March 5, 2020
Schopp and Bulldog (5:30 p.m.)
Mike Schopp: How did you grow up, Jason? Did you grow up [in a] modest neighborhood? How did you grow up?
Jason Botterill: Blue collar family in Winnipeg. Both my parents — my mom was an elementary school teacher, my dad was a university professor. Grew up pretty much my entire life in Winnipeg. I was born in Edmonton, but spent most of my childhood in Winnipeg.
MS: And there’s a Ralph Krueger connection through your dad?
JB: Yeah, my dad, before he became a university professor, taught at St. John’s Ravenscourt. It was a private school in Winnipeg, and Ralph was a student there. My dad, I think, taught Ralph fifth grade math.
MS: Alright. My son is in fifth grade.
Chris Parker: While we’re on family stuff, I saw your sister is going to be involved in an all-female hockey telecast coming up on NBC. Is it this weekend?
JB: Yeah, so my sister was obviously, she was at four Olympics for Team Canada, had a great experience there. And I give her a lot of credit, she’s worked really hard at her public speaking [and] presentation. I also give a lot of credit to some of the corporations in Canada — Royal Bank of Canada, Rona — they’ve continued a sponsorship with her over the years, it’s been great. Last couple of years, she’s been working part-time with the Islanders. She does live in Toronto, has a young family, but has done some games with the Islanders and is now going to get more of an opportunity from a national scale. Very exciting for her.
MS: So Jason, last time we talked before the road trip, even maybe before the deadline, it would’ve been before the deadline. You talked about getting after it there with the standings and maybe feeling, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but feeling like you had a shot (at the playoffs). Maybe that’s different now, I don’t know. What are we looking at here with 16 games left?
JB: Well I think it certainly, let’s just be honest, it’s a disappointing road trip. We played well at times, but we did not get the results. I think going into the trade deadline, we’d won five out of six, I think our group was excited about the acquisitions of both Dominik [Kahun] and Wayne [Simmonds], bringing into our group there. I thought we came out with a lot of energy against Colorado, played a very good game there. Disappointing that we couldn’t find a way to get a goal at the end of that and at least push it to overtime. I think you go through the rest of the games throughout the road trip, there was positive moments, but at the end of the situation, we’re not capitalizing, we’re not getting the results that we want. Nothing’s changed from our perspective; it’s a situation where we have to continue to look at the small picture. Ralph has talked about that throughout the entire year. We still have to continue to find ways in each game to improve as a group, and that starts with trying to find a way to win a game here against Pittsburgh, who had a strong game on Tuesday. We’ve played well against them throughout the year, but to beat a team three times one year is going to be a challenge and we’ll try to do it tonight.
MS: What was deadline day like for you? And while I’d expect you to say that there’s always stuff, balls in the air that might have had some chance of happening, was it especially like that? Or was it maybe not? How many ideas were thrown around that might have been really close to happening?
JB: I think there was a lot more discussion this year just because of where our team was at. We had a couple, I guess what you would want to call, bigger things that we talked about for quite a while with different teams. Didn’t materialize. We’ve been on the show before, we’ve talked about trying to add to our forward group and some of these discussions have been about players that we’ve been trying to add for a while here. The time was finally right for the other teams, so we were able to get things accomplished from that standpoint. I think we had also talked about the potential of moving some of our players in other deals. We didn’t want to trade off some of our players of bigger magnitude. Some other players maybe we could’ve gotten mid-round draft choices for guys, but we also felt where we’re at as an organization right now, it’s important to keep this group together and continue to work on here.
MS: You were six points out at the time and now, is it 12? I think it’s 12. Is there disappointment, organizationally, that that happened? And is there even any regret that you didn’t do different things on deadline day or can you live with that?
JB: No, I don’t think there was regret just because of where we were at too. We look at, it’s not just how we played that last week against Pittsburgh and Winnipeg; you look at it as much as there was a lot of ups and downs in the month of February, I think from January 1 to the trade deadline we were ninth in the league in regulation wins. We felt that we were making progress there. We were excited about the potential of getting Linus [Ullmark] back into the mix here and where it could go. I think, certainly, we’re disappointed. I think you see that with our players, with their comments and with Ralph, there’s a disappointment that we haven’t been able to get more results in the last four games. Now it’s our challenge to respond. I think that’s one of the things that Ralph has done a very good job with this group, is when things have looked disappointing, when things have been very frustrating, whether it’s at the end of November, whether it’s after the loss on New Year’s Eve, whether it’s the way we started after the All-Star break, we’ve been able to respond. Now it’s going to be against difficult teams here in the next week or two. It’s important for us to respond.
CP: How much awareness is there with how March went last year? You guys won two games last March. I think it’d be understandable if the players sort of lost the plot a little bit. Are you talking with Ralph about that? Trying to make sure that players stay on point here, on message?
JB: I think Ralph’s tried to talk about that no matter what the situation is. But, yeah it’s certainly something we’ve talked as an organization and it’s part of the reason why we brought in a player like Wayne Simmonds. He’s been through a March, he’s been through — knows what it has to have success. No matter how that equates to wins this year for us, it’s imperative that our players understand what it takes to win games, especially on the road. Things like that come naturally for Wayne. His experience in those situations is something we wanted to bring into the mix. You also look at a lot of our numbers — I think a big area where we’ve improved compared to last year, the year before, is just puck possession. Depends on what metric you look at, but just holding to the puck in the offensive zone, we’re usually in the top five in the National Hockey League. Possession throughout the entire game, we’re usually in the top 10, but we’re not creating enough chances. We’re not getting to the net enough. We’re carrying enough in the high-danger areas. That’s where a player like Wayne, it’s natural for him to go there. We thought he could complement our group here very well.
MS: Are you talking about actual possession, like minutes and seconds? Or are you talking about shot attempts?
JB: Actual possession with the puck.
MS: Okay, so like a time.
MS: I don’t know that stat very well. What’s a good game? How many minutes is a good game?
JB: Well, I think more importantly is what we look at a lot is where our rank is throughout the National Hockey League from that standpoint.
MS: So what’s average? 30? You talk about offensive zone?
JB: Yes. Obviously that’s the biggest area. What we’ve tried to work on a lot is making sure we control the puck more. I think that’s one of the things that has helped up from a defensive standpoint, holding onto pucks more. You look at a player like Jack Eichel or Rasmus Dahlin, they certainly do it. It’s part of the reason we brought in a Marcus Johansson, just his smoothness with exits and entries into the offensive zone. What I think has improved a lot, compared to say two years ago where it was more of a chip-and-chase game, we’re holding onto the puck, but we’re not creating enough opportunities off of that. And that’s where you look at it from a situation where our expected goals, our opportunities around the net, we have to do a better job of getting there.
MS: What’s a good number, do you know? What’s a good number for minutes, because I’ve never looked at that. What I want to see, what I’ll look at is expected goals or the corsi and it used to be fenwick and those kind of numbers, the Sabres do not excel in those numbers 5-on-5 or close situations unless your using a certain method that I don’t know.
JB: Expected goals, especially, you’re going to have different people with different philosophies on what exactly goes into that number. We certainly feel we’ve improved a lot from an even strength — playing defense from that standpoint. Obviously what’s hurt us a lot on this past road trip too was just our special teams and our PK. It’s something that we have to drastically improve. But we feel we’ve improved from a defensive standpoint. We’re still trying to continue to find create more opportunities and more offense at even strength, especially.
MS: I thought — I’m sorry, one more small point if I could. I thought in the Winnipeg game there was some disagreement, like the analytics, the stats had expected goals under two and Ralph Krueger was talking about all these scoring chances. Scoring chances has always been sort of a subjective statistic.
JB: It’s a subjective statistic and also too expected goals is going to be subjective depending on different people’s models. So that’s what you also have to consider from that standpoint.
MS: I guess, yeah. That’s right.
MS: You know it’s sort of been frustrating for me as someone interested in all of that over the years that whether it’s the Sabres, or could be any team, wouldn’t just use an established, objective — not a league statistic per say — but just somebody who’s producing that.
JB: It’s also an evaluation of a player. There’s always going to be opinions a lot, and to make “Hey, this expected goals model is better than anyone else’s,” you’re never going to have everyone believing in the same model.
MS: Right, yeah. Objectivity would be key though to getting anything right. Sort of a cold — I would think if you had numbers that are proprietary and someone else, even the NHL, had different numbers, you’d want to know why, right? You’d want to know what’s the difference.
JB: Without a doubt.
MS: Okay, enough stats.
CP: So, the way forward here. What’s coming? I know the offseason, there’s going to be a lot of salary room, although signing some of your own guys will probably swallow up a good chunk of that. Maybe depending on what you plan to do with Dahlin; this is the first summer you can think of extending him. But as far as where are players coming from that are going to help you get more scoring chances?
JB: We’ve tried to have flexibility each year. No matter what happens, we’re trying to make sure that we’re not impacted on where the salary cap is going to go, that we have that flexibility of salaries coming off our roster. This year, we certainly have set it up where we have the opportunity to re-sign our own players if we want, or add players if need be. We’ve worked hard over the last couple of years of improving our defense. We feel comfortable with the defensemen we have here right now and the defensemen we have coming through the system. From a forward standpoint, we have to add more depth. We’re still a work in progress from that standpoint. We’re obviously extremely ecstatic about [Victor] Olofsson taking the jump this year. I think when he came out of the lineup in January, it certainly impacted our team. You look at Jack and Sam continuing to have strong years. And then also, too, I thought took a huge step forward this year just the camaraderie and the impact [Zemgus] Girgensons, [Johan] Larsson, [Kyle] Okposo have added just from a puck possession, wearing down teams, having the opportunity to play against other teams’ top lines at time, freeing up more of an opportunity for Jack to play against other lines. [What] we have to do, we have to continue to obviously find more scoring options. We’re excited about where Casey Mittelstadt’s at right now. We obviously want to get Tage Thompson healthy. Dylan Cozens is going to be a player that we’ll certainly give an opportunity to add to our lineup here next year. Ans it’s players that we think that can help out our penalty kill in the future, whether it’s a Rasmus Asplund or an [Arttu] Ruotsalainen who was in training camp with us this year. Those are the type of players we’re going to continue to look to add to our mix there. Then we’ll see what happens out from a trade standpoint or from a free agent standpoint.
MS: It feels to me like maybe free agency has always kind of been a trap, but it feels more like that to me now. Teams I think are doing a better job of protecting, signing their good players. If a player who’s accomplished something notable in the league is available in free agency, I almost feel like there’s a “buyer beware” tag there. How do you view that market?
JB: I think your intuition is certainly true and I think it’s a situation where you do have to be careful about that come July 1. I also think, let’s be honest, it’s part of — we talked about what Wayne Simmonds can add to our group here right now, it’s also a situation whether he fits in with our mix here. I think Buffalo’s always had a better opportunity to re-sign their own players. Once they get here, once they feel if there’s a mix here, once they get to be a part of the city, there’s always that better opportunity, so that was part of the reason we also brought in Wayne right now.
MS: You’re saying, maybe you’ve already said it, you’re saying about Simmonds I think, we thought this when you got him: I think you want him to sort of show either all your players, or the core players, a certain something, whether it’s — it’s not going to be the playoffs probably — but these games coming up or the games already, can you sort of speak to that a little bit? What’s an example, maybe, or a couple examples of the kind of things that you value in him that maybe you think your team needs?
JB: Well I think just you saw it right off the bat in the Colorado game: the physicality that he brings and in the forecheck. I also think, and as we’ve talked about before, he is a player that likes to play in front of the net, it comes natural for him, it’s not something that you have to remind him, he’s going to get there.
MS: How about in the locker room?
JB: In the locker room, he’s a personality, and that’s what we’ve talked to him a lot about is it’s always difficult coming into an environment right off the bat where you may not know a lot of players. But I think you’ve seen it even on the ice; he played World Championships with Jeff Skinner and you see some chemistry with the two of them already out there.
MS: At the deadline, I’m now remembering, I think a couple times you talked about him as a strong personality, or vocal, that kind of thing. When you assess the leadership you have here, if you looked at it and said, “There’s not enough vocal, there’s not enough strong personality,” then this logically would be a thing you would do. Is that pretty fair?
JB: I think a lot of our — Kyle Okposo’s been in our league a lot and he’s taken on a big role from our leadership perspective. Marcus Johansson’s come into our group, especially with the European players, been almost a godfather from that standpoint. Jack continues to grow as a captain. But over a course of 82 games, you can’t have the same voices all the time. You have to have more people supporting that, and that’s what we look at from someone [like] Wayne. To our group, what we’ve talked about before here on the show, bringing players in who have had success in the playoffs. Players who understand the grind of 82 games and what it takes to get to the playoffs. That certainly comes natural for Wayne and it’s natural for Wayne to talk to players about that.
MS: Do you think guys — Eichel is five years (in the NHL) and Reinhart is too — do you think it’s easier when you miss the playoffs for as long as those guys have and other guys on the team, [Rasmus] Ristolainen would certainly be this, is it easier to give up? Is it easier to think your team, or you can’t do something when you haven’t done it?
JB: No, I think it drives you actually more. You’re more pissed off. You’re more frustrated by that. But I also think from our guys, they’re open to it. They’re looking for communication from Wayne and what does it take? And I think you’ve seen it with our group. It’s not looking back on, say, how we played in October or December; you look back at how we played a week ago, a week-and-a-half ago, it was there, but we have to do that on a more continuous basis. I think that’s just what the preparation — I think our team has done a great job off the ice in what they have to go about to be prepared for the game. But as we go through a game, facing adversity, we have to be stronger from that standpoint. We’ve shown an ability after the games to come back the next game. Within a game, we have to find more opportunity to be stronger and to battle through and at least get a point and see where it goes from a win standpoint.
MS: Jason, thanks for coming over as always. Good luck tonight.
JB: Thank you very much guys. You guys have a good night.