February 4, 2020
Schopp & Bulldog (5:30 p.m.)
Mike Schopp: Jason, nice to see you again.
Jason Botterill: Thank you for having me on.
MS: I would say in the last couple of weeks — maybe it’s home games, the losses last week, maybe it’s the Bills ending — the knives are out on the Sabres a little bit. The fans are like — I feel like it’s louder than it was before, maybe it’s just later on in the season. I wonder to what extent you maybe agree with that or have noticed that and how are you feeling? How do you think this is all going?
JB: Well I think it’s a situation where you have your All-Star break, you have time off, it’s a reflection on where the season’s at. Let’s be totally honest, we had two games last week against Ottawa and Montreal that we had to win, we should win. And from day one of the season, Ralph [Krueger] and myself have talked about having a home-ice presence. I think you look at our home-ice record, we’ve done a fairly good job with that, but in crucial situations, when you have an opportunity to have a team come in that’s below you in the standings, you have to capitalize on it. So, yeah, I can understand our fans’ frustration standpoint. Our organization’s frustrated by that. My dialogue with Terry and Kim is frustrated from that and as an organization, for us to take the step forward, we got to make sure that we capitalize on games like that.
MS: We had a caller on Wednesday, Bulldog should talk about it, I wasn’t there. Jeremy [White] lost his mom and we were at the wake and the funeral; we took turns going. This caller was just really hot about ownership and the thing went nation-wide. A part of it that I want to ask you about is the ownership piece, and you just referenced the Pegulas. I think some fans wonder just where they’re at in all this. You know, especially the way it started and big talk before you were here about plans for the organization, no doubt a lot of money has been spent, but there aren’t results yet. What can you tell fans about Terry and Kim Pegula’s feelings about this and what they want to see get done?
JB: Well, to put it bluntly, my conversations with Terry and Kim, they’re frustrated with the results. They want better results. Our dialogue — we’re in constant dialogue — the dialogue goes to, “What are the solutions? What are we doing to get better?” But from a management standpoint, it’s one of the reasons I came to this organization was the resources are given to us to have success, whether you want to, from a Rochester standpoint, to opportunity for developing our scouting staff, to development staff, Rochester, they give us the resources. If you’re frustrated with the results, hey, challenge management. But what our ownership has given us, they give us the tools to have success.
Chris Parker: Do you feel some urgency because of that? For right now, like to do something maybe, I don’t want to say out of character necessarily, but just something impactful and dramatic?
JB: There’s always urgency to do something. From day one on the job, you want urgency to get the job done and to move the organization forward. You look at our team, you look at portions of our season, we’ve played very well. But over the course of the bulk of it, the majority of the season, we haven’t gotten the results we wanted. You can talk about the development of our star players, how they’re having career years, but the entire group — we haven’t done it well enough. So, yeah, I’ve talked to you about this before, we’re always looking to improve the team. Am I going to do something drastic because it’s imperative we do something right now? We’re always looking to do something, but I’m not going to harm what this organization needs. It’s about developing and making it long-term important, but also have short-term success for our group. My job as general manager, I have to take a longer-term picture, but my dialogue right now, my focus right now is to work with Ralph on, hey, what do we have to do to get this roster performing better? What do we have to do to some of our players who haven’t hit their norms for NHL goals or points? What do we have to do from that chemistry structure to get this going in the right direction?
MS: How much of a better season than this did you expect? The cap being where it is, you’ve got contracts here that maybe you’ve wanted to get out of in one way or another. It’s mostly the same team as last year, you’ve added a few guys, but it’s mostly, like very few guys have been taken off the roster. So logically, one might expect kind of the same points total, right? The same place in the standings. That’s kind of where you’re headed. Are you surprised that this team isn’t better?
JB: I think you’re looking for development in your young players. You’re looking for everyone to take that step. I think this team has shown in October, and the difference from this team I say compared to last year, last year after our 10-game win streak, we never really got playing again and found our game, as Ralph would like to say. I thought this year — whether it was the start of December, played Nashville, St. Louis, Edmonton, Islanders, even you look right before the break, having wins against Vegas, Dallas, having a good effort in Nashville — I felt we were making progress from those areas there. So, yeah, I think it’s a situation where you feel there’s more to be given from this group and there’s more situations where we kept some players, younger players are developing from that standpoint. We did bring in players; a guy like Brandon Montour’s here for the entire season, a young player like Henri Jokiharju comes into the group. I think Linus Ullmark has taken a big step as our goalie. We brought in Marcus Johansson. So we brought some players in that we felt could help us move forward.
CP: Do you feel like there could be another layer of management here? I know you’ve got a staff below you, I don’t need to read the depth chart, but assistants and scouts and amateur scouts and pro scouts and all that. Between you and the Pegulas, an experienced hockey person. Is that something that you would welcome, like another tier of management? Another set of eyes? Another experienced person to sort of help steer this?
JB: Well that’s why I brought Randy Sexton onto my staff. He’s a former general manager in the league. That’s why I brought in Steve Greeley to be sort of our player personnel guy. I wanted to make sure that I surrounded myself with people that brought in different ideas. I brought in Randy because he was with me in Pittsburgh and sort of knew that model. Steve had success winning a Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings, had been around the Eichel family, Boston University, seen how things worked in New York too. So to me, there’s always different ways to develop a team and I wanted to have sort of a diverse group that came in from there. I love the fact that my interaction is directly with Terry and Kim. I respect that and certainly think that’s a strength of our organization. And I think the fact that we’ve built people around there, I have strong ideas — strong people providing ideas to me. What I like about our group is they’re not afraid to challenge me on different things. I don’t have a bunch of “yes guys” around me. I feel comfortable with the management group we have and we understand that we have to continue to be better.
MS: I know we’ve talked about this along the way here many times. When you have a team that’s on the outside of the playoffs, especially with it kind of being your mantra and even your reputation for the most part, coming here and this word development. I don’t know how that’s going, really. I know [Casey] Mittelstadt was sent down and you’ve lost [Tage] Thompson; who else is down there that’s maybe somebody you would expect to have be on this team next year? Or if you end up selling, I mean you’ve got several forwards that might make room, you’ve got very few under contract here. Do you have reinforcements?
JB: We’ve utilized two of my three high draft picks on forwards to come into our system. We feel that Sam Reinhart continues to develop as a player, Jack Eichel continues to develop as a player. You’ve seen Victor Olofsson make the jump this year. But look, we’re focused on right now as we have a group of players that are proven NHL scorers who aren’t up to their NHL norms right now for goals. Whether it’s chemistry, lines, that’s what we’re trying to work on right now to get more out of them because we think there’s another level that they can get to.
MS: How is Mittelstadt doing?
JB: Mittelstadt, saw him down on Friday down in Rochester, I think he’s done a great job down there. He’s gone down with the right attitude of being engaged, working very closely with Chris Taylor. You see him in power play, penalty killing, in all situations out there. He’s starting to produce more from an offensive standpoint. You look at, not just his offensive numbers, but what he’s creating from a chances standpoint. It’s top of the league from that situation. Very similar to what Tage Thompson was doing at the start of the year. We’ve been very happy with Casey’s maturity in the situation. I think they’ve won five in a row here in Rochester and he’s certainly a big part of that.
CP: Is the plan, if there is a hard plan, and I realize these things can always change, the trade deadline, injuries, his performance, but would you be inclined to just sort of let him cook down there for the rest of the year and enjoy a playoff run and then take a new run at the NHL next fall? Or could he be a call-up candidate?
JB: Well I think it’s always a situation we’re looking at, but I think you touched on the playoff experience. Playoff experience needs to happen for a lot of players in our organization, and I think that’s extremely key. That’s a big step in anyone’s development — getting that experience, whether it’s at the National Hockey League level, American Hockey League, just playing in those type of games.
CP: Has Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen played down there yet?
JB: Yep, he played last Friday against Syracuse. Won that game, stopped a penalty shot in the first period. Obviously disappointed with Ullmark going down up here, but it is an opportunity for Jonas [Johansson] to come up here and it’s an opportunity for [Luukkonen] to gain more starts in Rochester.
CP: Would you think he could get a look at some point here? Or do you think…
JB: The next step in his development, look, everything was taken a step back because of the offseason surgery. We understood that, but you’ve got to look at the long term for a talented young kid like that. He’s done his job at the ECHL level. I think it’s great that now he’s taken the role of working with [Andrew] Hammond in Rochester and the next step is for him to get games in there and then take over that role and stuff to be a go-to goalie at the American Hockey League level.
MS: Jason, what do you know at this point or think coming up here in the next three weeks that the trade deadline will look like? There seem to be interesting factors, like whether Seattle is a factor in it or teams, well you’ve got 22 thousand something in cap space, like nothing really, no room to do anything. If you wanted to be a seller here in the next few weeks, how do you think you could do? How much action do you think?
JB: The first thing that we’re doing is we have 10 games before the break; we want to see what materializes in these 10 games. As a manager, you’re having conversations with teams, some are from both sides, to be prepared for both scenarios. We’re very optimistic on we have, I believe, seven of the next eight games at home. Didn’t start off the way we wanted it. I thought getting a win on Saturday against Columbus was key. Now tonight will certainly be a challenge but we have an opportunity for our home games here to get some results, and that’s what we’re going to be looking for.
MS: Can you offer any kind of numbers on that? Like you’re 10 or 11 out, the Leafs and the Hurricanes aren’t even in and they’re in the way, Montreal. What would get you to that point where you think you would actually go for it?
JB: We’ll continue to see how it plays out. I’ll have to continue my dialogue with the Pegulas on what’s right for this franchise moving forward here. But it’s going to be challenging, we understand that, but that’s also why you’ve heard Ralph talk a lot about keeping the picture small. And it’s not like our players don’t realize the challenge of the bigger picture, but trying to keep it small and trying to get the small results, that’s the only way we have to go to make progress here.
MS: What do you think Seattle might mean to the deadline? Will there be more moves? Different kinds of moves?
JB: I think you’ll see more moves maybe this summer in preparation for that. I think right now it’s still too far out from that bit. You have so many teams that are still in the race from that standpoint. I think people are more looking at “what can we do to have success this year” versus looking at Seattle down the road.
CP: Do you think there’s the potential for, I guess, “hockey trades” is how I think you people in the business refer to it, at the deadline as opposed to just sell-offs?
JB: I think so. There’s certainly going to be a couple of high-end players, I think, that are going to be in the rental market that will be the big — that will gain a high price. You’ve just seen it over the years, people continuing to see the value in first-round picks and understand, even the top-end teams understand that they have to have those young players coming through their system if they’re going to sustain this at all. I think you’ve heard a lot of general managers talk about they’re looking for, “We’ll move a defenseman for a forward or we’ll move a forward for a D-man” for specific things, but less about the rental market but more about helping out the team out right now what their team needs but the player that can help them in the future too.
MS: I have a theory, if I may, and I don’t know if this is something you hear or even subscribe to, maybe. But I’m into the numbers and I’ve brought this up with Bulldog earlier and even maybe last year too. I think with the league as competitive as it is, teams from the back of the playoff pack winning the Cup and all of that, with the money that it costs, I don’t see buying as really mathematically very smart most of the time. How many wins above replacement, how many wins are you gaining by trading a first-round pick for a player? I think in the analytics world here, I don’t know to what extent hockey’s really there, but I feel like in baseball they would just never do this. They would never trade for these guys if it were the way hockey is, to the first point, how competitive it is and everything. Do you think that makes sense? Do you hear that? Do you agree with it?
JB: Well I think certainly, yeah. You look at the models that’s going now with how salaries are being structured, these teams that have success or are at the top, they’re paying their young players, their star players an even [larger] percentage of the cap. So how do you keep that sort of model going? It’s imperative that you have some younger players contributing and coming up through your system. The only way you’re getting young players is through the draft and as much as it’s difficult to pinpoint drafts on 18-year-old kids, that’s where you’re bringing the talent within your organization.
MS: Some of these Cup teams — the Kings, I think, maybe the Blues and the Capitals too — they would’ve had a prized, or a relatively prized, young player maybe at the AHL level that, “Okay, well we’re good and we want to win and Washington and St. Louis had never won so do we trade X?”
CP: I feel like [Jakub] Vrana would’ve been that player for Washington the year they won the Cup. He was just sort of coming and they could’ve traded him in for something more proven and probably done great but they hung on to him and he ended up producing.
JB: And if you are going to utilize first-round picks in trades, that’s imperative your second- and third-round players continue to contribute to your group. You look at different organizations: Tampa Bay, Washington, Pittsburgh, they’ve had some success in the second and third round for players coming in there, so that at least gives them more flexibility to maybe move a first-round pick. Boston’s another example that’s done a great job in strengthening their organization through second- and third-round picks.
MS: Who is the best second- or third-round pick you’ve got anywhere in this organization right now?
JB: In this organization?
MS: Yeah, like who’s got the highest upside?
JB: Well it’s a challenging position, but [Luukkonen]. Just his track record, from winning last year, from what he did coming over to North America in the OHL. He has the tools; it’s just that position, I understand people don’t want to hear it, but it’s patience with that position.
MS: No doubt. It’s also like the Wheel of Fortune with that position year-to-year. You have basically [Henrik] Lundqvist, who’s always good, and everybody else is, you know, just crazy.
CP: I’m all about patience with goalies. Don’t worry, I know the drill.
JB: We’re seeing it first hand just with our goalie right now, Jonas Johansson. Here’s a goalie that’s 24 years old now getting an opportunity and has worked his way up from the ECHL to Rochester to this year in the American Hockey League. It’s taken time for him, but he’s put the time in with both Seamus Kotyk, our goalie development coach, and now Mike Bales. It’s great to see him being rewarded here now.
MS: I think even Ullmark, I would say, has been up and down. You guys, like Ralph Krueger and a little bit you have talked about how really good he’s been. I don’t know, some of those numbers a month ago weren’t quite saying that, but he’s playing every game too.
CP: He was going really well then he got hurt.
JB: Linus has made a huge step in his development. You look at our numbers, especially even-strength save percentage, he’s done a great job for us. That’s certainly one of the disappointments, especially least week before we went to the All-Star break, I thought he did a great job there. I think that’s a huge step for a goalie, no matter what age, to go from more of that backup to that challenge of being the guy day in and day out. His mental strength has certainly been impressive this year.