One of the biggest challenges Jason Botterill faced upon becoming Sabres GM was fixing the club’s defense.
He’s been on the job for 50 days now. And he’s certainly faced that challenge head on.
Friday’s acquisition of Marco Scandella — along with former captain Jason Pominville, while sending Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno to Minnesota — was his biggest move to date. It gives Buffalo a bonafide top-four guy, one that can log 20 minutes per night and provide a level of cost certainty. Scandella’s smack in the middle of a five-year, $20 million deal with a $4M average annual cap hit, and is locked in through 2020.
But it wasn’t Botterill’s only move.
The first was acquiring KHLer Victor Antipin. The 24-year-old joined the Sabres after a six-year stint with Metallurg Magnitogorsk, who he helped capture two Gagarin Cup titles. Botterill was effusive in his praise of Antipin in announcing the signing.
“Victor is a well-rounded defenseman who has played in all situations at the pro level,” he said, per NHL.com. “His mobility and puck-moving skills make him a perfect match for what we’re hoping to build with our defense corps next season.”
Three weeks after the Antipin acquisition, Botterill was at it again. This time, getting Nathan Beaulieu from Montreal in exchange for a third-round pick.
It was a modest price to pay for a guy that, despite his inconsistencies, put up a career year with the Canadiens. The 24-year-old had 28 points in 74 games while averaging 19:29 TOI.
Botterill still has work to do on this front. Beaulieu is a restricted free agent and needs a new contract though, to hear him explain it, that shouldn’t be a difficult one to negotiate. He’s excited about the future in Buffalo, thanks in large part to another of Botterill’s key moves — the hire of Hall of Fame defenseman Phil Housley as head coach.
“I’ve got a huge opportunity to re-grow my game with a guy who played the game similarly to the way I would like to play it,” Beaulieu said shortly after getting traded.
The Housley hire will, quite obviously, have a major impact on Buffalo’s blueline. He was lauded for his work as an assistant coach in Nashville, where he oversaw a speedy, play-making group highlighted by P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Matthias Ekholm.
Housley won’t have the same level of talent in Buffalo, but he’ll have a better product than what Dan Byslma coached last year. Scandella, Antipin and Beaulieu have been added to a group that included Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian, Josh Gorges and Jake McCabe. Prospect Brendan Guhle could also be in the mix, after he finished last year playing for AHL Rochester.
And hey, Botterill might not be done remodeling. Though it sounds like the Sabres are now out on UFA blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk, other options remain. Chris Lee, who was Antipin’s defense partner in the KHL, is still looking for a contract.
Whatever the case, one thing is certain. Buffalo needed to fix its defense, and Botterill wasted no time doing it.