Why Jason Botterill’s blueprint is readymade to repair the Sabres

The former Pittsburgh Penguins associate general manager sees a big piece missing in the Sabres puzzle

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Sabres owner Terry Pegula kept it simple, as usual, when discussing why Jason Botterill is his new General Manager.

“He’s pretty much done everything you can do in hockey.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find a 40-year-old hockey executive with more experience – and variance in that experience – than Botterill, who leaves his post as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ associate general manger to come repair a Sabres organization stuck in the tracks.

Botterill has played the game. Fittingly, he played for the Sabres – albeit briefly, but long enough to hear Rick Jeanneret give him his own goal call. He remains the only Canadian to ever win three straight gold medals at the World Junior Championships.

Then you mix in some academia. Botterill received his MBA in business from Michigan in 2007. He was hired by the Penguins to work mostly with salary cap management. Eventually, scouting duties became a part of the equation. He was named assistant general manager in 2009, before being promoted to associate general manager in 2014 under Jim Rutherford.

That’s Jason Botterill from an overall perspective: A Swiss army knife of an executive who comes to Buffalo with an answer for most every waking problem, one would hope.

But what really separated Botterill from the other GM candidates – of the reported seven to be interviewed – is fairly obvious: He knows how to create structure (hey look, a Pegula buzzword!) within an organization.

There is an argument – somewhere, I’m sure – that Pittsburgh executives can do no wrong with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the roster. It is simply not the case, not in a sport that requires contributions from every player in some form or another. Enough weak links or poor contracts within a team can derail its competitive hopes.

Credit is due to GM Jim Rutherford for the Penguins’ continued success, but in many ways, Botterill deserves just as much credit.

Botterill has succeeded where former Sabres GM Tim Murray could not: In the AHL. And that’s important for many reasons. Botterill has run the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins since 2009, to the tune of a .600 win percentage. That’s fun for AHL fans, and also somewhat meaningless for the NHL followers.

But when you see the AHL success carry over into the NHL, you realize just how important a sturdy, sustained pipeline can be to the the elite level product.

“If anything falls apart in that line,” Botterill said of the NHL-AHL relationship, “it doesn’t work.”

In Pittsburgh, Crosby’s linemate Conor Sheary signed an AHL deal after going undrafted – now he’s a key piece to the NHL puzzle. Matt Murray has edged out former first overall pick Marc-Andre Fleury in net, and Murray’s rise began with multiple years of AHL dominance. Botterill mentioned Jake Guentzel as a beneficiary of AHL development, among others.

“Look at [another AHL signee] Carter Rowney,” Botterill said. “He spent two seasons in Wheeling and now he’s helping the Penguins in Game 7.”

The tie-in even extends to the bench. Botterill hired Mike Sullivan to run the AHL squad. Now Sullivan could guide Pittsburgh to a second straight Stanley Cup.

It’s fair to say Tim Murray was kicked to the curb before some of the AHL call-ups could get a fair shake in the NHL. But there was zero foundation in Rochester; a losing team with a few good prospects, but no sense of purpose. Good organizations have AHL teams that can speak for themselves and stand out on their own merits. You could not say that for the Rochester Americans under Tim Murray.

Botterill played in Rochester. His roommate was Ryan Miller. He played with Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy and others who went from competing for minor league trophies to competing for the Stanley Cup. He knows the value in a mutually beneficial relationship. He’ll even give them their own general manager, just as he was trusted to run the team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Now Botterill has to make it work – and use his salary cap acumen to financially build around Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly, just as Pittsburgh built around Crosby and Malkin. He needs the AHL talent to be able to make instant impacts in Buffalo without taking up too much cap space. Thankfully there is a blueprint to follow… because he helped lay it out in Western Pennsylvania. That’s just another reason why he’s here.

I’ll be the first to say Botterill won his introductory press conference, just as countless others before him have done the same. But what he said did not gel at all with the words of his predecessor, and in the best way. They echoed many of the players’ concerns and even those of the fans, from Buffalo to Rochester. Just the way he wants it.

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