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Changing losing culture top offseason priority for Sabres GM

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Having known mostly success over the past decade with the Penguins, Jason Botterill received a sobering introduction to life at the bottom of the NHL during his first season as Buffalo Sabres general manager.

”I’ve been here for one year and I was pretty (ticked) off and upset,” Botterill said during a season-ending news conference Wednesday, ”I guess I could be articulate, but I’ll just say it (stinks) that we won’t be watching live playoff hockey right now.”

Being on the outside looking in is an unusual position for Botterill, who spent the previous two Junes celebrating Stanley Cup championships as the Penguins assistant GM. He was hired last spring after the Sabres cleaned house by firing GM Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma.

If there’s anything Botterill can draw upon from his experience with the Penguins, is seeing the notable difference between what makes up a winning organization and a losing one in Buffalo .

The Sabres finished last for the third time in five years, and extended their franchise-worst playoff drought to a seventh season.

”Right now we have a losing culture here,” Botterill said.

He put the onus on himself, coach Phil Housley and players to find ways of inspiring change, be it with their training habits or communication and leadership abilities.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

”I don’t want to hear how disappointed they are. I want to hear what’s going to change,” Botterill said. ”It just can’t be about words. We have to have better results.”

Botterill backed the disheartening sentiments expressed by center Ryan O'Reilly during the team’s final media availability on Monday. O’Reilly said a losing mentality had crept into the locker room and led him to losing his love for playing hockey at times.

”I think he gave you an honest opinion. And in today’s sports world that’s a little bit unique,” Botterill said.

”When you don’t get the results you want, it can be really draining on a player,” he added. ”And what he said is probably indicative of a lot of our players within our organization. And that’s what we have to work through right now.”

Botterill began the news conference by saying Housley isn’t going anywhere after he struggled in his first year as coach. He credited Housley for developing some of Buffalo’s youngsters, and believes in the up-tempo style the coach began introducing this season.

As for the roster, Botterill didn’t rule out making drastic changes even if it meant shaking up the team’s core group of leaders.

”When you finish where we were, you have to look at everything,” he said.

Buffalo finished last in the NHL with 199 goals scored and 119 goals scored in five-on-five situations. The Sabres also matched a franchise low for home wins in any season by going 11-25-4 at Buffalo – not including an overtime loss to the Rangers in the Winter Classic at New York City in which the Sabres were the ”home” team.

If there was a bright side, Botterill looked forward to the draft in June, when Buffalo is guaranteed picking no worse than fourth overall, pending the results of the NHL’s draft lottery on April 28.

Botterill was impressed by Jack Eichel‘s development on the ice, where the third-year center set career bests with 25 goals and 64 points, and off the ice in continuing to mature as a leader.

Botterill, however, said it was premature as to whether the Sabres were prepared to award the 21-year-old Eichel the captaincy, a role that was not filled this past season.

”As excited as we are of Jack moving forward as a leader, it’s imperative that we have more players in that locker room step up,” Botterill said.

”This game cannot have one player lead the entire team. It’s imperative that we have stronger leadership bases in there.”

NOTES: Botterill said G Robin Lehner will not require surgery after the starter visited a specialist this week to assess a lower body injury. … In announcing he expects rookie G Linus Ullmark to play for Buffalo full time next season, Botterill said he’s not determined his second goalie, including Lehner, who is eligible to become a restricted free agent. … Backup Chad Johnson completed his one-year contract and is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent.

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

NHL on NBCSN: Maple Leafs vs. Sabres

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with a Sunday meeting between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres at 7:30 p.m. ET. To watch the game online, click here

The Toronto Maple Leafs will look to get back on the winning track when they face the Buffalo Sabres to end a four-game road trip on Monday, the first meeting between both teams this season.

Toronto’s trip away from Air Canada Centre hasn’t gone well, already having gone 0-1-2 coming into Monday’s game.

“It’s regroup time,” coach Mike Babcock told the Toronto Sun. “We have a Buffalo team that would be sick and tired about hearing about the Leafs. They’re going to play hard and we have to be ready to play hard. We have to get back on track.”

The Leafs don’t have much to worry about in the standings. They sit in third place in the Atlantic Division, three points back of the Boston Bruins for the second spot, 15 points ahead of the Florida Panthers, who sit in fourth in the and 11 points ahead of the New Jersey Devils for the first wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference.

“We’re a work in progress,” Babcock told the Toronto Star. “Washington slapped us, which goes to show you. We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the other teams. We worry about what we’re doing. If there’s something to learn from, we learn from the other teams that are doing well.”

The Leafs are still without Auston Matthews, who remains shelved with an apparent shoulder injury. Matthews leads the Leafs in goals with 28 and is second in points with 50. His presence is obviously missed. Frederik Andersen allowed five goals in a 5-2 loss against the Washington Capitals in Annapolis on Saturday. He’s allowed three or more goals in 10 of his past 12 starts.

The Sabres are in a slightly different race, sitting one-point ahead of the Arizona Coyotes in the basement of the league.

The race for the best chance at selecting Rasmus Dahlin is on.

“It would be nice to be battling with a playoff spot or be competing with them,” Sabres winger Kyle Okposo told the Buffalo News. “But any time you play Toronto it’s a little different feel and it’s going to be fun. I’m looking forward to it. The building is electric, definitely fun games to play in. They’re coming off a few games they’ve probably like to have back so we know we’re probably going to get their best and we’re looking forward to it.”

The Sabres have won three of their past five.

And some good news on the Buffalo front: Jack Eichel is back skating.

Mike Harrington reported on Sunday that Eichel returned to the practice ice for the first time since suffering the second high-ankle sprain of his career on Feb. 10.

There is no timetable on Eichel’s return, but getting some games in before the end of the season is in the cards.

“That’s the goal. But you never know how these things react,” Housley said. “You don’t want to put any timeline on it but it’s good to see him skating and that’s a step in the right direction. Obviously, he wants to play some games before the end of the year.”


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

A look at the potential suitors for Evander Kane

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Evander Kane‘s time is apparently up in Buffalo.

And on the surface that seems kind of puzzling.

They have a clear asset that likes to score — and can score (because everyone likes to score) — seems invested in the team and the city and has no clear desire to move.

What more could a general manager want?

Apparently four pieces – draft picks and prospects, likely.

Jason Botterill may be asking the world, but as TSN’s Darren Dreger pointed out, you don’t get what you don’t ask for.

Still, it’s just a tad odd from a team that hasn’t drafted or developed all that well to be wanting more things they can use to struggle at drafting and developing. What happens if Alexander Nylander doesn’t pan out? Kane is a proven commodity that would like to see the Sabres grow.

Cap issues are certainly a concern, and it’s likely that Kane will command more than the current $5.25 million that he’s been earning since the days when he was with the Winnipeg Jets.

But you’d think a team looking to build around Jack Eichel would want to keep in place some pieces that make their young superstar better.

Alas.

If Kane is to move at or before the trade deadline, he’s likely heading to a contender as a rental player.

For Kane, this would soften the blow of having to move away from a place he’s happy to be.

Kane has never played in an NHL playoff game before. And for a guy who’s enjoyed the spotlight over his career, he likely won’t have any qualms about playing on hockey’s biggest stage.

So who might be his potential suitors?

The easy guess here would be teams sitting in playoff spots that could use a shot of adrenaline in the scoring column.

Of the 16 teams currently occupying spots, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the San Jose Sharks are the lowest scoring with 126 goals for apiece this season.

The Blue Jackets are getting Vezina-caliber goaltending once again this season from Sergei Bobrovsky and San Jose remains one of the better defensive teams in the league after adopting the age-old policy that defense wins championships.

Whether or not those two teams are willing to make the kind of concessions that Botterill wants will depend, largely, on whether they can make a deep push and if they feel that time is now.

San Jose might even want to retain Kane’s services long-term if the fit is right.

Of the remaining 14 teams, the Pittsburgh Penguins will always be in the mix (even if they actually aren’t).

The Pens are right up against it on the cap and would have to dump something to make room, but it’s no secret they’d like to part ways with defenseman Ian Cole.

Perhaps the Los Angeles Kings would like to throw their hat in the ring.

The Kings are sitting on a six-game losing streak where they’ve scored very little and could use the shot in the arm to regain a playoff spot in a Pacific Division where it’s up for grabs.

Could Kane and the money phone make a splash in Vegas for a couple months? The Golden Knights have cap room, and if they’re going to turn into buyers ahead of their playoff push, Kane could boost an already high-scoring offense. But Vegas isn’t jeopardizing its future to meet Botterill’s demands.

Hell, it’s unlikely any of these teams meet that asking price. It simply needs to come down (perhaps a first-rounder and a prospect with a pick that has conditions strapped to it?).

Regardless of the return, the process will be interesting over the coming weeks.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Rick Nash scores twice as Rangers edge Sabres 4-3

Prior to Tuesday’s win, New York Rangers forward Rick Nash had gone 12 games without a goal.

They had lost three straight and the man they needed to start scoring again simply couldn’t.

But on Tuesday in a 5-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers, Nash found his stride.

And on Thursday night he notched two more in a 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres on NBCSN.

Nash opened the scoring for the Rangers 1:24 into the game, taking advantage of a defensive mishap by Jake McCabe, who couldn’t handle a puck as the last man back and allowed Nash in on a breakaway.

The Sabres would respond by periods’ end, starting their first of three comebacks on the night.

Kyle Okposo brought the game to level terms with 1:19 remaining in the first period, completing a tic-tac-toe play on the power play.

The Sabres came into the game with the 31st ranking on the man-advantage, but managed to score twice with it in Thursday’s game.

The Rangers regained the lead through J.T. Miller in the second period.

New York just went through a power play without registering a shot on goal, but Miller was able to grab the puck at the right circle moments after the Sabres’ penalty had expired and rifled a wrist shot bar down behind Lehner at 8:26.

The Sabres engineered their second comeback of the game, tying it 2-2 the game later in the period from an unlikely source.

Justin Falk had gone 101 games without putting a puck in the back of the net. Not since March 6, 2015 had Falk seen his name in that category on the scoresheet.

But he shed that monkey off his back on a point shot low along the ice that beat Lundqvist through the five-hole with 2:50 remaining in the frame.

Nash scored his second at the 6:49 mark of the third period, following by Buffalo’s third successful comeback attempt at 14:59 when Rasmus Ristolainen’s shot found its way through a crowd and behind Lundqvist for a 3-3 tie.

Pavel Buchnevich scored the winner 1:03 later, finishing off a nice feed from Mika Zibanejad for his 12th and the Rangers second straight win.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Sabres’ Jason Pominville ready for third outdoor game experience

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The weather was brutal. The snow was coming down. It was cold. It wasn’t pleasant to be outside. But that didn’t stop hockey fans from being out in the elements hours before the start of the first ever NHL Winter Classic between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins.

As Jason Pominville drove into the parking lot at Ralph Wilson Stadium on New Year’s Day 2008 he noticed the weather didn’t keep fans away that morning. There was plenty of tailgating, street hockey and, of course, bonfires to keep everyone busy and warm. It was a scene. It was one big party, and there was no way some snow or below freezing temperatures was going to keep fans from enjoying the day.

That was the first time that day that it hit Pominville just how big the Winter Classic was as an event. Fans were excited hours before puck drop. Inside the locker rooms, players were, too. While two points were on the line for both the Sabres and Penguins, it was an experience that broke up the monotony of an 82-game NHL schedule.

The next time Pominville had a “wow” moment was when both teams marched out of the tunnel and onto the field on their way to the rink. The snow was still coming down and the players were welcomed by smoke machines and giant flames that blasted above their heads. There was also that unforgettable sound of the 71,217 fans in attendance that was like one big neverending roar.

“It was crazy. It’s tough to describe the feeling,” Pominville told Pro Hockey Talk recently. “You’re kind of in awe of everything that’s going on — snowy day, fireworks, choppers for the national anthem, 70,000 people. Just the whole build up for the game was crazy.”

Despite the frigid temperatures and wind, sleet, snow and rain to deal with, Pominville didn’t add any extra layers as the game went on. The players were told by athletic trainers about the different options available to them — from lotions to various pieces of clothing that could protect them, but having access to a heated bench between shifts coupled with the layers they were already wearing was more than enough to survive the afternoon.

No players were injured, thankfully, as the ice surface was less than ideal as the game wore on. Several times throughout the afternoon, NHL ice guru Dan Craig and his staff had to patch up a certain spot on the surface. That led to the game being delayed, but that extra time gave players and the coaching staffs to embrace the event.

“The game kind of took forever [with delays], you really had a chance to sink it all in where you’re looking around like ‘oh man, this is cool. this is what it’s all about,’” Pominville said. “The league’s done a great job of building up and look what it’s become now — there’s shows, there’s cameras following us around. It’s pretty cool the way [it’s] evolved, for sure.”

Eight years later Pominville would get a chance to play in a second outdoor game. This one didn’t have the famous snow globe effect to it like Buffalo, but TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis was a fine setting for a 2016 Stadium Series game as his Minnesota Wild played the Chicago Blackhawks. It also allowed the teams to have an easier time trying to play their system. The snow at Ralph Wilson Stadium made it difficult as the piled up snow made it difficult to move the puck at times.

Now as Pominville, who will be playing in his third outdoor game, preps for the 10th anniversary Winter Classic matchup, he has some simple advice for players: enjoy it. Yes, it’s a regular season game with points on the line, but it’s also a special time for players and their families. It’s also an experience that not every NHL franchise has been able to be a part of.

“The build up to these games are pretty amazing now. It’s fun to have a chance to play in one of these again,” he said. “I think everyone will have fun and enjoy it. Hopefully we can win the game.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.