What's the plan, Jason Botterill?

As Ryan O'Reilly and Robin Lehner throw pies at us, the Sabres need to make quality moves

Mike Schopp
June 18, 2019 - 11:45 am

Photo: Clarise Samuels

Let's check in on what we've just seen.

Watch NHL games now on fuboTV.

The St. Louis Blues won their first Stanley Cup by taking down the Boston Bruins in seven games. Ryan O'Reilly, acquired from the Buffalo Sabres last summer, was named winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy. O'Reilly is also a finalist for both the Selke and Lady Byng trophies. New York Islanders goalie Robin Lehner is up for both the Vezina and Masterton trophies, having led the Islanders from the dregs of the league to a shocking playoff appearance and first round sweep of Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Sabres had Lehner's rights last summer but released them, allowing Lehner to become a free agent.

(Lehner walked for nothing; had O'Reilly walked for nothing and the Sabres instead not acquired Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson and Patrick Berglund perhaps they would have been better off.)

Buffalo sports fans over the years have suffered more than a few acts of cruelty at the hands of their teams, and the turnarounds of ex-Sabres O'Reilly and Lehner in one year's time affix firmly to the list. Neither decision the Sabres made on these players was ridiculed; rather, I'd say most people approved of both moves. Lehner was a consistent source of derision from fans in his years here, even though he wasn't bad at all. And O'Reilly took the hit -- one he may have wanted -- by being fired from the team for some combination of certain unspoken leadership-type issues, including, after the season, admitting that all the losing had made him sad.

Well, shucks.

That's all in the past, and serves mostly just as wicked reminders of how sports fate continues to cross Buffalo. Mostly, but not entirely. This is relevant now because the general manager behind these decisions is still the Sabres' general manager, Jason Botterill. The near future is up to him.

Botterill, obviously, had reasons for both moves. He's not a madman. He had a losing team and losing teams need repair. It's that he chose a year ago to move on from O'Reilly and Lehner over other considerations such as Rasmus Ristolainen and Phil Housley that's, to be kind, dubious.

When the Finals end the most active period of the NHL off-season immediately starts. There are nine days between the Cup presentation and the NHL Draft, and then another 10 before free agency begins. Trades and signings are happening now.

What will happen here?

The Sabres re-signed Jeff Skinner. That's good. Skinner is an excellent player and he demonstrated that in his one Sabres season. Keep your good players. What the Sabres have to do now is eliminate their bad ones. 

The bottom six forwards and defense corps need an overhaul. (Fingers crossed that goaltending doesn't need one too after that bumpy season.) Buffalo's bottom-six forwards repeatedly got trounced in games, a glaring area of concern even in November when the team was rattling off 10 straight wins. Nothing was done to address it. Going forward, there's value in restricted free agent Evan Rodrigues, and, to lesser extents, fellow restricted free agent Johan Larsson and unrestricted free agent Jason Pominville. After that, sweep the leg. There might be -- should be, even -- two or three players in the farm system able to step in. We'd better hope so.

Defensively Rasmus Dahlin can stay forever, Lawrence Pilut plays every night, Casey Nelson and Jake McCabe can hold their own. End of list.

How does Botterill accomplish all this?

I say it's not as hard as it may look. Ristolainen almost definitely has real value in a league that, on balance, is pretty bad at sizing up value. Use waivers, buyouts, trades, whatever means available to thin the ranks. Get over your culture obsession; on some level O'Reilly and Lehner being ousted represented your effort to affect "culture". Perhaps that's why respected veteran Marco Scandella is still on the team. It's well past time to look at the standings. Look in the mirror. How did all that go?

The Islanders lost their best player in decades, took on a goalie in Lehner that the rest of the league didn't want, and shot up 23 points and into Round 2. Two years before, New Jersey drugged Edmonton and convinced it to give the Devils Taylor Hall. A year after that they went from 70 to 97 points. Bad teams in hockey get good quickly -- because of the draft, because of the nature of the sport, because when it comes to decision making many of the seemingly good teams are bad themselves.

How will Botterill be defined? If he'd been removed already he'd be a trivia answer as "The Guy Who Traded Ryan O'Reilly." But he's not that yet. He's still in this job, with a chance to turn it around. 

Does he know how?

Comments ()