October 28, 2019
Schopp & Bulldog (5:30 p.m.)
Mike Schopp: Welcome to (716). Aa relatively rare Monday night home game for the Sabres who were off Saturday [and] Sunday but winners on Friday night in Detroit. Tonight at KeyBank Center, they’ll host Arizona and general manager Jason Botterill joins us now from (716). Hi Jason.
Jason Botterill: Hi.
MS: You and Bulldog have been meeting on the side. You and I have not seen each other in many months.
JB: I’m not going to say how smoothly went last time.
MS: I can only assume it went great.
MS: Well, you know, just to get to it: It’s funny that the Bills and the Sabres both this year have presented us with a lot of, ‘are they actually this good’ conversations. I think you can sort of appreciate that, you know, the record is really good. And so as a GM, maybe you can take the Bills side of this if you want, but just for the Sabres especially of course, how do you figure out that answer? You see your team is winning, what are you doing to be able to sort of look within and evaluate that?
JB: I think you’re looking at different things that you think that are going to have success. Can it be repetitive over time? How many scoring chances are you creating, not only just what the goals are, but how many scoring chances are you creating? How are you defending in your own zone? How are you moving the puck up in a transition standpoint? Looking at our individual players, we have still so many young players; do you see their game improving in certain areas? So what we’ve talked a lot about is finding a way to win — having success out there — but also looking at, from a short-term perspective, improving each day. We understand over 82 games, you’re going to face adversity and what we’ve liked so far is whenever we’ve had a loss we’ve responded in the proper manner.
Chris Parker: Have you looked at — alot of fans are, I think, reluctant to really get all the way on board because of last year’s 10-game winning streak. I don’t think, while it was happening, you said you were concerned about it, but I think afterwards you admitted that there were signs there. It was a lot of overtime and shootout, maybe lucky, wins along the way. How about these 12 games?
JB: Well I think still whenever we can have — I think our goaltending has been exceptional during this run. What I really liked is when we’ve come off a loss our goaltending, you know, Carter Hutton in L.A, Linus Ullmark in Detroit, they were outstanding. I think, as I mentioned before, I think our shot share when the games are tight has been exceptional. I think the fact that we are getting to the net more, we’re creating more from there, but also we’re not giving up nearly as much in our own zone. I think a lot of that has to do with just, you look at the way we are moving the puck. Our transition game is a lot better than last year. We’re getting pucks out of our zone, we’re getting pucks into the neutral zone and obviously into the offensive zone to create a little bit more opportunity out there. So we like where we’re at, but I think what I’ve really appreciated from the team’s aspect is there’s been an excitement about our wins, but also understanding that we have to keep going. It’s where our players have learned, they’ve learned from experience last year, and I think that’s what intrigued me about Ralph [Krueger] as a coach. I talked to you last time that every project he’s been on he’s learned something and pulled something from it, and I think our players have done the same thing from last year and the previous years. They’ve learned from experience there. As much you can talk about the NHL to Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt, until they go through the entire season, it’s difficult for them to truly understand how you have to take care of your body, how you have to prepare for things for the second half. They’ve done that and I think it’s going to be something that they learn from and hopefully have the results as we go through here.
MS: At the risk of asking a dated question, your personal connection with Krueger: it goes back to Winnipeg and school?
JB: No, that’s overinflated a little bit. There is a connection. My father was, I believe, Ralph’s fifth-grade math teacher at a private school, St John’s Ravenscourt in Winnipeg. But I had never met him, sort of interacted with him and then the connection really came from Jim Rutherford, who I worked for in Pittsburgh. And when I got the opportunity here in Buffalo, Jim had a relationship with Ralph; when Ralph was the Swiss National Team coach, he also was a part-time scout, consultant scout for Carolina. So they developed a relationship there and Jim just felt that knowing myself, what I was trying to accomplish here in Buffalo, knowing Ralph as a person that we should at least have a dialogue. We did have a dialogue. Obviously at that time he had his commitments to Southampton, but stayed in touch and as we discussed the situation last spring and felt it was definitely a fit.
MS: I know I like listening to him. And I don’t always like listening to coaches because I feel like it might not even be being honest with me or they’re obviously usually being very careful. Do you hear him and think he is being those things but also divulging information that really is a win-win? The press probably likes him, because you’re getting something, but hopefully from your side of it, he’s not giving away too much.
JB: Well, my main focus, my main concern is our players, and I know that he’s impacting our players here right now. And that’s the main thing and the most important thing from my perspective. I think he does a great job in utilizing his staff, knowing when to give responsibility to the assistant coaches. I also think he’s done a great job in understanding what type of setting they should be in. Should it be a group setting? Should it be a group of five? Should it be three? Should it be a one-on-one situation? I think he’s done a really good job of having a feel for what the team needs. Ralph is a very positive individual. He comes off very positive, but what I’ve really enjoyed is that he is very direct and very honest with our players — and myself. And when there has to be a hard conversation, he’s not afraid to have that hard conversation. I think that’s very important when you go through an 82-game season, it can’t always be positive.
CP: Right, I’m kind of curious it’s, you know, 9-2-1. Wonderful. You wouldn’t give any of it back. But it’ll be interesting to see how that goes when adversity does come. A couple of losses in a row, whenever, that inevitably will happen.
JB: And I think instead of waiting for like, the question, ‘Is it going to come?’ It will come. 82 games, it’s certainly going to come. You just look at our schedule, we’re excited about going over to Sweden and the opportunity about playing over there, but even the three games we have this week leading up to it, we’re playing very strong teams. So it’s going to be difficult, but it’s, ‘How are we going to respond to that situation?’ And that’s what we tried to do with the roster is add more depth to our group. So our players had it and, you know, especially when we come back from Sweden, the amount of games that we have in a condensed time, It’s going to be a challenge to our group here.
MS: I’m really excited about Jokiharju. A trade gets made, especially when we’re not in touch like it’s in the summer as this one was, and I go right to the stats. The stats on him were really nice. And, you know, you’re talking about young players, he had a little bit of experience, but I was excited about that. The thing I just kept wondering is there going to be room for him? I’ve been glad to see so far you’ve had room for him and made room for him. And I don’t know — are you, will you say, would you say that he’s met or even exceeded your expectations or hopes?
JB: Yeah, I would say that he’s exceeded our expectations at the start of the season. As a young player, as a 20-year-old, you just don’t know how he’s going to react to being traded, for one, and coming to a new environment and how long it’s going to take him to make that step to become a real part of the team. What I’ve loved about him is just, he’s had a great attitude every day in practice. He’s moved his feet in the games, he’s always taking away space. Even when he has the puck it’s never at a standstill, he’s always moving up there. I think he’s done a great job in our transition game moving the puck up to our forwards. He’s shown when he’s been on the PK, when he’s been around the front of the net, he’s shown a lot more, sort of, one-on-one grit battle than I anticipated from him. We look at him last year, you look at as a 19-year-old, played some games in the National Hockey League, won a gold medal at the World Juniors, won a gold medal at the World Championship; very impressive young man at such a young age. Those experiences, those pressure situations that he played in, I think is what we tried to bring into our organization. Players who had that winning dynamic that winning experience. And, you know, he’s done a great job so far.
CP: How about Rasmus Dahlin? It feels to me like watching the games, the neutral zone has been kind of treacherous for him. There was the big giveaway in New York on Thursday night. I’m wondering how you view him and how he’s being handled and what you can do to, sort of, I don’t know if he’s tense at all about the mistakes he’s making, how you can kind of ease that.
JB: Well I think just like there maybe the expectations weren’t as high for Joikiharju, they’re always sky-high for Rasmus Dahlin based off of last year. Then it comes into this year and I think he’s done a great job of managing our — QBing our power play. It’s, on one hand, a fun spot to play, but there’s also a high-pressure situation there and he’s done a great job distributing the pucks from that position. I think with Rasmus you’re always wanting a little bit more on the defensive zone and he’s, his expectations are extremely high, too. And what I like about our staff is, it begins with Ralph and Steve Smith, there’s engagement with him when he’s making mistakes but what we’re trying to make sure is just like our team, we don’t want to lose two games in a row, we’re trying to make sure that Rasmus doesn’t have the same mistakes over and over again. The great thing with Rasmus is he understands when it does happen, you do forget that he’s 19 years old and expectations for a young defenseman in the league from that and he’s playing heavy minutes for us. But, again, you look at having Jokiharju, having Dahlin, adding [Colin] Miller, it’s just I think improved our capability of getting out of our own zone, which has allowed us to spend more time in the offensive zone.
MS: You also have Lawrence Pilut, who I saw something, he had a good night recently, or maybe he’s had a few?
JB: Yeah on Saturday, obviously he’s back playing now with Rochester, which is great to see. He worked extremely hard in the offseason coming off his shoulder surgery. Rochester had a fun weekend, 7-6 on Saturday in Syracuse. They came back, they were down 6-4 in the third period, came back and Lawrence got the OT winner, which is great to see there.
MS: Alright, were you there for that?
JB: I wasn’t there for that, but we had other people on our staff there and then they obviously jumped on the bus right away, get to Springfield and had to, you know – you’ve got to love the American Hockey League, play five o’clock the next day in Springfield, lost in overtime in that game. We’ve certainly been very happy with what’s going on in Rochester. You look at Lawrence coming back into it, we have some young defensemen in Casey Fitzgerald and Jacob Bryson and [Brandon] Hickey that I think are getting are contributing to our group there and stuff for sure. So, look, we like our group there a lot and then up front we feel Tage [Thompson] has gone down there and created a lot of chances at even strength and certainly worked on his game down there. So we’re excited about their start in Rochester.
MS: Pilut, I mean to me, just, if I may say something here, Pilut to me is an NHL player, and you’ve got the Jokiharju point, you’re getting Montour back soon. Can you do, like, can you do this without making a trade? Is there enough flexibility with your extra spots and Rochester to allow for you to keep everybody? Assuming you don’t have another injury; you might be ready to tell me about how guys could still get hurt.
CP: [Marco] Scandella already got hurt.
MS: Yeah like if you don’t have that are you going to be able to balance that without having to move somebody out?
JB: I think it’s a great problem to have. Our young players are stepping in and creating an opportunity here for it. And like I said before, you’re always going to run into injuries and it was a dilemma throughout the summer, ‘What are we going to do with all these defensemen?’ Then before we even play a National Hockey League game this season, we already have a couple guys go down. So, we understand the importance of depth, and I think over 82 games you have to have this, so that’s why we tried to accomplish that throughout the summer.
CP: How is Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen?
JB: He’s doing very well. He’s been practicing in Rochester and we’re hopeful, whether it’s later on this week or next week, for him to start his pro career. He’ll start in Cincinnati, playing games, just getting things going from that. But he’s worked extremely hard with his rehab, and we’re very excited to finally get him in a pro uniform.