Let’s get one thing straight - This isn’t another rant article. Everyone knows that the Buffalo Sabres have once again dashed the hopes of their fan base well before the trade deadline, and no one needs to labor through another drawn out screed about organizational missteps.
The summer of 2020 is a critical point for the franchise. With only 13 contracts remaining on the ledger for the 2020-21 season, the very makeup of the roster is on the line. It may be some time before the Sabres have another opportunity to purge such a heavy portion of their under-performing roster without penalty. On top of that, contractual decisions for players like Sam Reinhart, Victor Olofsson, and Brandon Montour need to be made.
Has Jason Botterill earned the opportunity to make those decisions? It sure doesn’t seem that way. Last night, the third-year general manager was on WGR 550 where he fielded questions about the state of the team. As expected, his responses were relatively mundane, with just a hint of delusion.
Jason Botterill - The entire group, we haven't done well enough. Am I going to do something drastic because it's imperative we do something right now? I'm not going to harm this organization. #Sabres50— WGR 550 (@WGR550) February 4, 2020
If that statement isn’t an embodiment of his tenure in Buffalo, I’m not sure what is. His failure to realize that he can make moves to both help now, and in the future, is maddening. He shouldn’t be faulted for being unable to make something happen in a season where most teams are pressed up against the salary cap, but what was the excuse this summer? What will the excuse be next summer? The reality is, that by doing nothing, he has already “hurt the team”, apparently more than he realizes.
Overall, he sounded less like a man who understands that he failed to address blatantly obvious shortcomings at forward, and more like someone who was somehow shocked that uninspiring additions like Jimmy Vesey and Michael Frolik didn’t magically mend the league’s 25th ranked offense.
Now, credit where credit is due, Botterill has done a nice job of revamping what was a miserably inept defensive corps. Aside from that however, his moves (or lack thereof) have fallen flat. Last summer, his overly conservative approach led to the return of nearly every veteran incumbent in the bottom-six. He hoarded, without exaggeration, 12 defensemen with NHL experience, keeping players like Lawrence Pilut trapped in Rochester for half of the season.
Frankly, he lacks a sense of urgency. Fans have looked at the contracts coming off the books in July under the assumption that he’ll make the right decisions as to who should stay, and who he should let walk. Seems a little presumptuous, given his short track record.
If Terry and Kim Pegula are even remotely uncertain about Botterill’s capability as a GM, they need to make a move now. Even if they’d be approaching the 2020-21 campaign as a “last chance” opportunity for Botterill under any other circumstance, they must realize how their team’s roster construction for the foreseeable future hangs in the balance right now. Does it seem wise to have a potential lame duck manager in place in that scenario? Certainly not.
Rarely would a new GM arrive at an organization with more freedom to immediately put his stamp on the roster with very few built-in excuses. The idea that it takes five years to construct a winning franchise is flawed in and of itself, but the current cap situation would potentially allow for an expedited rebuild, orchestrated by someone with a fresh perspective.
The 50th anniversary season has served as a dark mark on the organization and the fan base is reaching a tipping point. Buffalonians are fiercely loyal, but something needs to change. They need a reason to be excited, and royal blue jerseys can’t mask the fact that prime years of Reinhart, Jack Eichel, and Jeff Skinner’s respective careers are being wasted. Even worse, the current GM seems content to let it happen. Not only is it unacceptable, it’s downright horrifying.
Some will argue that constant front office turnover is a bad thing, and they’re almost certainly correct, but this isn’t a typical situation. It’s better than a clean slate. It’s a clean slate with an elite center, two high-end wingers, and a teenage franchise defenseman already in place. It’s the picture perfect situation for an executive with a vision to come in and immediately implement it. They’d need to fill out a roster, not put their “stamp” on it while also attempting to purge existing contracts. They come pre-purged.
Maybe Botterill stays and proves the masses wrong. Maybe his true “cap genius” will emerge this summer and the pieces will finally come together. But this offseason isn’t the time to be overly conservative. It’s also not the time to allow a general manager make “survival mode” moves if he feels his seat getting warm.
The timing isn’t right to retain an incumbent skating on thin ice, and unless he sold ownership on a “tank until 2020” plan from the get-go, a change must be seriously considered. There’s too much at stake, and the Sabres cannot waste another year. If the Pegulas aren’t totally and completely invested in Botterill’s vision, they’ll never find themselves better positioned than they are at this very moment to bring in someone new, without the need for a full-blown rebuild.
Hire an adviser, or a president of hockey operations, or whatever you have to do in order to make the right decision. Get a second set of eyes on the current blueprint and whether or not Boterill’s plan is solid. This is the last, best chance to finally get the Sabres to a place where they’re competitive. It mustn’t be squandered.