Jason Botterill Interview – Schopp & Bulldog (10/11/19)

October 11, 2019

Jason Botterill
Schopp & Bulldog (3 p.m.)

https://wgr550.radio.com/media/audio-channel/10-11-sabres-general-manager-jason-botterill-bulldog-and-paul-hamilton (18:48)

Chris Parker: Congrats on the start. I don’t know, is that a weird thing to say after only four games?

Jason Botterill: Look, we’re certainly happy with how training camp all went. We’re excited about the start of the season. I think what’s good about our team right now is we’re finding ways to win hockey games, but there’s certainly a lot of points that our coaching staff can go over with our players on what we have to improve on. You take a step back, especially last Saturday, just the atmosphere in the building, having all our captains back; it was good. It was a fun experience, I think. Hopefully our fans really enjoyed it. I know our players did. Something small like Jack [Eichel] being out there with all those other captains, it was a great experience to sort of reflect on things. So it was a good way to start the season off, and now it’s imperative that we continue to build off of it.

Paul Hamilton: Jason, how about your new guys? A guy like [Henri] Jokiharju — here’s a 20-year-old in Pittsburgh the first night, he’s killing penalties, he’s out in pressure situations right away. I mean, there’s no hesitation. I talked to Colin Miller yesterday, he’s talking about how he’s helping Rasmus Dahlin, almost like a tutor for him. Just any questions that he has and he’s helping him and he enjoys that role. He likes to do things. He goes, ‘I really haven’t had a chance to do that in other places I’ve been,’ and is relishing it. So when you’re trading for those guys or signing a guy like [Marcus] Johansson, who also is a guy that guys have talked about in the room, is that part of it when you’re looking to trade for guys? Especially in these three cases that you know exactly not only what you’re getting on the ice but what these guys are going to contribute to the team off the ice?

JB: Without a doubt. We obviously know we have some very talented players in our organization that don’t have playoff experience. So the fact that we can go out, we’re looking to add players to our skill level to help out how we want to play the game. But to bring in a player like Marcus Johansson who was in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals last year, I think he’s been in the playoffs eight of his nine years in the National Hockey League. That’s experience that’s going to help our team out a lot. Colin Miller, you know, two years ago playing in the Stanley Cup Finals in Vegas. We know, as much as we like our start, we’re going to face adversity over 82 games. We have to do a better job as an organization when adversity hits we play with a little more calmness and find a way to get through those difficult stretches. So that’s why we are bringing these veteran players in that can help out our group here. With a player like Henri Jokiharju, what we really liked about seeing him last year, 19 years old last year and he wins a World Junior gold medal and a World Championship gold medal. Although he’s very young, at 20 this year, he’s already played a half season in the National Hockey League. He played in pressure situations and handled it very well, I think you saw that in Pittsburgh. But what I really liked was his game on Wednesday against Montreal. Things got a little hectic there, 4-4, he’s still skating extremely well, he’s still making those breakout passes and just allowed us to get out of our zone. It’s great to see our players playing their game in tight situations like that.

PH: It’s funny your coach said today when we asked about him, he goes ‘I’ll be honest with you,’ he goes, ‘Until you actually brought up his age, I don’t think of him as a 20-year-old. I don’t go into the game thinking, well he’s 20 years old I wonder if I… I expect whether you’re 20 or 35 if you’re on the team we’re going to put you in situations, and we expect you to be able to handle the situation.’ He might be the first coach I think has ever said that because a lot of coaches won’t play 20-year-olds, they’ll sit them on the bench. He’s like, ‘Honestly, until you asked the question, I don’t even sit there and think that he’s a 20-year-old.’

JB: And that’s what we like with a lot of our younger players. Henri’s included in that, Rasmus Dahlin. These guys are very mature for their age. And even a player like Casey Mittelstadt, the development path has been a little steeper the last couple of years, just because you’re coming from Minnesota high school all the way to the National Hockey League. But he has a much better grasp of what he needs to do to have success on the ice. And you just see the way, how he conducted himself last summer in the weight room working on his body that we eventually think is going to transfer over onto the ice. I like that our players have been serious about making sure they’re in good shape and ready to take on those opportunities. And I’ve been very happy with our coaching staff that they’ve had the open mind to put those young players… if they’re ready for it they’re going to be in those situations.

CP: Ralph Krueger’s name came up before you hired your first coach, Phil Housley, and that sounded like a really intriguing, very interesting idea to, I don’t know, some of us, me included. Like I thought, ‘Okay, out of the box. I think this is pretty exciting.’ And of course it didn’t happen. Last year, word before you hired him was that it might be more of an executive role if he returns to the NHL. And here he ends up, he’s behind your bench. I’m sure you’ve told the story already, but it’s our first chance to sit with you since you hired him. How did that kind of come together? Because on one hand it might look like you convinced him to take the job, and that’s not always a great idea. So tell us a little bit of the background of how Ralph came to end up being your coach.

JB: So there are some storylines in there. I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Ralph grew up in Manitoba. My father actually taught Ralph in grade 5 at a private school in Winnipeg there, but I never really spent that much time with Ralph, hadn’t interacted with him. When I got the position here in Buffalo, Jim Rutherford suggested I talk to Ralph. Jim Rutherford, while he was Carolina, had worked with Ralph; he was on their scouting staff. When Ralph was the head coach with Team Switzerland he also did some part-time scouting with the Carolina Hurricanes. And just felt that he could be a good mix with myself and what we’re trying to accomplish here in Buffalo. Obviously at the time, Ralph was still was working on this project with Southampton, couldn’t come over, so we moved on from there. We certainly stayed in touch [throughout] the process and then after we made the decision last April (to replace Housley), I did reach out to Ralph. We had a conversation in New York that there wasn’t any selling job on. You could tell that he enjoyed being an executive at Southampton and enjoyed that experience, but at the end of the day — Ralph has a very creative resume the last few years — but at the end of the day, he’s a kid from Manitoba who loves the game of hockey. And I think when we started talking, how we see the game, how we want this team to play, how we want to interact with our players was really similar from that standpoint. I think that’s what our players really resonate with right now. There’s a simplicity to Ralph, there’s an ability for him to talk to them, but also I think our players realize how excited he is about being in Buffalo and being a head coach and being on the front line right now instead of being in the board room dealing with owners, dealing with agents, something like that. Helping players become the best they can on the front line. I think that passion that he sees, our players feed off of that and it’s been a very good experience so far.

CP: Do you think if he hadn’t come to the conclusion that he wanted to get back behind the bench you would’ve found a role for him as an executive somewhere in the organization?

JB: I couldn’t even tell you that for sure. Look, all of our conversations had always been around coaching and that’s where I felt his passion that that’s what he wanted to do. He was excited about that. I think in the back of his head, you’d have to ask him straight up, but at the end of the day his first go-round in the National Hockey League didn’t go as planned. I think what I’ve always really enjoyed with Ralph is people go through a lot of experiences. Sometimes they don’t always pull information or learn from that. Ralph, whatever experience he’s been through, whether it’s coaching a Premier League team, coaching Olympics, coaching in the World Championships, coaching in the NHL, he learns from it and I think he does a great job of passing that information along to other people in the organization and — more importantly — his players.

PH: How challenging this year is salary cap management going to be for you? I know you’ve been able to use some dollars with long-term injured reserve. I don’t know for sure but I would imagine [Zach] Bogosian would get back some time or another. How challenging is that going to be for you this year to be able to manage the salary cap that maybe you haven’t had those problems in past years.

JB: No, and we certainly understood that when we made the decision to sign Marcus Johansson that we’d be close to the salary cap. But we also felt that his addition was necessary for our team to take a step this year. I think the thing that we’ve tried to set up is we certainly want to have the ability each summer to add to our team and be able to keep our young players that are coming through our system, but we also want to have that flexibility. That’s part of the reason why we have a lot of contracts that are coming off the books each year. We understand, you look around the league, it will be an issue for us, or at least it’ll be part of the discussions throughout the year. You look at so many of the top teams, you look at so many teams throughout the league, they’re all going to be right at the very top. I do think it’s going to come into play a lot from a trade perspective. It’s going to have to be dollars in, dollars out. There’s not a lot of teams that are going to just be able to take on extra salary unless they run into a significant long-term injury.

PH: Will it affect to a point where you have to wait until a certain time of day where you call somebody up or isn’t it that critical?

JB: It isn’t that critical right now for us, but you always want to keep your options open. It’s why we made some adjustments before the season started in Pittsburgh that people may not always understand but it just gives us the flexibility moving forward there. You just never know what can happen in the future. We always want to have that balance to me making the smart decision from a salary cap perspective but we want to make sure it doesn’t hurt our product on the ice and make sure that our team is always covered from that perspective.

CP: Paul mentions Bogosian there. Before the season started Ralph Krueger said something to the effect that there were setbacks since he had the procedure he had. Is there a timeline on him at this point or is it just out there?

JB: It’s just out there for right now. Coming off of hip surgery, you’re always going to run into — it’s a difficult rehab. It’s a serious injury and it’s a serious surgery. Obviously it’s been documented the injuries that Zach’s had. We’re very focused on making sure when he does come back he’s one hundred percent, not only for our team this year but also for his career long term.

CP: He’s another defenseman, [Brandon] Montour is much shorter term, right? It’s a few weeks now that he’ll be back. I’m wondering eventually, I guess the salary cap question Paul asked sort of builds into this too, but you’ve got a lot of bodies back there.

JB: Well it’s always a concern and then you run into the injuries we have already and that’s what we talked a lot [about] during the summer that we ran into a lot of injuries before even game one of the regular season this year. You have to be ready for that. And that was one of the things we say down as a group a lot during the summer, talked about adding to this group. We didn’t handle things as well as we wanted to in the second half. We didn’t need a whole revamp, but we wanted to add to it. That’s why we brought in a Jimmy Vesey and Marcus Johansson. That’s why we added more depth in Henri Jokiharju and Colin Miller. And it always seems to see like you look at I think we have nine games in our first 17 days; our players are going to get banged up. Especially in this season, I think our players are really looking forward to going over to Sweden and I think it’s going to be a great experience for us to go over there. And the NHL does a very good job in sort of helping us with the schedule before or after that. But it really condenses our other games in the rest of the time. It’s going to be imperative that we have the depth at every position. It’s part of the reason why tonight we have [Linus] Ullmark in net, and it’s not going to be like, ‘who’s our No. 1 goalie?’ We’ll have to utilize both of them throughout the year.

CP: Rasmus Dahlin, he’s got seven points through four games. I don’t expect to end up with 140 on the season, I mean that’d be great, but you know.

JB: We’ll take that if he wants to do that.

CP: How much though more can you expect from the guy? It dawned on me talking the other day maybe with Rob Ray during one of these shows, I don’t know. The draft year is unlike any other year. You play your season, especially when you’re the anointed No. 1 pick, there’s just stuff, right? And it never really ends and then the season’s here and oh by the way it’s an 82-game season, welcome to the pros kid. I think, you know, after an offseason of being able to just be 19 and train and work, I wonder if you see a difference in him already just from having had a normal offseason as opposed to all the stuff that went with being the No. 1 pick.

JB: You certainly see it. And that’s what you love — all of our coaches love — working with Ras is just because he knows what he has to work on. He wants to put the time in. I think just from the physical standpoint his lower-body strength, he looks bigger and stronger out there. And I’m a big believer in the World Championships. If you’re not in the playoffs I think you should get used to playing hockey in the springtime. I thought it was a great experience for someone like Sam Reinhart to go over there and Jack to go over there this past year. But I also think it was great that Rasmus Dahlin didn’t go this past year. You look at that lead up to the draft, there is so much going on especially for someone like that in Sweden coming over to North America, going back and forth quite a bit. The excitement of the draft and then you come in for development camp and everything and you have the rookie tournament. I think Rasmus will say, people can talk to you about the grind of the National Hockey League over 82 games, but until you actually go through it, it’s difficult to comprehend. Rasmus was just like our entire team, we have to be better from that All-Star break on. What I like about him is he’s certainly learned from it, he understands a bit more. He always going to have the hockey sense and the brain, and I just think that adding that extra strength is going to help him a lot more down low in the offensive zone and handling positioning. He such a great brain, too. It’s one that added strength, but now he also knows some of the moves of the other players. So he’s building sort of a resume, a book, ‘how do I defend them?’ against some of the top players out there. He’s going to make mistakes. He’s a young kid, it’s part of growing as a young defenseman. His ability to learn from those mistakes is very impressive. That communication with both Steve Smith and Ralph Krueger, it’s why he’s a very talented player and we’re very fortunate to have him in our organization.

PH: Fans want Casey Mittelstadt today to be where he’s supposed to be as a player. You know development of young players. I use [Colorado’s] Nate MacKinnon as a perfect example of a guy who played four years before he ever touched 90 points. He was around 50 or so. [Sean] Couturier in Philadelphia is another example. Could Casey fall into that, too, where maybe it’s going to take him three or four years to reach the potential he is and just because he doesn’t do it this year doesn’t mean, ‘Well, it’s all said and done. Let’s move on.’

JB: Players are always going to adapt and develop at different timeframes here. And especially a player coming out of Minnesota high school and making that leap. It took time for Jack Eichel, too, but Jack was a physical specimen stepping into the National Hockey League at age 18 and 19. Casey had to work on his physical body and stuff and I think he certainly did that over the summer. It’s always the expectations too. Casey comes in at the end of the season, produced some points there after his freshman year at Minnesota and it’s difficult. It’s sometimes not the truth, not the reality of it. And how difficult the season once you get to the start of the regular season and going through all 82 games how difficult of a grind it really is. What we’ve liked a lot from Casey’s game is even when things didn’t go as well as he wanted, maybe in training camp, he continued to work on his game. I thought he got better throughout the entire training camp. I thought he played very well making those small-type plays in the game in Pittsburgh. Look, I thought it was going to be a great mix there with Conor Sheary right off the bat. It’s disappointing that Conor’s out right now because I think he can be a player that helps Casey along and just have some good matchups along the way there. But we see the hockey sense. I think you see that with Ralph, continuing to put Casey out there in power-play situations. I think we have, you know, there’s a lot of focus obviously on our first power play right now and the success of Victor Olofsson. But the fact that we have two really good units here right now that can be utilized out there helps things out a lot. Just that little power-play experience I think will hopefully help Casey through this development process.

CP: I think we’re good. I always want to ask you first visit of the year, this could go on forever. We have a whole season.

JB: We’ve got the whole season, I’ll come back.

CP: I would be negligent if I didn’t ask about the big goalie. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. What’s his situation?

JB: Again, we’re getting close. Again, hip surgery, we talked about it, the severity of the situation for a player like Zach Bogosian, well especially for a goaltender too. The great thing for UPL is he’s been here all summer for the last few months here working with our guys, and he’s been great. Again, we hope to have a time frame in the near future here, but we don’t have an exact [one] right now, but we’re hoping here to move along, but everything’s been going very well with his rehab.

CP: Was it the same procedure that Ullmark had a couple of years ago? I don’t think you were here when Ullmark had it done, but do you know?

JB: I couldn’t tell you exactly with the exact extent from Ullmark’s injury, but look, that’s the beauty of what UPL did last year. You win a gold medal at the World Juniors, you’re one of the best goalies in the Ontario Hockey League and he was doing that with his injury throughout the entire time too. You talk about a player really taking a step for his development. He’s been interacting with us a lot, making that step going from Finland to Sudbury last year. We’ve really enjoyed working with him. We’ll certainly be patient; with young goaltenders, you have to. His mental toughness that he’s showing is something that works out about his potential.

CP: When he gets healthy will he go to Rochester?

JB: That’s a situation where he’ll go to Rochester and we’ll decide whether he starts in Rochester or Cincinnati.

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