I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Buffalo Sabres general manager, Jason Botterill is looking to acquire a forward for his team. You’ve probably heard this from various NHL insiders since June. Yet, the calendar is about to flip to 2020 and the Sabres still have a glaring need at forward with an overabundance of defensemen in the organization.
Entering play today, the Sabres sit four points (with two games in hand) behind the Florida Panthers for third place in the Atlantic Division. They’re seven points behind the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, currently occupied by the Carolina Hurricanes.
Lack of Depth
To make it matters worse, they lost Jeff Skinner over the weekend to an upper-body injury that will keep him out for three to four weeks. For a team that struggles to put the puck in the net, losing Skinner is a big problem.
What’s Botterill’s solution? Sign career AHL forward Dalton Smith to an NHL contract and call him up to potentially play against the Tampa Bay Lightning this evening. This isn’t about Smith. This is about another sign pointing to the inability of the Sabres general manager to provide any type of depth at forward in his tenure with the club.
Since he signed on as the head of the hockey department, the Sabres have needed to add more scoring to their roster to help out players such as Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Jeff Skinner, and Ryan O’Reilly. Let’s take a look at how that has gone over the three seasons under Jason Botterill:
2019-20 (5v5): xGF/60 - 2.05 (28th) | GF/60 - 2.42 (18th)
2018-19 (5v5): xGF/60 - 2.20 (28th) | GF/60 - 2.27 (21st)
2017-18 (5v5): xGF/60 - 1.93 (31st) | GF/60 - 1.8 (31st)
The shot quality at 5 on 5 hasn’t improved much, but the overall scoring has improved from dead last in the league in Botterill’s first season. However, while there has been an improvement in goals scored at 5 on 5, they remain in the bottom portion of the league in scoring.
While Botterill has had his success in acquiring defensemen, he’s come up short on his acquisitions at forward outside of Skinner and Jason Pominville. He’s failed to replace O’Reilly, which has resulted in him attempting to rush the development of Casey Mittelstadt and shoving players like Marcus Johansson into a role that doesn’t fit their current abilities. The Sabres have a history under Botterill of not putting players in a position to have success and being asked to play above their heads.
Now, for the second straight season, Botterill is watching a season fade as his club sinks in the standings. Last season, he sat idly by and did nothing to help a team that stood atop the NHL standings at Thanksgiving. It’s deja vu this year. His club was at the top of the standings early in the season and now could be out of the race by the end of January.
Ralph Krueger has done a good job improving the defensive play on the roster, but the lack of scoring talent continues to hold this team back. The time to make the big move or moves was in the summer. Now, all Botterill can do is hope to put a bandaid on the problem in hopes that it’ll help them be competitive this season.
He made his bed and now he has to lie in it. He waited until he had no leverage in trade negotiations by hoarding his depth on defense. He put himself up against the salary cap by failing to move out players. Self-inflicted errors can no longer be used as excuses for failing to acquire forward help.
Even the excuse that he doesn’t have assets to make a trade doesn’t hold water. He has a handful of defensemen that have value, a cupboard of prospects and draft picks that he can use to acquire scoring. I’m not pretending making a trade in the NHL is easy, but when it has been nearly a year and a half since an impact forward was acquired, the patience wears off.
In year three as general manager, it’s inexcusable that Botterill has assembled a team that is on track to fall well short of the playoffs again. At the current pace, the Sabres are tracking towards 84 points. A marginal improvement over a 76-point season last year and 62-point season in year one.
Botterill is on his second head coach and it appears to be playing the long game with a lot of cap space opening up after this season. Those two things point to him having the support of ownership, but if another season goes down the drain as he sits on hands, there’s going to be some rumbling for a change in the fan base.
While he’s made some good trades, at some point the moves in the summer that look promising have translate to success on the ice or it all means nothing. Botterill’s biggest failure as general manager at this point is inaction.