Pegula said.