Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Buffalo Sabres.
If all the good things they say about Ralph Krueger are true, Jason Botterill will look like a genius who bypassed several more experienced candidates for the head coaching gig in Buffalo in favor of a man with 48 NHL games as a bench boss.
The Phil Housley experiment didn’t work out even though he was hired for some of the same reasons that Krueger now has: a players’ coach that can work well with young players. Two years on from Housley’s hiring, Botterill is once again looking outside the regular carousel of coaches, gambling on guys with limited bench-boss experience in the NHL hoping they can bring something that the establishment cannot.
[MORE: 2018-19 in review | X-factor | Three questions]
Botterill isn’t a rookie general manager this time around. Instead, he’s overseen two more seasons where the Sabres haven’t made the playoffs — a stretch that has now reached eight straight years.
Botterill has been nothing if not bold, both in the trade market, in free agency and his hires. Last summer, he made waves after trading Ryan O'Reilly away for a truckload of players and picks. But Buffalo watched O’Reilly lift the Stanley Cup this past season while being named the playoff MVP to rub it in some more. Oh, and O’Reilly also won the Selke for good measure.
Botterill does get some measure of the benefit of hindsight here. It was a pretty good haul for a player who wanted out. But it’s not exactly how they envisioned it working out. The 2019 first-round pick they received in the package turned into No. 31 in the draft thanks to St. Louis’ triumph. Patrik Berglund, meanwhile, quit the NHL after going AWOL last season.
Some things you can’t control, but at the end of the day it all becomes a part of a body of work, and that body of work has to have more pros than cons.
And there are certainly some pros. Botterill went out and got Jeff Skinner, who would go on to score 40 goals while helping show the Sabres could compete, at least for half a season.
Snagging Brandon Montour at the trade deadline and then plucking Colin Miller off the cash-strapped Vegas Golden Knights are both good moves aimed at re-tooling the team’s back end, one that couldn’t give much help to two goalies that weren’t able to rise above the situation and play lights out.
Speaking of goalies, Carter Hutton didn’t exactly light the world on fire as a starter in his first season in that role last year. He was a very capable backup in St. Louis, but his starting numbers are outside of the top 31 goalies in the NHL, meaning they aren’t starting numbers at all.
It’s not all Hutton’s fault, however. The team’s defensive structure was poor and Housley couldn’t right that ship. Buffalo’s first half of last season was impressive. Hell, they were in first place in the entire NHL at one point. But it tumbled quickly when it began to fall apart.
It’s led Botterill to be aggressive once again with guys like Miller and Henri Jokiharju. Getting Skinner signed long-term is a feather in his cap.
There are only so many fingers to be pointed in other directions before they all begin to navigate in one direction. This time, the gavel will be hanging over Botterill’s head.
He’s gone through one coach and three summers of trying to re-invent the team around the likes of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and now Rasmus Dahlin.
He’s been bold and he’s made some shrewd moves. If they work, he’s laughing.
If not, it might be best to find someone else to lead the Sabres into a monumental offseason next year where they have 14 pending unrestricted and restricted free agents and a lot of cash to work with in the open market.
If progress isn’t made this year, it will most certainly be time to look elsewhere.
MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck