Much like a puppeteer, a general manager in the NHL has control of a lot of different things. Coaches, staff, and players all can be maneuvered at the change of hand, as if strings were threaded down from wooden paddles. Despite the many functions of the job, the most scrutinized responsibility is player acquisitions, as many general managers like to put their own stamp on the roster.
This reigns true for Jason Botterill. Since his hire in 2017, the Buffalo Sabres GM has faced many roster decisions. While he is rightfully being criticized by the fanbase for bringing back nearly his entire cellar-dwelling roster from last season, Botterill has quipped that he has pulled some strings to get some fresh faces in the building.
In his time with the Sabres, Botterill has brought in the following players from outside the organization that have contributed more than 50 minutes of playing time to the team this season:
Forwards - Conor Sheary, Curtis Lazar, Jeff Skinner, Jimmy Vesey, Marcus Johansson, Michael Frolik, and Vladimir Sobotka
Defensemen - Brandon Montour, Colin Miller, Henri Jokiharju, John Gilmour, and Marco Scandella (now with Montreal)
Goaltender - Carter Hutton
So, while it is true that he has danced the trade market and free agency in attempt to improve the team, why hasn’t it worked? Well, Jason Botterill had a theory when he joined Schopp and the Bulldog on WGR550 in Buffalo on Tuesday:
There are some key words in there: “aren’t up to their NHL norms for goals”, “working to get more out of them”, and “there’s another level”. Is this true, can there truly be another level? What exactly was the expectation for these acquisitions? Luckily, I have compiled the data so we can sort this all out. Let’s begin with the forwards:
What was once a promising group of both top-end talent and depth is now seeming a little bare. Surely, Jason Botterill will point to trading for Jeff Skinner as his prized move of his tenure so far, and that is undisputed. Although the actual goal totals have been down this season, Skinner continues to carry strong even-strength numbers relative to the rest of the NHL.
Sheary was supposed to be the Robin to Skinner’s Batman at left wing, but it has never fully materialized. Johansson showed spurts of brilliance in the beginning of the season playing out of position, but has predictably regressed. Vesey scored in the high-teens for goals with the Rangers, but isn’t likely to reach that again this season.
Frolik and Sobotka have filled defensive roles in the top-six, without much success. Lazar has solid in his bottom-six role.
When compiling the data for these players as a whole, I looked specifically at their shot rates (shots, fenwick, and corsi) both for and against, as well as their goals and expected goals for and against (via Evolving-Hockey). I isolated each player’s time in Buffalo, and averaged out these rates. Also, I averaged the same rates for each player’s previous seasons in the NHL before being acquired, to loosely determine an “expectation” of what the club was getting. As a measuring stick, I also calculated the average performance of each position group across the league in these categories.
In chart form, here’s what I show for the forwards:
As you can see, the forward group as a whole had a slightly higher-than-average expectation in shots, fenwick, corsi, and expected goals percentage, and have not performed up to that standard in Buffalo. This leaves a bit of room to believe there indeed could be some improvement in those areas.
The glaring stat on this chart, however, is goals for percentage. Not only are Botterill’s acquisitions not achieving their past success, but their past success wasn’t even up to league average. That does not bode well for the GM, when six of the seven forwards he acquired have dabbled in the top-six, and four of those were specifically acquired to score at above-average rates.
Ask Jason Botterill where he really aimed to improve the team this season, and he will point to the defense. Montour was acquired by trading a first-round pick, but has not quite proven his worth. Jokiharju has been a nice surprise, but his numbers, both production-wise and underlying, do not jump off the page. Miller has been a healthy scratch numerous times, and can’t seem to lock down a role on the team. Gilmour has been mostly an AHLer, and Scandella was traded in the middle of a career year.
So how does this group look as a whole? Take a look:
Let’s start with the positive. The unit has actually exceeded previous history in expected goals for percentage. Ralph Krueger has done a good job with the team’s defensive structure and limiting opposing chances, so that likely has a hand in that accomplishment.
Unfortunately, the success in limiting and creating expected goals, has not translated into success when it comes to actual goals. The defensemen acquired have not lived up to the expectation in that department, and it’s showing in the standings. Their “expectation” in that field was below average to begin with, so hard to argue in favor of Botterill here again.
With Hutton being the lone addition from outside the organization at goalie, clearly Botterill pulled the wrong string here as well. Hutton was unable to lock down the starting job last season, and has nearly played his way out of an NHL job this season.
Can we blame Botterill here, though? It’s tough to say. By the numbers, Hutton had a strong case for a shot at a starting job through his time with Nashville and St. Louis. However, resorting to a tandem that included a guy that never played more than 40 games in a season and rookie from the AHL probably wasn’t the safest of moves. A tough look yet again.
So what does this all mean? Well, for one, Jason Botterill is correct. His acquisitions, for the most part, have not played up to expectation. On the other hand, these expectations were not very high in comparison with the league, so it’s not really appropriate for Botterill to state that as the reason to blame. Until he pulls another big move or two, this puppeteer’s performance will continue to fall flat.