Jason Botterill

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Botterill’s plan needs to bear fruit in Buffalo

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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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Power Rankings: NHL GM hot seat tiers

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The general manager is one of the most important individuals in an NHL front office.

They are the ones that decide the short-and long-term future of the team, pick the direction, implement the plan, and put the roster in place. While the coaches are always the ones that get put on the hot seat and are the first ones to fall on the sword when things go wrong, the general managers are the ones who ultimately impact what sort of team you are going to have every season. If your team is in a position where it is contemplating a coaching change or in the process of making a coaching change, it is a good bet that the general manager should probably be on the hot seat as well.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at all 31 NHL general managers and look at which ones are — or should be — on the hot seat, and which ones have the most time to continue building their teams.

To the rankings!

The hot seat

• Jim Benning, Vancouver Canucks. No GM is in the danger zone more than Benning and you don’t have to look far to figure out why. In his five years as the Canucks’ GM the team has made the playoffs once (his first year on the job), has missed the playoffs four years in a row, has been one of the least successful NHL teams during his watch, and is now saddled with several long-term contracts for veteran role players who are probably not going to be part of a championship core in Vancouver. Everything he has done the past two offseasons seems based on trying to sneak into the playoffs right now, and it is still probably not going to be enough. Not many general managers make it through five consecutive non-playoff seasons, and the Benning-era Canucks are going to need an incredible one-year turnaround to avoid such a streak.

• Jason Botterill, Buffalo Sabres. Given how little time he has had to work with in Buffalo this might be considered too high of a spot, but the pressure to put a winning team on the ice in Buffalo has to be immense right now. The Sabres have become the Eastern Conference version of the Edmonton Oilers, only worse when you consider the Oilers have actually made the playoffs (and won a round!) in the past eight years. The Sabres have had a really strong offseason on paper, so that is a positive heading into the season, but that is going to have to eventually translate into success on the ice.

• Pierre Dorion, Ottawa Senators. Dorion is in a no-win situation in Ottawa and it only seems to be a matter of when, and not if, the Senators are searching for a new general manager. The sad thing is it probably will not matter because the problems in Ottawa go way beyond whatever person is in the GM’s office trying to piece together a competitive team on a shoestring budget with a consistently bumbling owner.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Getting warmer

• Marc Bergevin, Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens entered the offseason with the salary cap space to make some kind of a big move, but so far the summer has been kind of a dud. As things sit in mid-July the Canadiens are returning mostly the same roster that has missed the playoffs two years in a row … minus one of its top scorers from a year ago in Andrew Shaw. The Sebastian Aho offer sheet was a great idea in theory, but in practice it was just a waste of time and a huge help to the Carolina Hurricanes.

• Stan Bowman, Chicago Blackhawks. Kind of hard to imagine Bowman getting fired given what he has accomplished in Chicago, but it is still very much a what have you done for me lately business. Business has been tough for the Blackhawks lately. They just fired a three-time Stanley Cup winning coach this past season, have missed the playoffs two years in a row, and Bowman’s offseason approach has him betting big on his core still being able to compete as constructed. If he is wrong, he is probably next in line for change.

[Related: Blackhawks shaping up to be NHL’s biggest wild card team]

• Brad Treliving, Calgary Flames. He hasn’t done a bad job in Calgary, but the Flames have made it out of the first round once in his tenure (his first year on the job) and his attempt to fix the team’s biggest Achilles heel this offseason (goalie) was to bring in Cam Talbot. Seems questionable!

• Jim Nill, Dallas Stars. The Stars’ incredible mid-season turnaround — produced almost entirely by the top five or six players on the roster — probably bought him some additional time and gave him at least another year to try and build something in Dallas. He made some big moves this summer by bringing in Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry, but his entire tenure in Dallas has been highlight by big offseason moves and underwhelming results on the ice. That has to change.

• Dale Tallon, Florida Panthers. The Panthers have a lot of important ingredients in place, from a young core of impact players to a future Hall of Fame coach. At some point, though, you have to win. Or at least come close to winning. The Sergei Bobrovsky contract will probably be what makes or breaks this team and this era of Panthers hockey.

Still safe for now

• Jarmo Kekalainen, Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets are almost certainly going to take a step backward this season after going all in at the 2019 trade deadline. Ownership had to know that was a possibility, so it’s hard to imagine his seat being too hot when he probably wasn’t the only one involved in the decision to push all of the team’s chips to the center of the table. Kekalainen’s gamble gave the Blue Jackets some short-term success and he still has a solid core to work with, but he has a lot of work ahead of him.

• Kevin Cheveldayoff, Winnipeg Jets. Another season like the 2018-19 campaign could move Cheveldayoff into the hot seat category. He has been running the show in Winnipeg since the team arrived and after a lot of patience finally put a competitive team on the ice. Unfortunately for the Jets, things seem to have hit a plateau without yet reaching the next level. In typical Cheveldayoff fashion the team has been extremely quiet in the offseason but still has some major long-term contract situations to deal with. A lot of things can go wrong here in a very short period of time.

• John Chayka, Arizona Coyotes. This could have been a playoff team this past season with some better injury luck. He added to their forward depth over the summer with the additions of Phil Kessel and Carl Soderberg and there is some real cause for optimism in the desert.

• Rob Blake, Los Angeles Kings. Blake is in an interesting spot because he is still fairly new in the position and that should give him a bit of a leash. But he also has not really done anything to move the team in any meaningful direction. They are still in the same middle-ground they have been in between rebuilding and competing, and will still probably be one of the worst teams in the league this season.

• Bob Murray, Anaheim Ducks. Without making any additional comment on the job that he has done, his situation in Anaheim just seems to be bulletproof at this point.

• Jeff Gorton, New York Rangers. I see no reason to think his job is, or should be, in any immediate danger. The rebuild seems to be going well and he helped accelerate the process this offseason with some major impact additions. They may not be a playoff team this season, but they probably were not supposed to be at this point, either.

[Related: Devils, Rangers rivalry gets boost thanks to Hughes, Kaako]

• Paul Fenton, Minnesota Wild. Given how new he is to the position he should be lower on the list, but the manner in which he has overhauled the roster and the actual moves he has made to do it are kind of bizarre.

• Ray Shero, New Jersey Devils. Blockbuster Ray was back at it this offseason, getting P.K. Subban at nearly no cost to his current NHL roster or the long-term future. He has done a great job adding impact talent to a roster that badly needed it when he took over. Some of it was due to luck (like winning two draft lotteries), while some of it was due to shrewd and aggressive trading. Getting Taylor Hall signed will be important.

Ice cold seat and not going anywhere

• Jim Rutherford, Pittsburgh Penguins. He has not done a good job over the past few years, rapidly shifting the roster away from the recipe that made it a back-to-back Stanley Cup winning team. Bad contracts and a lack of direction have hurt both the long-term and short-term direction of the team, something that should put him way higher on the list. Despite that, he is going nowhere unless he wants to. He just received a contract extension, he was just announced as a Hall of Fame inductee, and he still has the clout of putting two banners in the rafters of the arena.

• David Poile, Nashville Predators. The longest-tenured general manager in the NHL and the only one the team has ever known. The Predators have some flaws, but they are still a contender. Tough to imagine a change happening here anytime soon.

• Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs. He has done a really good job navigating the salary cap situation (which was always overblown) while still addressing the teams biggest need (defense). His job security is rock solid — as it should be — but at some point this paper tiger he has helped assemble has to actually … you know … win.

• Don Waddell, Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes are coming off of an Eastern Conference playoff run and still probably have their best days ahead of them. Waddell is not going anywhere.

• Joe Sakic, Colorado Avalanche. Sakic is assembling a powerhouse in Colorado that not only has the ability to keep its young core in place, but can also easily add to it. The Avalanche have done just that this summer.

• Don Sweeney, Boston Bruins. Unless the bottom totally falls out on the Bruins this season or Sweeney does something incredibly dumb he should be safe for a long time. This is one of the best teams in the league and he was just named the NHL’s general manager of the year for the 2018-19 season.

• Brian MacLellan, Washington Capitals. The shine of the 2018 Stanley Cup has not gone away yet. That gives a general manager probably three or four years of added security.

• Lou Lamoriello, New York Islanders. Expectations for the Islanders are probably going to be way too high given what they did this past season and a step back should be expected. But when you are Lou Lamoriello, and your first year on the job was an unexpected and almost improbable success story, you can get comfortable in that office.

• Doug Wilson, San Jose Sharks. He might be the best general manager in the NHL right now but will probably never get that recognition in the eyes of the majority of the hockey viewing public because he is still lacking a Stanley Cup in San Jose. Championship or not, he has done an amazing job.

• Doug Armstrong, St. Louis Blues. He hit a bunch of home runs over the past year and brought St. Louis its first Stanley Cup. What else do you have to say?

Not even worth discussing job security at the moment

• Chuck Fletcher, Philadelphia Flyers. Say this for Fletcher: He has given the Flyers’ front office exactly what it wanted in terms of roster moves. I just don’t know if they are any better because of it. With only one year on the job he is nowhere near the hot seat. Yet.

• Julien BriseBois, Tampa Bay Lightning. He inherited a great situation with the Lightning (a team he helped build as the assistant general manager) and should be in a pretty good position. Getting Brayden Point re-signed will be a big issue.

• Kelly McCrimmon, Vegas Golden Knights. The Golden Knights had a general manager change far sooner than anyone expected, but he was a top candidate for a lot of teams in need of a new GM this offseason and the Golden Knights did not want to let him get away. His first big test: Handling a salary cap crunch and the Nikita Gusev situation.

• Ken Holland, Edmonton Oilers. Even though he has two of the best players in the league on his roster he still has what is probably the most difficult job in the league. He will get a few years to try and fix the unbelievable mess left behind.

• Steve Yzerman, Detroit Red Wings. This will not be an easy rebuild, but it will be an extensive honeymoon period.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Sabres make big strides this offseason, may not be done yet

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It’s tempting to call the Henri Jokiharju trade the cherry on top of a delicious offseason sundae for the Buffalo Sabres, but GM Jason Botterill can’t quite desert his office just yet, as his work might not be done yet.

Here’s a delicious thought, though: the Sabres would be massively improved even if Botterill did decide to close up shop and spend the rest of the summer reclining and sipping cocktails.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

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Really, you can go back to the 2018-19 season to see the Sabres getting proactive about improving their defense, the team’s most glaring weakness. Botterill really started the party by snagging Brandon Montour from the Anaheim Ducks in February, and continued his trend of trading for interesting right-handed defensemen talent by getting a bargain for Colin Miller, then making what looks like a lucrative trade in receiving Jokiharju for struggling prospect Alex Nylander.

Jokiharju, Miller, and Montour could set up a glut on the right, as they’re joined by beat-up blueliner Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson, and hypothetical trade generator Rasmus Ristolainen. You can basically set your watch to Ristolainen rumors cropping up, either when Buffalo adds a right-handed defenseman, or even if they just add money. Or maybe get out of bed in the morning.

The logic is simple enough. Ristolainen is, in many ways, a lot like former Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers. Ristolainen and Myers are both very tall, and they both signed contracts after a spike in production, only to slide rather than continuing to climb afterward (in Myers’ case, the shaky contract he signed way back when with the Sabres just expired).

Ristolainen is 24, and his size and respectable skill could make him intriguing to front offices that … well, frankly, don’t really look very deeply into a wide variety of numbers. If it weren’t for lousy plus/minus stats, Ristolainen would check every “traditional” box (four consecutive seasons of 40+ points, big ice time averages), while looking far worse in fancier ones. Take these RAPM charts from Evolving Hockey, which paint the picture that Ristolainen doesn’t bring a lot of value beyond the power play, and you’ll maybe begin to understand why analytics-minded Sabres fans are anxious for Buffalo to trade Ristolainen while there are at least some NHL front offices who still believe in him:

Again, a significant subset of people – analytics folks, plenty of Sabres fans, and those who meet in the middle of that Venn Diagram – have been clamoring for the Sabres to trade Ristolainen for some time, but this summer’s set of moves makes such arguments more credible than ever.

That’s because …

More help for Eichel, possibly with more help on its way?

One more top-six forward, by way of a Ristolainen trade, could really tie this roster together.

To Botterill’s credit, he’s deftly improved another problem area beyond that once-abysmal defense, as he’s given the Sabres more scoring options beyond “Hopefully Jack Eichel saves us.”

The most important first step was keeping the one true running mate that Eichel had, as they signed Jeff Skinner to a monster contract. While you could argue quite fairly that it’s an overpay overall, I’d also rank it as a necessary evil.

But, again, the Sabres’ 2018-19 season showed that they need more than Eichel – Skinner, as powerful as that duo turned out to be. And now Botterill faced the challenge of adding support without breaking the bank, as Eichel + Skinner = $19M in combined AAV.

You know what? Botterill’s done really well in that regard, too.

Jimmy Vesey isn’t a world-beater, but the Sabres courted him for a while, and now they have him for cheap. Vesey and 2018 summer acquisition Conor Sheary rank as the sort of forwards who won’t revolutionize your lineup, but could nudge you toward competence. It doesn’t hurt that both Sheary and Vesey will have the added motivation of contract years, either.

Marcus Johansson might be my favorite recent forward addition, if not favorite single add overall. The Sabres sat out the most frenzied part of free agency, and were rewarded for showing even just a modicum of patience. A few days after July 1, Buffalo added Johansson for an AAV of just $4.5M, and mitigated most of the health-related risks by only giving him two years of term. Splendid stuff, especially since the winger gets a chance to sign a more robust deal if he can deliver during the next two seasons.

That’s all good stuff; now imagine if Buffalo gets greedy.

Again, people get excited about the idea of Ristolainen being traded, as he’s prominent enough to be part of a blockbuster, as his $5.4M cap hit is both movable and large enough to be part of a hefty deal.

Sabres fans should salivate at some of the names thrown out there, as they could provide that one extra piece that truly rounds out a top-heavy offense into being nicely balanced.

Die By the Blade trots out two interesting scenarios with the Winnipeg Jets: perhaps the Jets would cough up transition machine Nikolaj Ehlers for Ristolainen. If not, what about the intriguing combination of young Jack Roslovic and analytics darling Mathieu Perreault? The Jets have been willing to shrug their shoulders at analytics before (see: Myers, Tyler), so after losing Myers and Jacob Trouba, maybe they’d want Ristolainen?

Ehlers, in particular, excites as a buy-low trade, but he’s not the only option.

Honestly, I was half-joking here, yet if the Oilers would bite on Ristolainen for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins trade, poor Edmonton fans might get another taste of Peter Chiarelli-style blunders even after Chiarelli’s been replaced by Ken Holland.

Basically: the Sabres could move from what’s suddenly a position of strength to pull the trigger on a Ristolainen deal, and maybe get a top-six forward who simply brings more to the table, at a comparable cap hit. If it’s Ehlers, that player could pan out and bring a lot more to the table than Ristolainen, who profiles as a deeply flawed player.

To be continued?

All of that said, if the right deal doesn’t sprout up for Ristolainen, the Sabres may also look at next summer as the true feeding frenzy.

The Athletic’s John Vogl paints quite the picture (sub required) of the Sabres courting potential free agents if they let certain expiring contracts fade, rather than re-signing people:

They can take Taylor Hall and Nicklas Backstrom to dinner on Delaware Avenue. Jason Botterill can sip mai tais on a Canalside tiki boat with Alex Galchenyuk, Tyler Toffoli, Torey Krug and Roman Josi. If the Sabres are feeling really frisky, they can wine and dine Matt Murray and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Interesting stuff, and for all we know, Braden Holtby could also hit the market if the Capitals decide to roll that way with another cap crunch impending.

***

Even if the Sabres flip Ristolainen for that elusive top-six forward, they’d still need some things to break their way for this to feel like an immediate success.

Ralph Krueger needs to show that he won’t struggle coaching in the NHL after taking a truly unusual path back to the league, which included a lengthy detour with the Premier League. Botterill didn’t plunge into the goalie market, so they’ll hope for good work from Carter Hutton and RFA Linus Ullmark. It’s conceivable that they still might ask too much of Eichel, particularly if they can’t use Ristolainen for an upgrade. The Atlantic Division also looks formidable, with the Panthers at least spending like winners, along with the Lightning, Maple Leafs, and Bruins seemingly slated to make everyone else fight for wild-card scraps.

Overall, though, the Sabres improved immensely — and after the undeniable (but maybe unavoidable?) gamble on Jeff Skinner, they didn’t ruin their outlook in the longer term for the sake of short-term gains. By most accounts, they had a strong 2019 NHL Draft haul, to boot. Other teams looking to take those agonizing next steps from a rebuild to actual contention should take notes of what Buffalo did, and may still do.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Which NHL GM has toughest job this summer?

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Every general manager has an extremely difficult job when trying to assemble a championship contending team.

No matter the sport it is a daunting task that requires vision, a plan, an ability to actually perform that plan, having the right people around you, and an understanding of not just where the league and their own team is today, but where all of that is headed in future seasons. It requires great scouting, an eye for talent, asset management, a lot of luck, and countless other factors to get their team to a championship level.

Even when all of those things work together in near perfect unison they are still more likely to fall short of their ultimate goal (a championship) than they are to achieve it.

With the NHL offseason officially underway, the league’s 31 general managers are beginning the process of putting their vision into practice, and while they all have a difficult job in front of them not all of their jobs are created equal. Some of them have significantly taller mountains to scale over the next couple of months. Some out of their own creation, and others out of the circumstances and hands they have been dealt.

These general managers are part of that group and have what will almost certainly be the toughest offseason jobs ahead of them.

Ken Holland, Edmonton Oilers

It is a testament to how bad and completely incompetent the previous front office was that Holland is walking into a situation where he has two of the NHL’s top-four scorers from this past season (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl), both still not even in the prime of their careers yet and signed to long-term contracts, and your first reaction to his situation is, “wow, this team seems like it is light years away from contending.”

The Oilers have missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, including three of the first four years of McDavid’s career, having completely wasted what might be some of the best and most dominant hockey he ever plays (at least offensively).

They are a team that plays at the level of an early 1990s expansion team when their two-headed monster of McDavid and Draisaitl is not on the ice, they need an overhaul on defense, a ton of depth at forward, and a goalie. And Holland is likely going to have less than $10 million in salary cap space to start with.

What his roster lacks in talent it makes up for in bad contracts that are sinking the organization’s ability to build around its two superstars at the top.

Milan Lucic‘s contract is, for all intents and purposes, buyout proof and trading him will require Holland to take on a similarly bad contract in return or give up a far more valuable asset to entice a team to take the remaining $6 million per year cap hit (for four more years!) for a player that has just 54 points over the past two seasons (161 games) with only 43 of them coming at even-strength.

His returning starting goalie, Mikko Koskinen, will be 31 years old on opening night and has just 59 games of NHL experience with a .904 save percentage. He is also signed for three more seasons at $4.5 million per season, a rather lousy house-warming gift from the previous regime on their way out the door.

He has eight defenders under contract for close to $27 million under the cap for this season and doesn’t have a No. 1 or anything close to a top-tier puck-mover among them.

At least three of them (Andrej Sekara, Kris Russell, and Brandon Manning) are legitimate buyout candidates this summer.

There are only a handful of teams with less cap space than the Oilers entering the offseason, and it is not because of the contracts they are paying McDavid, Draisaitl, or even Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the top.

It is because of the $17 million(!) that is going to Lucic, Russell, Manning, and Koskinen.

Other than that, things are pretty good.

If Holland manages to turn this situation into something positive within two years they should build him a statue.

Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs

Dubas’ situation is pretty much the exact opposite of Holland’s because his team is actually … good.

Really good.

Really, really, really good.

Championship contending good.

The problem Dubas and the Maple Leafs are going to run into is the same one they have run into in previous years. That “problem” is that it is a lot easier to go from being a “bad” team to a “good” team than it is to go from being a “good” team to a championship team. Having lost in the first-round of the playoffs three years in a row, including to a divisional rival in Boston in each of the past two seasons, kind of illustrates that. The Maple Leafs can score, they can win a lot of games in the regular season, but there is still a hurdle they have to get over because for as good as they have become, this group still does not have a finish higher than third place in its own division or a playoff series win.

But that is all narrative. When it comes to the actual team building Dubas’ challenge is going to be finding a way to get a contract done with Mitch Marner, one of his team’s best and most important players.

The Maple Leafs certainly do not want to go through a replay of last year’s William Nylander restricted free agency saga, and there is always that (please try not to laugh at the ridiculous suggestion) possibility of an offer sheet from another team (hey, one of these years it could happen again).

Finding the salary cap room for Marner is going to be a challenge as the Maple Leafs are already paying Nylander, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares huge money at the top of the lineup. As I wrote a few months ago, this is not a problem. The Maple Leafs can (and most likely will) compete for a championship with a significant chunk of their salary cap allotment going to the quartet of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander.

Before they can get there they have to shed some contracts, specifically the ones belonging to Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev. The top-four might also cost them a couple of other depth players around the edges, but it is a heck of a lot easier to find another Conor Brown or Kasperi Kapanen than it is to find another Mitch Marner or William Nylander.

Along with that, he is also set to lose a little bit off of his blue line with the pending free agencies of Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey, while also dealing with the elephant in the room that is the highly paid head coach whose recent resume hasn’t matched his reputation.

Add in the fact this is all playing out in a hockey market where all reason and logic gets thrown out the window and he not only has a difficult task ahead of him, he is going to be under a constant microscope to get it done.

No matter what he does this offseason he has a playoff team on the ice this season.

Simply being a playoff team is no longer enough in Toronto.

Jarmo Kekalainen, Columbus Blue Jackets

He put together the most successful season in Blue Jackets history by not only getting them to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third year in a row (first time the franchise has ever done that), but by putting together a team that shocked the hockey world by sweeping one of the best teams of the modern era (the Tampa Bay Lightning) in Round 1 for the team’s first-ever playoff series win.

He did that by betting big on keeping his own pending free agents (Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky) but by acquiring several more at the trade deadline in Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel.

It gave Blue Jackets fans their first taste of postseason success and built a ton of excitement around the team.

Now he is facing the possibility of losing all of Panarin, Bobrovsky, Duchene, and Dzingel in free agency, while having only two draft picks (a third-round pick and a seventh-round pick) this year and only five draft pick in the 2020 class.

Do we really need to go any further as to what his challenge here is?

Panarin and Bobrovsky have seemingly had one foot out the door all season and their departures just seem to be a matter of where they go and not if they go, and there is little doubt that Duchene is going to test the open market for his one last shot at another big contract (Nashville seems like a perfect fit for him, right?).

The Blue Jackets will still a decent core coming back with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, and the constantly improving Pierre-Luc Dubois, but Panarin and Bobrovsky are not players that you just easily replace. They have been impact players and significant pieces of what has been a consistent playoff team the past few years. Bobrovsky in particular is going to be a huge loss because he is not only a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and one of the best regular season goalies of his era, but they do not really have any kind of an internal option that is a sure thing and limited options outside the organization.

Kekalainen did an outstanding job to raise the bar and set a new level of expectation in Columbus this season, but he also left himself in a situation where it is going to be extremely difficult to reach it (or exceed it) this upcoming season.

Jason Botterill, Buffalo Sabres

This seems like a make-or-break year for Botterill in Buffalo.

The Sabres are basically Edmonton-east right now given their consistent lack of success, inability to build around a young franchise player (Jack Eichel), and complete lack of depth.

Also like the Oilers: They recently traded an eventual major award winner (2019 Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly) for some magic beans. The situation in Buffalo is so bleak right now that probably overpaying winger Jeff Skinner is seen as a win for the organization, and I don’t really mean that to be as critical as it sounds because I do like it. If you are going to “overpay” someone under the cap, you are better off making sure it is a player that might score 40 goals for you and seems to have developed some chemistry with your best player.

But after the Eichel-Skinner duo, and 2018 No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, this is a roster that just … well … who in the hell excites you here?

The Sabres are in a division with three powerhouse teams at the top, a team a Florida that is already ahead of them with a better core, more salary cap space to work with, and is probably going to be a destination for top free agents (Panarin and Bobrovsky) this summer.

Oh, and there is also Montreal that missed the playoffs this past year by just two points.

This is, at best, the fifth best team in its own division after years and years and years of rebuilding and entering year three with his finger on the button (and with a new coach) there has to be immense pressure for Botterill to make something out of this mess. He has to do a lot, and he has to do it quickly.

More NHL offseason
Lessons NHL teams should (and should not) learn from the 2019 St. Louis Blues
Capitals trade Matt Niskanen to Flyers for Radko Gudas
Islanders re-sign Jordan Eberle
Binnington’s next contract challenge for Blues
Bruins could look different next season

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Sabres GM remains confident in Skinner re-signing with team

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill remains confident that 40-goal-scorer Jeff Skinner will re-sign with the team.

Contract talks began in January. Botterill says negotiations continue and both sides are focused on having a contract completed before the NHL’s free agency period opens July 1.

Botterill spoke Wednesday following a news conference introducing new coach Ralph Krueger. Talks between the Sabres and Skinner were on hold until the team hired its coach.

Krueger says he spoke with Skinner by phone and believes he will remain on the team.

The 27-year-old Skinner is a nine-year NHL veteran who has topped 30 goals four times and been considered a key piece for a rebuilding team since Buffalo acquired him in a trade with Carolina in August.

Under NHL rules, the Sabres can offer Skinner an eight-year contract. He would be limited to negotiating a maximum seven-year deal as a free agent.

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