The Instigators (10 a.m.)
Craig Rivet: We saw Top 20 centers, and we’re going to get into salary cap stuff and the team this year, is [Sidney Crosby] one of the best players that we’ve ever seen? I mean I know there’s Gretzkys. I’m not trying to — maybe I am trying to steer you a little bit, but I hated him when I played against him for reasons that I’m sure you understand and heard all the criticisms toward him. But he has developed and turned into just one of the most amazing examples of a young kid coming in with a ton of pressure, handled the pressure, to super-stardom and beyond.
Jason Botterill: Just the professionalism he shows on and off the ice and his work ethic. You just look at the things he’s worked on. His first year he didn’t do a very good job from a faceoff perspective, became one of the best faceoff guys in the entire league. Was more of a passer when he first entered the league, worked on his shot a lot, and now he can score at will if he wants to. That work ethic that he does and off-ice training, nutrition — he’s created an entire culture in Pittsburgh. He brought that on and showed it to Kris Letang, Kris Letang shows it to someone like Jake Guentzel. And it just creates that atmosphere there.
CR: And you know what, it was learned. As much as maybe Sidney Crosby had the leadership qualities in junior, I don’t think when he came in as a young guy he was very well liked from the refs, from the players. He was very whiny. He was surrounded by some really great leaders in Pittsburgh, and he’s grown into one of the greatest leaders in the game. The star-studded talent, he’s the face of the National Hockey League for so many years, and you don’t see him in the limelight. He’s the guy you want all your young guys to emulate.
Andrew Peters: And that’s a question I’ll ask you right off the bat, do you talk to your players about guys like Sid and how they go about becoming the best? Not even that every player has the ability to be the best. This sounds cheesy, but from a guy that probably looks back and reflects on mistakes, I can say be the best version of yourself, I guess. What he does and how he goes about his business; do you talk to your players about this? Or do you try to leave Pittsburgh behind you? The old saying, ‘If we have a guy on our team, cut the cord’ and all that. It’s a great example.
JB: You certainly talk, and there’s so much respect for Sid throughout the entire National Hockey League, especially within our own locker room. So you do try to talk about stories. I think with Sid, everyone focuses in on winning the Stanley Cup in ’09, but he learned so much of the disappointments of ’12 in the Conference Final getting swept by Boston, ’13 having a great team but then getting knocked out in the first round, ’14 losing in the second round after having a 3-1 series lead. He learned from those mistakes and it really drove him to the success in ’16 and ’17. I think it’s what we’re trying to create here. Bringing in players with playoff experience. Marcus Johansson, Colin Miller, Conor Sheary the year before — they learn from veteran elite players. You want them to bring that into the locker room and help the team out in certain situations.
AP: Let’s talk [Marcus] Johansson for a second here … When you signed him, where does he fit for you? Where is he going to be playing? If you can tell us that, it may be unknown. There’s a lot of talk about second-line center. He played really well during the playoffs on the wing.
CR: On the right with with [David] Krejci and [Jake] DeBrusk, but he was a left winger for most of the season, right? Where do you see him this year?
JB: Well that’s part of the reason we wanted to sign him. We just wanted to mess you guys up through the entire summer on what the lineup’s going to be. In all seriousness, it’s one of the reasons why we wanted to bring him in. It’s not only, I think it’s eight of the last nine years he’s been in the playoffs, but then it’s also his versatility. You want to give your coach different options throughout your lineup because we can never predict what’s going to happen from an injury standpoint. The fact that he can play left wing or right wing I think is a great situation and complements our team very well. This team here and our fans think Conor Sheary is just a left winger. If you look at all his time in the minors, he played the right side and stuff too. There’s versatility with a lot of our players, and it goes through the lineup. [Zemgus] Girgensons, [Johan] Larsson can both play center, wing, [Vladimir] Sobotka, center, wing. That’s what we’re trying to create here in a situation, we understand we can have the high-end scorers. Jack [Eichel], Sam [Reinhart], Jeff [Skinner] all proved that last year, but we have to have four lines that can contribute. In the middle of August, I can’t tell you exactly how all the lineups are going to be, but we feel that we have at least given Ralph [Krueger] different opportunities and different options for once the season starts.
AP: I caught a quote somewhere, and you can tell me if you said it or not. It was about Sam driving his own line and not being just know as Jack’s wing man. Is that an option? Jack, much like I feel like Sid or these other top centermen, should be able to play with anybody — that duo if he’s with Jeff [Skinner] or whoever. Is that kind of in the thought process of if Sam can drive his own line, who do we put on that right wing? And who would be the perfect fit? Does cost efficiency in terms of player performance come into those decisions?
JB: I think you talked about earlier about Sidney Crosby, I think that was one of his big developments as a player. There used to be a lot of discussions on who’s going to be on Sid’s wing. Now it seems like whoever goes up there, Sid pulls the best out of them. You’ve seen that with the development with Jake Guentzel, not to take anything away from Jake Guentzel in Pittsburgh. This year they made the trades for a player like [Jared] McCann, he goes up there and has success too. I truly Jack has that same ability. He’s that talented, he likes holding onto the puck, he can create opportunities for anyone that plays up there with him … but that’s where with some of our young players, whether it’s [Victor] Olofsson, C.J. Smith, Tage Thompson, if they can play further up in the lineup there, I just think it gives us more depth. I saw it with Sam Reinhart. I think there’s been a great progression in his development over the last year or so. Off the ice, taking more responsibility in our locker room. I worked with him at World Championships this spring, I thought a couple of his best games was the semifinal game and then the gold-medal game. He played with [Sean] Couturier on our second line for Team Canada. I don’t know how he didn’t score in the gold-medal game, but the fact that he played one of his best games in a gold-medal situation is great for his development and shows in pressure situations, he can handle it. Hey, if he plays with Jack, we know they’re going to create a lot. Whether he’s playing with Evan Rodrigues or Casey Mittelstadt, I think Sam’s really taken the leadership role and wants to be a go-to guy on that line.
CR: You talk about messing us up with bringing in Johansson, trying to figure out where we’re going to put him on our lineups. I read CapFriendly and it’s zero in the availability in terms of money. Can you make some sense of that for us? Because you’re know for the cap, you were a capologist in Pittsburgh. You guys won under this formulation and all that. What does this all spell?
JB: Well look, these websites do an amazing job of keeping everything up to date, but the bottom line is they’re picking our roster for us right now in August and we don’t have to do anything until the start of October. The bottom line is we don’t have to make a trade. We have some players who are injured on our back end. Zach Bogosian’s coming off of hip surgery, Lawrence Pilut had shoulder surgery, Matt Hunwick had a lot of injuries last year. So there’s going to be opportunities there to use the potential for long-term injury. We’ll have to wait and see how things go at the start of training camp for updates there. Also, too, if you put a player in the minors, it’s a situation where we can get close to $1.1 million in cap relief there.
CR: Much like the [Matt] Moulson situation from a few years ago.
JB: Yes, so what we like about it is look we want to add more competition to our group here. We wanted to make sure if our young players performed well in training camp, there would be an opportunity to make our opening-day lineup. We wanted to have more depth where we have four lines contributing to our team. And we knew when we made the free agent signing of Marcus Johansson that we were going to be close to the cap, but we felt it made our team that much stronger. We like the situation we’re in right now. We don’t have to make a trade to become cap compliant. We’ve gone over a zillion different scenarios; we don’t have to make a trade to be cap compliant. As much as the last couple of weeks have been difficult weeks going through the salary arbitration process, what’s great about it is we have all of the contracts done now. There’s no holdouts. We can focus in on how we’re going to get things going, and we’ll continue to have discussions with other teams on, “Hey is there a trade that makes sense for us?” But we don’t have to worry about, “Hey is this guy going to show up at camp?” We can get things going day one of camp.
AP: Your salary cap situation, to me, spells one thing, and that’s a challenge to a lot of players. There are a lot of guys who, I don’t want to say bubble players, but guys [whose] earning ability could go up, their earning potential, their roster positions could disappear. There’s a lot of different guys, like a Jimmy Vesey, could re-sign. There’s a lot of different scenarios. Is that something that you go over with guys in these situations? “This is a make it or break it year for you,” or “This is a year where we don’t know what’s going to happen”?
CR: Is this what you wanted? You look at the 2019-20 season, you have everyone signed, but the next season you have 10 unrestricted free agents, you have five guys that are on a restricted free agent deals, guys are going to be playing for earning potential. Was this a design for you?
JB: 100 percent. It’s a situation of giving opportunities for young players to come into our lineup, but also having the cap flexibility moving forward so you don’t get into a situation where you have to trade one of your players that you want on your team. Trying to predict where the salary cap is going to go in the future is very difficult. Let me know if you know how to predict the Canadian dollar. And now with the NHLPA not taking the five percent inflator all the time, trying to limit escrow a little bit, it’s not nearly going up as much. We utilized that to our benefit in picking up a player like Colin Miller. We want to continue to have that flexibility. I think we’ve shown, when a player performs, we want to sign them up long term, whether it was Jack Eichel a couple of years ago, with Jeff Skinner this year. But we still want to have that flexibility moving forward for our lineup and our roster.
AP: We talk about lineups and complimentary players. Jimmy Vesey, you both were on a conference call after you made the deal for him. He identified himself as a goal scorer, I think you believe he can be a goal scorer. Is he a guy, again you can’t predict where he plays in the lineup, but is he a guy that maybe in Ralph Krueger’s head or your head you’re thinking he and Jack have some pretty good chemistry, if Sam drives his own line, maybe there’s a spot for him on that top line. Because, as you mentioned, you could get 25 goals out of a guy making $2.275 [million].
JB: Yeah, and that’s where I like him. I think the past couple of years he’s 16 or 17 even-strength goals each year. Those are good numbers. I think if you add a little bit more to the power play, we feel there’s a little bit of an opportunity to bump that 16 or 17 up to into the low 20s. So yeah, there might be an opportunity to play with Jack, but I also think whether it’s Evan Rodrigues, whether it’s Casey Mittelstadt, whether it’s one of our other centermen, he’s going to be an offensive player. We’re trying to create four lines that can score, that can help out with our team. It’s not only that Jimmy can score, but I think where he does score. He scores in front of the net. We have to get more traffic in front of the net. We need to do a better job from a defensive standpoint of limiting opportunities in our [defensive] zone in front of the net, but we have to get to the net more often. That was an element that we’re lacking. I think Sam Reinhart’s done a great job of getting to the net and scoring there. I think Jimmy is a guy that complements our group very well.
CR: Like I said to you the other day, I saw him at the Harborcenter, he was walking through the Tim Hortons. The one thing that you do notice with the Sabres’ lineup is it’s a little on the smaller side. Jimmy Vesey’s a big kid. He’s got to be upwards of 6’3″ and over 200 pounds. He has that size, that frame. And like you said, he scores even-strength goals and they’re in front of the net. There’s no secret to where you’re going to score goals in this league. You either have to get in front of the goaltender, because the goaltenders are too good, they’re going to save everything that they see. So you have to get traffic, you have to get bodies in front, you have to make it difficult on these guys, and Jimmy Vesey, he’s going to be a guy that’s going to live in front of the net, a lot like Sam Reinhart, guys like that.
JB: Well in the summer he trains with Jack with Mike Boyle in Boston there. So it’s a situation where there’s that comfort right there, there’s a relationship there that just makes the transition to Buffalo that much easier. And you talk about where you score goals — that was a problem in the second half. You talk about where you score goals in the playoffs, it’s those dirty areas. In the second half, our team certainly saw how the intensity increases in the National Hockey League after the All-Star break, and we weren’t able to get to that level. And that’s where trying to bring in players that can complement our group better and we think Jimmy scores goals in those difficult areas in key moments.
AP: And I’ll just say this too, I really appreciated how he handled the questions about not signing here before. I beat him down pretty good on the radio, I knew that. I think in a small market like Buffalo when you have hopes for a player coming here, you almost get offended, and I think that that was the small-market mindset coming out from the standpoint you might’ve felt snubbed. His explanation of it I thought was really good. Was that something you guys talked about? Did you talk to him before you moved for him?
JB: No, we didn’t talk to him obviously him being part of the New York Rangers. We didn’t talk to him, we didn’t know from that standpoint, but we wanted to take a chance on that. Look, it’s what we love about Buffalo. People are proud of Buffalo. We’ve talked a lot about it. The way we turn things around here is bringing in people who want to be in Buffalo. Jeff Skinner waiving his no trade to come here, Marcus Johansson wants to sign here as a free agent. I think that’s what people are going to be excited about with Jimmy Vesey. He’s been in town a few times to check things out, he’s excited about the opportunity here. When you’re coming out of school as a 22-year-old, and you have the opportunity to go to 30 different teams, it’s a difficult choice. Now he’s been in the league for a little bit, understands the opportunity that he has here. Just as we talk about the excitement of what he can bring, Jimmy’s excited. We think we’re going to get a very motivated player. He’s going to be an unrestricted free agent. He wants to have that big pay day, he wants to establish himself in the National Hockey League as not a 16- or 17-goal scorer, but a 20- to 25-goal scorer. We think we’re going to get a very motivated player who’s excited to be in Buffalo.
AP: How far in advance does a general manager, or a capologist even for that matter when you were in Pittsburgh, look down the road at salary cap numbers? Whether the players come back or not, and there’s some RFAs you have to re-sign, but how far down the road do you look? Obviously [Rasmus] Dahlin, obviously certain guys. Are you calculating in your mind, are you down to 2025-26 or are you just staying right now in next year?
CR: Can I ask one question before you answer that? Because I think this goes along really well with your question. In 2020-21, you talk about the lockout. And I hate to say that word, but that’s the reality of the game. Is that one of the reasons you have so many UFAs and RFAs is you don’t know if there’s going to be a season that year?
JB: I’m optimistic that we will have one, but that has nothing to do with it. That doesn’t come into our equation or our belief at all. Why we did it the way we did it is more having that flexibility from year to year. The way we look at it, Andrew to answer your question, we’re certainly looking at the next year, the one year. You have three-year projections and five-year projections. But within that, we know if a trade comes along, if a player like Marcus Johansson becomes available, you have to have the ability to adjust. And that’s what we’re just trying to have, we’re always trying to have that flexibility. We know Rasmus Dahlin eventually is going to have a very large contract, but we also have to be prepared if one of our other players steps up in the next couple of years, whether that’s [Henri] Jokiharju, or a Will Borgen continues to develop, or one of our forwards comes on. We want to at least be able to not be locked in to so many contracts that we can’t keep that young player that we want to have on our roster. This is something I’ve learned over the course of my career. When I first came in, I came in in 2007 in Pittsburgh, and all we talked about was five-year projections, then that trade deadline we traded for Marian Hossa and everything changed and then it was all about win now. I’ll always have an eye on the future to make sure you can keep your young players within your organization, the players that you want to grow with. But you always have to have that flexibility. That’s such a key asset; if there’s an opportunity to jump on and improve your team, you want to be able to do it.
AP: Did you ever play with [Jeremy Roenick]?
JB: I never played with JR. My father, who’s a sports psychologist, worked with him in Chicago… I grew up in Winnipeg, I was thinking of going the college route, I ended up going out to prep schools in New England, and the Roenick family, Jeremy Roenick, gave us five schools to look at out there in Boston. So I’ve always been tied in with him from that standpoint. My dad certainly probably has some stories. You talk about a guy that brought energy, that brought passion to the game, JR always did that for sure.
CR: You would’ve been drafted if you had gone to the WHL, right?
JB: Yeah, I was drafted by the Brandon Wheat Kings.
CR: So you were drafted?
CR: Was it one of those “I’m going to go to college” type things?
JB: Yeah, I always told them I was going to go to college. And then it was unique how it works. I played World Juniors as a 17-year-old, 18-year-old, 19-year-old. It was interesting, they always put me with the Brandon Wheat Kings. So it was Marty Murray my first two years, then Wade Redden just trying to maybe push me along to the junior route. I had a ton of respect because at the time, Kelly McCrimmon, who’s now the general manager in Vegas, ran the team in Brandon and did a great job with it. They were vying for Memorial Cups. But I loved my four years at the University of Michigan.
CR: So you were drafted first round into the NHL. Where were you drafted?
JB: I was at Michigan playing, so I was a freshman at Michigan. So I had just finished my freshman year there.
AP: I watched you play against Ferris State that year, Botts.
JB: The Ferris State Bulldogs, got to love it.
AP: You had a decent game, I think.
AP: We talked about long-term salary cap, so couple names on the team. You traded for [Brandon] Montour and Sam Reinhart, RFAs at the end of the year. I don’t know if you’ll tell us if you’ve talked to them, when you’ll start talking to them. Is there a timetable you have in maybe getting an extension done? Or is that wait until the end of the year type thing?
JB: Well I think it’s going to be late, certainly, we’ll see how the season plays out from that standpoint. If you look around the league, the league is still frozen from all these group-two free agents who haven’t signed, and that’s where we feel, as I talked to you earlier, going through the salary arbitration process, at least we have everyone signed up. And I think agents are still trying to figure out how this group-two market’s going to be. Before talking to them about extensions for players a year out, let’s see how things progress here for the rest of the summer here first.
AP: Have you ever seen this many big-name RFAs in one summer? I mean, this many future stars? From [Sebastian] Aho to [Patrik] Laine that we forget about. To [Mitch] Marner, [Matthew] Tkachuk, [Kyle] Connor. It’s ridiculous.
JB: You just see the young players coming into the league and how well-prepared they are and becoming impact players right off the bat. I think the unique thing we’re seeing this summer is we have a new thing here coming with the wingers and these wingers who are driving lines and are top scorers. Whether it’s Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, [Connor] McDavid, you sort of had a bit of a market for centers coming out of the entry-level contracts, but now all these wingers. How is that all coming into the equation? The fact that they’re not all eight-year deals, there’s some shorter-term deals, balancing that. It’s certainly a unique situation. But to have this many talented players, I think it’s great for our league, but it’s going to be interesting to see how it all plays out here.
CR: Does that make you nervous with this group right now? It seems like this group in particular, this year, it’s almost like they seem to be market setters and everybody’s waiting to see the trickle-down effect, which guy’s going to sign first, then you obviously compare. You look at Sam Reinhart, he had a really nice season last year with 65 points. Still has room to continue to develop, he’s still a pretty young guy. Does it make you nervous waiting and seeing how the market’s going to play out for these guys?
JB: Not at all Craig, because, with these players that you just rattled off before, Tkachuck, Marner, [Mikko] Rantanen, they’re all really talented players. We wanted to make sure we had the cap flexibility moving forward. But if one of our young players pops and becomes that great player, those are good problems to have. You can talk about different teams in the National Hockey League having salary cap issues and this and that, well it’s probably because they have very good players on their line and in their roster. That’s the point we want to get to here, and having good young players that we’re locking up longer term here.
AP: Yeah, wouldn’t it suck for Casey Mittelstadt to become an eight-million-dollar player, Craig?
AP: It would mean some pretty good numbers.
CR: In a cap world, there’s only so much money to go around. And you see, like you said, the top teams, a lot of these top teams in the league have an overabundance of top-end talent and they’re trying to find ways to sign these guys and they’re having a hard time. Is it beneficial to be looking to sign a player like a Sam Reinhart or a Montour who are on unrestricted free agent deals, to try and sign them earlier and maybe sign them to a little bit less?
JB: It takes both, there’s always that communication going on. Signing less is always a unique term I think and stuff. The way I look at it is, especially with where our organization is at right now, we have to have some results on the ice, we have to have some success before signing a lot of long-term contracts, and that’s what we’re going to be looking at. Another thing I think we have to certainly bring up, we’ve always kept an eye on is, when you give these higher-end players significant money, it’s imperative that you have a lot of young players coming through your organization. It’s why we were very excited to adding a guy like Jokiharju. You look at last week just at the U-20s at Plymouth, having [Mattias] Smauelsson and Ryan Johnson sort of be a pair for the U.S. team and could possibly be a great pair at World Juniors this year. It’s imperative for these teams, for you to sustain long-term success in the National Hockey League, you’re going to pay your top-end guys. Especially when you have a little bit of success, you’re going to pay them even more. You have to have the young players coming through your system, and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish here.
AP: Jack [Eichel has been ranked] 15th in the league [among] centerman. Thoughts on that? Appropriately placed? Do you think he could be higher?
JB: I think you just look at last year. I think you talk to Jack, he loved how he played in the first half when our team was playing extremely well in November, December. I think he was playing at a Hart-candidate level. But now it’s a situation, just like our team, Jack’s got to sustain it over 82 games. That’s what I love about working with Jack, is he’s hungry. He’s hungry to have success from an individual standpoint, but also hungry to have success from a team standpoint. It was great to see him going over to the World Championship in the spring. For myself, I always try to push our players to go over there. We need to get used to playing hockey games in the month of May. For him to go over there, I think was great for him. You learn from other players, you learn from different experiences, you play in games that are meaningful. And I think he’s ready to take the next jump. Everyone talks about NHL experience, and they always talk about the positives. “He had a great playoff run, he learned a lot of experience. He had a hat trick, that’s a great experience.” Well, the second half this past year, a lot of our young players had difficult experiences, and they’ve learned a lot from it. That’s what I liked a lot about in our communication, whether it’s with [Rasmus Ristolainen], whether it’s with Rasmus Dahlin, Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, there’s reflection on what went really well the first part of your season and what needs to change in the second part of the season. That’s what is great to see the development of our own players, and that’s what we’ve tried to bring in players to help this group.
AP: What do you say to them at the end of the year? What do you tell them to help them kind of wipe away the bad experience that had the second half of the year?
JB: I’ll be honest with you, the first message was “Okay, we changed coaches. If we think that’s going to resolve all our issues, we’re in a lot of trouble.” Then it’s more of the individual thing, get away from it for a while, and then we followed up with them on, okay, in certain situations when we were in a two-game losing streak or three-game losing streak, why didn’t we stop it at two or three? What continued to sort of pile on? I think you just saw it as a team throughout the year. When things were going well, we rode the wave. As a young team we had the momentum to keep going. When things weren’t going well, we didn’t have enough things stopping things right now. Whether it was a timely goal, a big save, a big hit, it just didn’t work for us. There’s always talk about leadership, and our veteran players need to be stronger in that development. Just like we’re trying to have four lines that can contribute offensively, we’re trying to have a roster of leaders. A roster of doing your part to help a group out. Leadership’s not always this 15-minute amazing speech, but it’s going out there and making a big play at a key time. It’s supporting a teammate in a key situation. I think sometimes those little things are forgotten, and that’s what we’re trying to make sure they’re part of our everyday situation.
AP: I’d forgotten or just not recognized, but I hear all of that from just my experiences playing.
AP: I wasn’t to talk about some of the young guys, obviously; [Ryan Johnson], Mattias Samuelsson. But you brought back a few guys from last year. What are the expectations and, I guess, conversations when re-signing Girgensons and Larsson for next year, just two guys, specifically. I truly believe, and I’ll tell you, that I think they have a role. I think that if they establish themselves, I thought there were times last year they might have been some of the strongest players they had as a line. Is that a conversation you have with them and say, “We need that type of player and that’s what you’re going to be” or “We can replace you with younger guys in in the future.” How’s that conversation go?
JB: There are certainly conversations and I think that there is just so much focus on what happened the second half of the year. But you take a step back and [look] at the whole year. We had a great improvement in our [penalty kill], they were a big part of that. You look at a player like [Girgensons], he brings an element of being able to get on the forecheck, being able to finish his check, it’s an element that we don’t have a lot of on our team. There’s a role for him to be successful, for sure. With both those players, they’re players that want to have long-term success here, that want to be here, that talked about multi-year contracts. But we just didn’t feel comfortable right now with it. Both sides realize there’s a lot on the line. The team wants to have success. Also from a personal standpoint, both becoming unrestricted free agents next year, they want to continue on and be legitimate NHLers and have success. Again, we think we’re going to get a couple of motivated players to come into our group here and be hungry. They certainly see those roles, I think they relish those roles, but they want to take on more too, and that’s what we need to have. We need to have inter competition here and I think Ralph is going to talk a lot about it; you’re going to see through training camp and even at the start of the season. I know people have mock rosters, but there’s going to be a lot of moving parts in that. That’s the great thing about having a head coach in here, he’s going to come in and prove it. Prove it to me what you can bring.
CR: When you look at the roster, throughout the entire roster, everybody’s signed, everybody’s here. But it seems like you brought back a lot of players from last year on a team that did not have the success that you would’ve wanted, but you believe in a lot of these players. And a lot of these players right now, it seems like they’re put in a situation where they need to go an earn what they’re going to get next. Olofsson’s on a one-year deal. Vesey’s on a one-year deal. Reinhart, Sheary, Mittelstadt, Rodrigues, Girgensons, Larsson, Montour; I mean it goes on and on and on in this roster. It seems like you’ve put players in a position to say if you want and you want to get paid and have success you need to go out and earn it.
AP: Nothing wrong with a little discomfort.
JB: Without a doubt. We’re in an industry right now, you have to have results, you have to take steps and you have to been in that discussion for playoffs. That’s what we have to do as an organization here. Reflecting back on the year, there were positives from our group, but we could not sustain it for 82 games. So what do we do? Let’s try to support to group as much as possible. Marcus Johansson is a player that has playoff experience, enjoys carrying the puck through the neutral zone, can create opportunities there. Boom, he’s another guy that can help drive a line there. Jimmy Vesey is a guy that will go to the front of the net, score goals in an area that we struggle with. That helps our group, complements our group there. I thought, again last year, we did not move the puck out of our own end, so we now have a full year of Brandon Montour, we bring in Colin Miller, we bring in Jokiharju. You look at what their stats bring, it’s about that first pass. Getting out of our zone, get the pucks to our forwards so they can accomplish more things in the offensive zone, versus spending too much time in our [defensive] zone. Those are the things we tried to accomplish this year. I think even at my end-of-year press conference, we talked a lot about bringing more depth to our forward group. We think we’ve done that. We were very excited last year [about] Jack, Sam and Jeff, what they contributed offensively. We know we have high-end scorers with those three guys. Now it’s up to Casey Mittelstadt to take the step, Tage Thompson to take the step, Olofsson, great year last year, to take the step. You’re going to get the opportunity, now capitalize on it. Then bring in some more guys who’ve been in the league a little bit with Vesey and Johansson to help that group and bring a lot of competition there.
AP: So you brought in more competition and a question — Botts I’m sure you and I used to ask ourselves when we were players, Craig maybe not so much, maybe a more solidified role in Montreal and your places but maybe you as a young buck you could understand it — but how many jobs are available? That was the questions always. Earning a job, is that something that’s realistic? I used to always come to camp and be like, ‘Is there a spot available? Look at all these players. How do I earn a spot? How do I go about doing that?’ How many jobs are really available?
JB: Well look, I think you just have to look at our track record. It’s not just words that we’re saying, “Oh, there’s jobs available.” We’ll do whatever it takes if our young guys step up. Whether it was [Matt] Moulson, whether last year it was Scott Wilson down in the minors. We’re willing to put one-way contracts in the minors if younger players are ready to take their jobs. That’s what should excite them coming in here, and it’s what’s the message Ralph has been delivering to all the guys throughout the year.
AP: I’ll say this from experience; could you imagine being sent down on a one-way deal back in the day? How awful that would’ve felt being a veteran player? That’s got to light a little fire under some guys, in my own opinion. The fear of being back in the minors as a big-ticket guy.
CR: One guy that we haven’t talked about, which to me when you brought him in, I was very surprised. And the reason why I say that is this: Right-handed defensemen in the National Hockey League are at a premium. You picked up a player that last year in I think 65 games had 29 points, so was on pace for a high 30, the year before had 10 goals and 41 points and you picked him up for a third-round draft pick from Vegas. How were you able to, I would consider it steal, this player for a third-round draft pick for a guy that’s a multi-point producing defensemen with a big, heavy shot who’s a right-handed shot in Colin Miller?
AP: Love watching him skate too, by the way.
JB: This is a player that I’ve certainly followed very closely. At some moment I was running Wilkes-Barre, he played in Manchester and I believe won a Calder Cup down there with them. That shot, especially on the power play, was such a weapon. He’s a great skater, but also moves the puck extremely well. From our standpoint, again we talked about cap space, it was an asset we had available cap space to help our group. With Colin, what we love about [him], he’s learned from — you talked about earlier about leadership — he’s learned from it in Vegas, being a part of the magical groups the last couple of years there. Previously, being in Boston, learning under [Zdeno] Chara, learning under [David] Krejci or [Patrice] Bergeron, and that’s what we want him to bring into our locker room. He has playoff experience here now. The biggest thing we brought is, you look at Montour, Miller, Jokiharju: That ability to skate and that ability to make that first pass, that’s what we want to try to improve on with our group. You saw it, obviously, with Rasmus Dahlin last year, what he can do with his hockey sense and just that ability, and that’s what we’re trying to get our entire group there. We feel we’ve improved in that element, now it’s important for us to go out there and show that.
CR: Do you like the idea of — we’re talking about some pretty darn good defensemen –when you start to work defense pairings, and that is obviously going to change throughout training camp and guys are going to earn jobs, but Rasmus Ristolainen’s had a lot on his plate the last number of years that he’s been here in Buffalo. One of the big things is he’s, I think, taken on a big role of playing very large minutes for this hockey team, sometimes a little bit unjust and unfair. With the depth that you have on defense as of right now, certainly with Montour and Miller on the right-hand side and [Ristolainen], is this a good thing and have you discussed with [Ristolainen] that, “Hey, Risto, you may not be playing 27 minutes a night, we may drop you down to 22, 23 minutes.” Are these things the dialogue you have with certain players like [Ristolainen]?
JB: [Ristolainen’s] a very proud player; he wants to be on the ice all the time. He wants to be in a situation where he’s in offensive-zone opportunities where he can help create offensive opportunities, but he also wants to play against the other team’s top players. Last year, I think some of his best games were when he was matched up against an [Alex] Ovechkin or a [Nikita] Kucherov. He really excelled in those situations there. But we’ve had those conversations, and we will continue to have [them]. His energy level at the end of the games, when you have him more in the lower 20s, it just gives him that extra little bit versus playing 25, 27 minutes. Yeah, he can certainly do it, but do you have that drive when the game is really on the line? We’ve talked a lot about it — surrounding players like Risto with more talent, with better players. Same thing we talked about with our forward group. We’re looking for Casey Mittelstadt to take a jump this year. He’s gone through, now, a whole year in the National Hockey League, he experienced a lot of different things. We’re asking more from him, but we want to make sure we’re surrounding him with more talented players. Whether it’s Sam Reinhart, Marcus Johansson, Jimmy Vesey, we know we’re going to put good wingers with him and it’ll give him a better opportunity to have success, and that’s the same thing we’re trying to do with [Ristolainen].
AP: Riv asked a question… he asked the question about defense and the depth. A couple of very good young defensemen I’ve been reading about at the World Juniors. [Ryan Johnson and Mattias Samuelsson] were actually paired together, I don’t know how that happens, if they just saw the logos and they’re like, “Let’s throw them together” or if it was just the perfect fit as a top-pair defense core for the World Junior tryouts or whatever that was. Talk about those guys. And Dylan Cozens and his thumb, and how’s that coming along? The young players that you have in the system.
JB: Mattias Samuelsson we know for sure is going to be a leader of that team just being a returning player from last year. We were excited that Ryan Johnson got the invite to Team USA last week, and I thought he had an exceptional week there. Making the jump from the USHL to playing against the top U-20 players in the world, we didn’t know how he could handle it. But what was evident was his hockey sense and his skating ability. I think he really put himself in a position where if he gets off to a good start at the University of Minnesota this year, he has a good chance to make that team at Christmas time, which is outstanding. The other big one from last week for us was Erik Portillo, our goaltender in the third round. We certainly know Erik’s got a longer-term development path as being a big goalie. Didn’t know how he was going to be handling it going from Swedish junior going to playing against the top U-20 players in the world. And he handled himself extremely well, won Sweden’s two games there. That was a great compliment for him and got us very excited.
CR: And where will he be next year?
JB: He’ll be in Dubuque next year in the USHL, and then the plan year afterwards is to go to the University of Michigan.
AP: Trying to rattle the other young goalies in your system too? [Linus] Ullmark one-year deal, look out for this kid. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, look out for this kid. The discomfort just doesn’t stop with you.
JB: Let’s be honest, you can never have too many good goalies in your organization, and that’s what we’re trying to do. It’s something that, hey, they’re all on sort of different development paths too, which gets us excited. There’s going to be competition, but they’re also a couple years behind each other from that standpoint. You did mention Dylan Conzens — it was great, he did go to the tournament last week just to be around Team Canada and interact with those guys. He’s back home up in the Yukon right now, but he’ll be back. He’s spent most of the summer here in Buffalo rehabbing with our group. He’s going to be back here next week. It’s just another thing where I feel our performance staff has done a very good job with our young players. Dylan Cozens, Matej Pekar, who is another forward that we’re very excited about. Just the energy, the dynamic that he brings, the element, the ability to get on the forecheck, the energy that he brings, it’s on and off the ice.
CR: Who’s that?
JB: Matej Pekar
AP: The kid from Barrie. I was watching Barrie last year randomly on TV two years ago. Was last year his first year? So it was early in the season last year and I’m watching this Barrie versus Kingston Frontenacs game, okay, and here’s this kid on the penalty kill, number 11 I think he was. Was he number 11 or 12?
JB: Number 12, I believe.
AP: Number 12, gone, breakaway. Gone, breakaway. And I’m like, “Who is this kid?” Then he comes back, he chops a guy, crosschecks a guy and then runs a guy over. I’m like, “Who is this guy?” Then you read his name and I’m like, “I think that’s the kid the Sabres drafted in the fourth round.” Then he goes and he scores a goal and an assist. He’s impressive.
JB: He’s impressive. And look, he’s got a longer development path too. Last year he played World Juniors for Czech, this year the World Juniors this year at Christmas are back in Czech, so he’ll be a big part of that team. What we just love about him is that this guy, you’re drafting 18-year-old kids, there’s a long development plan for all these guys. His passion level, his energy to want to work with us, be part of it. The energy you see on the ice, he brings it off the ice, whether it’s talking, communicating with other guys.
AP: He was great on our show too.
JB: We brought [Lukas] Rousek, drafted him this year too. Matej’s his interpreter pretty much this year when he came here for development camp. It’s great to see guys taking leadership roles from there.
AP: He’s the kid that ran Rasmus Dahlin and then Rasmus came back in the final day of camp last year and absolutely buried him.
JB: And both of them had smiles on their faces too. Great to see that competition.
CR: Let me ask one more question about a young guy: Jokiharju. So you brought him in, I didn’t know anything about him, had never heard of him before. Just went on all the sites just like everybody else, and the Chicago fans were absolutely fuming. So that’s a good thing, when you had the Chicago fans were upset they let go of this young player. What can you tell us about Jokiharju and his style of play and what you’re looking for him moving forward?
JB: Similar to what we talked to with Montour and Miller, he’s in that same line of defensemen. Can skate extremely well, we really like his hockey sense, that first-pass ability to get out of the zone. We think he can excel and really help our group of forwards. You look at just this past year; 19-year-old kid, talk about winning, he wins a World Junior gold medal at Christmas time playing with [Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen] there, which was great to see, out in Vancouver. Then he goes to World Championships and wins a gold medal with the senior men’s team. Played important roles for them in a World Championship situation there. We’re ecstatic to have him as part of our group here. We think he’s the type of defensemen we want to have with our group here. I understand the disappointment or frustration from Chicago, but I look at it as a trade that we’ve certainly enjoyed working with Alex [Nylander] a lot over our couple years here. I was disappointed my first year here, just the injures that sort of set Alex back. I know everyone’s going to be evaluating to trade after the first preseason game, but I look at it as hopefully after five years, both organizations are very excited because I think Alex has a great opportunity with Chicago, especially on the right side there. We know that Henri’s going to have a great opportunity with us over the next couple years.
AP: I have to ask the question, a fan on Twitter wants to ask, [Jason] Pominville, is there a chance potentially to even come in on a tryout? Is it still kind of open for him? Or is he looking elsewhere? Have you chatted with him at all? Only because we’re huge fans of Pommer. You know we love Pommer. I lived with Pommer. I was actually supposed to live with Pommer the year you and I were going to live together, you made the right choice.
JB: You talk about leadership and respect in the locker room, that’s certainly what Jason brings to the group there. The different milestones that he had last year, it was great to see. He still finds a way to score goals and help a team. We’ve stayed in touch with him. It’s a situation where if you want to bring a veteran player back, you’ve got to make sure there’s that role for him. You just don’t want to bring someone in on a contract, or just bring somebody in on a tryout, and just say, “Oh yeah, just come in.” You want a specific role that they can fit. We’ve discussed it with Jason and he’s looking around the league and also with us for that right fit. From our standpoint, an amazing respect for him we’ll continue our dialogue with him.