The Instigators (11 a.m.)
Andrew Peters: Welcome back to The Instigators and we’re instigating already. [We were] just told we could have 15 minutes with General Manager Jason Botterill, you looked to Chris Bandura like, “Fifteen? Are you serious?” Good morning, Jason.
Jason Botterill: Good morning, how are you today?
Martin Biron: Do you want more time with us, or do you want less time?
JB: Yeah, I was hoping for maybe half hour, an hour, that’d be great.
AP: Just like normal players, eh, Botts? We all want more ice time, don’t we?
JB: Look, I’m looking for knowledge, and I want to get it from you guys.
AP: You came to the right place, let’s get right to it.
JB: I’ve heard you have some very creative ideas about our team moving forward, so it’s great, I’m looking forward to it.
AP: There’s nothing wrong with playing fantasy hockey, Botts. When you can’t have the real job, what do you do? You play fantasy.
JB: Well we actually have our pro scouting meetings going on right now, and we have Craig’s board up, you know, and then we have what we’re planning on doing.
AP: Well then hey, you know what? Let’s get right to a legit question that is probably a player you haven’t even been asked about recently, because you hear about (Jeff) Skinner, [Rasmus Ristolainen], all these other guys. Victor Olofsson, is he a guy that, because on our board, Craig likes the cost-efficient idea of a guy that might be able to put up 20, 30 goals next year at about a million bucks. Is that a guy, with what you saw at the end of the season, because I think he surprised a lot of us. I think he was a better skater than most of us probably had expected. The pass to Jack was amazing, which showed that he had incredible vision, and we already know about his shot. Is that a guy that has impressed you to the point where you’re like, “We gotta give him a serious look this year for that cost-efficient role on a top line?”
JB: What we like about having a bulk of young players, [is] there’s going to be competition in training camp. I think it’s always difficult to project which guy is really going to step up from that standpoint, but we have multiple players that we’re looking to try to put into the lineup there. Victor, I thought he had an amazing season. When you make that transition, coming over to North America, you don’t know how it’s going to go. We’ve always talked about the shot, but what we likes was his ability, as the season progressed, [to] get to the net more, getting into the forecheck more. He did a very good job in the defensive zone in the American Hockey League and really earned the opportunity to get called up. I think both Jack (Eichel) and Sam (Reinhart) really enjoyed playing with him at the end of the season, simply from the standpoint of his hockey sense. You talk about the shot to finish off chances, but also to create chances. I think the only thing that we have to guard against is games a the end of the season when you’re out of the playoffs are different than the intensity of the National Hockey League at the start of the season when teams are all ready to go. But we’ll certainly give him a great look at the start of the season and see where it goes.
MB: Who else from Rochester are you looking at that you can say is either NHL ready or just on the cusp of making it to an NHL team?
JB: Well obviously Alex Nylander, I thought, took great strides last year. [It] was disappointing when he got up here that he did run into the injury, just to add more games to his experience level there. Also, you saw C.J. Smith. You saw last year where he was at. Coming up, I thought he shows the ability to score, the affinity to finish off chance. He’ll be another one that gets a lot of looks. I think a lot of guys on our team, you look at a Rasmus Asplund, is he ready to make our team right out of training camp? Last year, he comes to training camp, it’s experience. Just get a feel for it over in North America. Now he’s going to come to be really pushing for a spot on our team.
MB: Is the second half of the season for Asplund something that you say, hey, if he can have 30-40 games at the start of the season the same way, that now you’re really looking at him being a big piece of your team going forward?
JB: Yeah, what’s the safe, conservative thing to do? Probably say, “Hey, at Christmas time we’re looking for him to really be in that call-up spot.” But with this kid’s work ethic, and how he handles himself in the off season, we’re certainly going to be open to what he can do in training camp and see where it goes from there.
Craig Rivet: You know what? I think there’s a lot of people, going back to (Victor) Olofsson, there were a lot of people that we’re saying when he got called up he looked really good. His skating was there, he was making plays. He was also, something that you had mentioned, he looked really solid defensively. And these were things where, “Why wasn’t this guy up sooner? He could have helped the team.” And the reality is he probably wasn’t ready a that time, and that’s where, I think you’ve talked a lot in the past about having guys develop their game so when they do get to the National Hockey League, they’re able to jump in and not only just be a player, but help the team move forward. That’s one thing that I remember a lot of fans were wondering why he wasn’t up sooner. The reality is he probably wasn’t ready at that time, but when you did call him up, he looked pretty darn good. And there was another player too, Will Borgen. We talk about all these forwards, but Will Borgen is a guy that skates exceptionally well, he’s got a physical presence to him, and he spent the whole year in the minors. Where do you see him as a possible guy coming to training camp and possibly earning a job?
JB: Well we’ll start with Will there. What we loved about Will is just the progression throughout the year. He came from a very good program at St. Cloud, had an opportunity to represent our country at the Olympics, but still, making that transition to pro hockey is an adjustment. What we love is he went from sort of a third-pairing guy, low minutes at the start of the year in the American Hockey League, to a player that our staff down there felt comfortable throwing in any situation out there. He brings a different attribute, that physical play, that is different than a lot of our other prospects. He got us excited pretty much the start of training camp at the rookie tournament. He played with (Rasmus) Dahlin, and I know Mr. Dahlin can make a lot of other players look good, but I think they complement each other very well there. Giving him some games at the end of the season was great for him to understand just how hard it is in the National Hockey League, how physical guys are. You talk to him a little bit about battling Anders Lee in front of the net, how heavy a guy like Anders Lee is, and that’s what he has to do. As a young guy, he’s got good size, good frame, but he still has to get stronger. Having that experience is going to help him a lot from a motivational standpoint in the summer, what he has to do. But we’re certainly looking at him to push things at the start of the season. You look at, especially with (Zach) Bogosian going to be out at the start of the year, he’ll get a great look in training camp, Will, and we’ll see where it goes from there. I do want to say, going back now to Victor (Olofsson), that’s where, you know, there’s always that transition coming from Europe over to the North American game, and going through the experience of going into a Syracuse on a Saturday night and the intensity in a small building like that, and he really handled those things very well. What I like about Chris Taylor, what he teaches down there, is Victor was a big part of our penalty kill down there, and I think, just that reliability, it teaches them better defensive habits that will allow him to come up to the National Hockey League because as good of an offensive player Victor is, it’s difficult to earn that time on the power play right off the bat. With his penalty kill ability, it’s going to allow him to get more minutes at the National Hockey League level.
MB: So you’re looking at prospects, let’s move on to trades, offer sheets, free agency, to fill in spots on your team.
JB: Well you have it all covered there.
MB: Well no, but I’m asking you, there are some aggressive GMs out there, and there’s GMs that like to kind of see things develop a little bit more. This summer’s interesting because of teams that are in cap hell or cap jail right now, a lot of RFAs that are high-end RFAs available. You have some cap room. Where do you feel are some of the maybe tools that you can use as a general manager to maybe get one or two pieces to help your team and your roster?
JB: Look, these teams that you talk about in cap hell, it’s eventually where we want to get to. Not because you’re in cap hell, but because you have a lot of talented players in your organization. That’s where you look at, some of these teams that are in financial restraints, it’s because they have a lot of very talented players. We’ve tried to, over the last couple of years, utilize our cap space to our advantage and bringing in more skilled players to our group. And that’s what we’ll continue to look at. I think it’s going to be a very interesting market just because of so much uncertainty with the RFA market and what’s going to happen out there. I do think it could freeze up a little bit of the possible trade market, and also just the unrestricted market, just because teams don’t know how much they’re going to have to spend and how are these contracts going to play out. If you go long-term, are the numbers going to be very high? If you go shorter-term, you certainly have a little bit more space to work with. There’s a lot of unknown going on from that standpoint. But we’re certainly in a lot of dialogue. In our situation, short-term, we certainly have cap space. With our young players, you always have to look in the future too, and you just want to make sure you’re making the right choices there.
MB: You’re saying that the RFA market may freeze what trades could happen or where the UFAs may go, so do you expect the trades to be a little bit slower when considering trades and player movement because of what July 1 has in store for teams?
JB: To be honest, Marty, it’s difficult to assess. Is there a lot of communication going on out there? Yeah. But I think, you see whether the trade deadline, you see leading up to the draft and July 1, there’s always a lot of [communication]. The way things have worked, obviously we made a trade last (year) later in the summer with Jeff Skinner, but that doesn’t really happen that much throughout the year. It seems to be so focused on improving your team at two spots: the trade deadline and July 1. So there’s certainly a lot of discussion going on there. Predicting, “Hey, is there going to be more trades or anything like that?” I think that’s always difficult to handle. I talk about the unrestricted market certainly being, I think that sort of that second or third tier, it might be frozen up a little bit, but you know teams are always searching for higher-end skill talent. I don’t think there’s a lot of talk about this unrestricted market. I think there’s certainly some very talented players at the high end that will get very good contracts and very good offers out there. I think that second and third tier, it could be something that slows down a little bit just because of the unknown of the restricted market.
AP: Just a lot of optimism and confidence around the Jeff Skinner contract. I have to ask you, Bottts, there’s speculation out there. Ralph Krueger was asked about it yesterday, just seemed optimistic about the conversation that he had with Jeff Skinner. Where are we at? You’re not nervous at all?
JB: Well look, it’s what I’ve said before, Andrew. Until you have a contract signed, nothing’s for sure. But what I’ve enjoyed about the negotiations is that there’s no threats, there’s no posturing. It’s just trying to go through people’s expectations and people’s desires and trying to find a resolution to it. It’s been very straightforward from that standpoint. We have a very open dialogue with Newport Sports, we’ve worked with them very closely the last couple of years, especially with Rasmus Dahlin coming into our group last year and just making sure that everything was set up from that standpoint. I think there’s a respect level from the agency there towards how we handle things in our franchise, so that’s where the optimism comes from. It’s been my job to try to find a resolution to it. He’s a player we certainly want to get signed, but we have to look what’s best for the organization and we’re trying to get it done.
MB: Do you talk every day? Is it an every day conversation? Is it twice a day, every other day? I’m just saying because if I was a player, I’d be calling my agent morning and night and be like, “Hey, did you guys talk, what happened?” And I would put pressure on the agent maybe to get that conversation. What he does, it’s his business and he gets paid for that, but I’m curious to see if it’s an every day text or email or phone call.
JB: I think what people are forgetting, too, is just that we didn’t have a head coach for the last month and a half or so, and that was a situation where nothing was going to be resolved. If you’re signing a long-term contract, you’re not going to just sign a long-term contract with an organization until you know who the head coach is. And so once we had that set up, obviously there’s communication with Ralph (Krueger) and Jeff. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s the power of the players right now. The players that played under Ralph, the players that, whether it was Edmonton or at the World Cup, there were a lot more touch points than I anticipated with Jeff, and I think that probably gave Jeff even more comfort of having Ralph as our head coach there. Then it just comes down from a situation of communicating with it, and yeah, we’re in constant communication with Newport over the last little bit here and trying to get something set up.
AP: In conversations about eight-year contracts, long-term deals with any player at this age on any team, does the conversation come up — obviously it would be from the team side — about fear of the production later in the contract?
JB: It always has to be a part of the equation, especially when we have such a young team, those are the dialogues that we look at. The comfort level that we have with Jeff’s situation is, part of the reason why we like him so much as a player and he’s been a good fit for our team, is just the professionalism that he’s brought to the locker room. The focus that he has. You talk to him, and if you followed him on social media a little bit, you understand he’s been bouncing all over the United States and it’s not just on vacation; he’s going to train with different people, trying to find different elements to give him that edge, and I think he’s very focused on his health, very focused on new ways of training. I think he really integrated well with not only our players on our team, but also our staff and some of what our sports performance ideas from a staff can bring him, and I think he was invigorated by it. Look, there’s always risk, there’s always risk of an injury that you can’t control, but how he takes care of his body off the ice is very impressive and it gives us comfort in offering a longer-term contract.
AP: You looking forward to going to Vancouver for the draft? Can you give us four players, I mean you’re drafting at No. 7, can you give us four players that intrigued you? We talked to a couple really impressive young men, one of them ranked later on in the draft. Who was the other one we had? Cole Caufield. What are you looking at going into the draft at seven?
JB: We’re looking for the best player, Andrew. Best player. Andrew, I’m not going to present my list, because I think it’s a very unique year. Obviously you have your top two players at the top of the draft, and then I think what’s exciting about going into Vancouver: One, the draft is always a great time, just because you have the entire hockey world in one spot. For a communication standpoint with agents, with other GMs, and just being on the ice surface there at the rink, it’s exciting. It’s a fun atmosphere, and you’re bringing talented players into your organization. But what the other thing is, is you look at the draft this year, whether you want to go three to 10, three to 12, there’s some very talented players in that group, and I think teams have the same players sort of in there, but it’s going to be a different mix from that aspect. I can’t predict on hey, there’s going to be a lot of trades because teams want to move up to get their guy maybe a spot or two ahead, or there’s a group of players that they’re going to feel comfortable that they come down to them anyways.
AP: You’re not picking first or second, you went to the World Championship, you got to see (Jack) Hughes and Kaapo Kakko firsthand. I’m not going to say who would you pick at No. 1, but what did you think of those two guys and how did you feel about the chance that we may seem some movement or some surprises at No. 1 and 2 this year?
JB: I don’t think you’re going to see any surprises at one or two. Look, those are two talented players. Very different players, but both are going to step in and help their organizations immensely right off the bat.
CR: Will both play in the National Hockey League next year?
JB: I certainly think so. My anticipation is after three you’re probably not going to have as many playing in the National Hockey League.
CR: After three, so you feel that three players out of this draft will…
JB: No, I believe one and two will play in the National Hockey League for sure next year. Beyond that, I don’t think there will be a lot, but that being said, I was impressed last year, there were some players: (Jesperi) Kotkaniemi and stuff too, that stepped in right away and had a great season, that maybe our projection I wasn’t thinking they were going to be in the National Hockey League. You go through the combine last week and you just realize, it’s astonishing how prepared these guys are and how physically built a lot of them are now through their programs. Whether they’re skating at such a young age, working with trainers, strength trainers at such a young age. These guys are more mature and more prepared to step into the National Hockey League at a young age.
AP: Are you watching the Raptors?
JB: Watching the Raptors, without a doubt. It’s great for Canada basketball and just the atmosphere up in Toronto right now at those games. Insane.