The Howard Simon Show (9:30 a.m.)
Jeremy White: You mentioned in your press conference that Ralph Krueger would meet soon in Slovakia, maybe, with Jack [Eichel] and Sam [Reinhart] over at the World Championship.
Jason Botterill: Yeah, it’s just going to be a situation where I head back over on Sunday to continue my duties with Team Canada. Obviously, when we get there, just going to sit down with Ralph for about four or five days, go over different things, get things prepared for the summer here. Also, it’ll be a great opportunity to sit down with both Jack and Sam. It would have been Brandon [Montour] also, being over there, but unfortunately, Brandon sustained an injury and had to come back.
JW: You know those players at this point a little bit better than [Krueger] does. Did you have conversations with them before the hire, you know, maybe exit interviews? You’re mentioning those two are going to meet and talk with the coach. Maybe you know what to expect from them. What have they said to you about the state of the franchise, about what maybe needs to be different, that you might expect them to impart on Ralph?
JB: Well we always go through exit meetings at the end of the year, but most of our exit meetings are discussing their own individual play, and what needs to change from their standpoint moving forward, what they felt was good. Both those players, specifically, I thought had outstanding seasons and they did change things last summer in their training and their thought process and preparation for the season, which I thought was outstanding. When we did go through the process of changing the coach, that was more of a management situation. That was a discussion with Randy Sexton, Steve Greeley and myself. But there’s been a little bit of feedback from our players and they’re certainly excited from what they’ve heard from their fellow colleagues throughout the National Hockey League that played under Ralph in Edmonton. I think, as I said in my press conference, from day one, these players are going to realize the passion that Ralph has right off the bat, the enthusiasm he has for the game and just how focused he is on helping their development and our team’s development.
JW: When you think about the job that’s ahead of Ralph Krueger and you, I think there’s something interesting about the way the season played out. Back in the win streak, I think a lot of people knew you guys weren’t as good as that win streak, and down the stretch, when it was going poorly, I think there were a lot of numbers that indicated that you weren’t as bad as that — the save percentage, the PDO — it was so bad that it almost seemed like you couldn’t catch a break. I know things went poorly down the stretch, but did you have a similar evaluation of how it finished? The results were not good, but it was almost the reverse of the win streak. It ended up looking a lot worse than it was.
JB: I think you’re right. We were on a roller coaster through the year. As an organization, we have to have a lot more consistency to our game. I think when things are going really well, we have to continue to improve on different things. I think we got caught up a little bit in the emotion, the excitement of what was going around it, and not working on some of the holes that we did have in our game. Later on in the year, we needed more players, staff members — everyone in the organization needed to find a better way to stand up and when some of the losing streaks were at two or three games, we have to end it there. And we didn’t do a good enough job from that standpoint. As I’ve said before numerous times, winning in the second half in the National Hockey League, it’s a change, and I think we saw that right off the bat. We came out of the All-Star Break, played a game in Columbus, which was fine, but then we played Dallas in our second game and you could just see the physical nature of it. They really went after some of our good, young players in Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt from a physical standpoint. I think it really taught our guys a lesson that this is how you have to win, and these are going to be the type of games you’re going to play in the second half. I think, as disappointed as our players were at the end of the season, they’ve learned a lot from what they went through the entire year, and now it’s important that we don’t make those same mistakes next year.
JW: The answer to this might be “both.” Is it on those players, individually, to bulk up and become more mature, as they might just naturally, or is it about putting together a roster that maybe can withstand that kind of thing a little bit better?
JB: I think it’s a little bit of both, but it’s also…it’s not about size at all, it’s about compete. It’s about battle. You look at the playoffs in the National Hockey League, there are certainly strong, physical players, but it’s about getting to the front of the net. It’s about winning the battles in the front of the net in your own [defensive] zone. We have players that have enough size; it’s now just understanding how do you go into the corner and win battles. I go back to my own experiences being part of teams in Pittsburgh that played in 2008 and 2009 against the Detroit Red Wings. [Pavel] Datsyuk and [Henrik] Zetterberg would always come out of the corners with pucks. You have to find a way, whether it’s physical strength or using your skill, to win those one-on-one battles, and I think that’s something we have to continue to improve on as a team.
Howard Simon: On that note, what have you identified in terms of areas where you need to improve? You talked about “compete” and “battle.” As you do an overall breakdown of what this roster was, whether it’s offense, whether it’s defense, whether it’s speed, whether it’s toughness, or any of the stuff you can go through on the list; what have you identified as areas where, “I need to make this roster better in these particular areas”?
JB: Well I think you just look at our depth scoring that’s been talked a lot about up front; we just relied too much on Jeff [Skinner], Jack [Eichel] and Sam [Reinhart] for scoring this year. We have to look to bring in more talent from that end, and then we also have to continue to develop our own talent, whether it’s Casey Mittelstadt, whether it’s bringing up [Victor] Olofsson or [Alexander] Nylander. It’s Tage Thompson taking a step in his development. It’s Conor Sheary, who we think there’s more offense that he can provide there. But I think the areas that I mentioned before; in front of the net, we gave up way too many chances in our own defensive end. We have to learn to protect that area better. We have to learn to win our one-on-one battles in there a little bit more. And the same thing in the offensive zone. I thought we didn’t have enough shots right from that “red zone” area right in front of the net. You look at the playoffs, how tight it is, there’s always traffic out there…the goalies are that good. You’re going to have to get players to go there more and have more success there.
HS: Can you convince guys who didn’t do it enough to do it, or do you have to go out and get guys that do that?
JB: I think with young players you can always convince them. I think you see players evolve and learn from their experiences, and understand a little bit what it takes to have success in the league. So yeah, you can certainly teach that trait.
HS: You mentioned Casey Mittelstadt a moment ago. I’d love to get your thoughts; that’s a guy that everybody, I think, we look at and go, “Down the road at some point, hopefully [he’s] a top-two center with Eichel, and ‘boom’ you’re all set on your top two lines.” What did you see from him last season? Do you think he is — I don’t know how to phrase this — can you project him as a number-two [center], or it’s still too early and you’ve got to go find someone else to handle that role?
JB: We continue to have high expectations for Casey. The great thing is that I know Casey does too. And I think sometimes you come in at the end of a year and you have a little bit of success offensively, like you did the year before, you sort of assume that that’s going to happen and carry over, and then you realize how difficult it is to sustain success over 82 games in the National Hockey League. What I did like a lot about Casey was his compete, his battle. He didn’t shy away from those difficult areas. But I did think he wore down as the season progressed. Especially in back-to-back situations; you look in February, March, April…I think he struggled there. Some of his best hockey, I thought, came after breaks, when there was a day off or something. So I think he still can take his conditioning to another level, and I think he’s focused on that this summer. I think his offensive creativity that he can bring will allow him to eventually go into that top-six role.
JW: The latest on Jeff Skinner; without negotiating in the media, how are you feeling, how should Sabres fans feel about it? And just as a natural off-shoot of that, do you and other people in the front office, as you try to chart the offseason and make plans, is there a contingency plan if he does not want to sign? Do you have a Plan A, do you have a Plan B, knowing there are multiple ways this thing could go?
JB: You always have to have different plans. The way this game operates, you have to have plans. We didn’t expect to have some of our defensemen such as Lawrence Pilut or [Zach] Bogosian to go down with injuries. You have to have different plans in place in case those situations arise. A contract is never done until you get it signed. But our discussions with Jeff have been extremely positive. I think it’s been a relationship that’s worked out very well for the Buffalo Sabres and I think it’s a relationship that’s worked out very well for Jeff. Just as we went through the coaching search here, sometimes people get a little impatient, well we wanted to make sure we went through the process correctly. I think what’s going on with Jeff and ourselves right now is there was never going to be an extension announced before the coach was hired. The coach is now hired; we’ll continue our discussions there and get the chance to sit down with Jeff and go over things on how we see him fitting in and how Ralph is going to coach this team and how he’s going to interact with his players and his structure moving forward. And then hopefully we’ll find a way to get a deal done. But from our standpoint, our discussions with both Jeff and Newport Sports have been extremely positive.
HS: I know you said you don’t want to negotiate in the media, but let me ask you this: After he talks to Ralph Krueger and hopefully things go well on that, do you think you could still sign him before free agency or can you tell us at all if they’ve give you an indication, “Hey listen, he still wants to play there, he’s still interested in re-signing, but as long as we’re this close, we would at least like to see what’s going on in the market”?
JB: Look, I can’t mind-read them. All I can say is we’ll sit down with them. I think Ralph getting to know Jeff, and Jeff getting to know Ralph, is going to be an important part of the equation here moving forward.
JW: What about Johan Larsson? There was a conflicting report that he may be leaving. Do you have any update on what’s going on with Johan Larsson?
JB: No, from everything in our discussions with both Johan and his agency, with Newport Sports, there’s nothing to that report last week.
HS: One name who always sparks an interesting debate in Sabres Nation, if you will, is Rasmus Ristolainen. I’m not going to ask you, “Are you going to trade him?” because you wouldn’t answer my question anyway, but give me your evaluation. You’ve had two years to watch him play. Is he a guy that you think, “You know what, guys. He’s a top-two [defenseman]”? Or, “He’s a three-to-four [defenseman]. He’s not a 25-minute guy, he’s a 20-minute guy.” What is your honest evaluation of Rasmus Ristolainen and what you believe his value is to your team at this time?
JB: I think in today’s game, we put too much value on it. You talked a little bit about, “Where do you see Casey moving forward, top-six, top-nine, whatever it is.” I think what we’re trying to create here is a situation where we have four lines that can score. And I think the same thing is, from a defensive standpoint, you’re looking for sort of the top four. Whether they’re top-pairing or second-pairing guys, to me you’re looking for top-four guys that can handle different roles for you and play the bulk of the minutes on the back end. We certainly view [Ristolainen] in that category there. [Ristolainen’s] like anyone else; he has his faults, he has to continue to improve his game, just like so many of our other players. But what we’ve loved seeing him in action is when he’s in that matchup situation. I think about in the end of February, we played back-to-back games against Tampa Bay and Washington. He had the specific role of playing against [Nikita] Kucherov and playing against [Alex] Ovechkin. I think when he has that specific matchup, he does an amazing job with that. You’ve seen in the playoffs how the physical game is escalated. You think of what [Ristolainen] can do over a seven-game series; I think it can be very effective. It’s now our job to surround him with enough talent and enough skill to make sure we get into the playoffs.
HS: A follow-up on [Ristolainen]: You mentioned a moment ago, like every player, he has his flaws. He’s got 424 games in the NHL. When you reach 400-plus games, do you believe a player is who he is, and if he can get better, what do you think Ralph Krueger can do to help Ristolainen?
JB: I think players continually develop. Game played is not the big factor; to me, it’s age. Especially with [Ristolainen] in his mid-20s right now, there’s plenty of development still going on there. You look at — and these are elite defensemen — but you look at Nicklas Lidstrom, you look at Kris Letang, all these defensemen, it’s more in their late-20s, early-30s where they really, I think, come into their prime. There’s always an injury factor that you have to play into, but I think with most young players, there’s always an opportunity for growth, and certainly for defensemen. With Ralph coming into the equation, the biggest thing I think that he needs to continue to work with [Ristolainen] on is picking his sports and when to jump up in the rush, when to move the puck a little bit quicker in different scenarios, because I think at times he plays so many minutes, one of his assets of being able to support the rush and get up there, he just doesn’t have the energy to do it. So I’m going to continue to — as a whole with Ralph coming in, bringing a different structure and hopefully a little bit more of a structure — making it a little bit easier on our reads for some of our defense will hopefully help our entire group [of defensemen].
JW: Finally, before we let you go, are you allowed to tell us who you think is going to win the Cup? Do you have a prediction or just any thought, maybe, on these playoffs? You’ve had all four division winners get knocked out. Some would say it’s wide open, and it’s one of those years; [ESPN’s] Greg Wyshynski [on the Schopp and the Bulldog show] called it “a glitch.” This year’s just a wacky kind of year, so I don’t know if there’s anything you’ve got from the playoffs.
JB: I would just say it just goes to show the importance of finding a way to get in. If you get in, you have an opportunity — you have a chance. Maybe you don’t have the best team on paper, maybe throughout the course of 82 games, you weren’t the better team, but come a seven-game series, you have a chance. You look at a team like Boston, who are now in the Stanley Cup Final after last night, they have a great balance of veteran players and young players. They sustained some injuries on defense and they have the depth and they’re not the “Big Bad Bruins” on defense. They’re the active, mobile defensemen that they have back there. I do think you get to these situations with how physical the games have been, how emotional the games are. I do think the fact that they were able to finish it off in four games and give them a little bit of rest — whereas I do believe that St. Louis-San Jose series is going to go right down to the wire and both of those teams are coming off seven-game series from the previous round — I think a fresh Boston team is going to be very difficult to beat.
HS: The one thing I’m really curious, as a general manager, there have been two high-profile missed calls/apologies in the playoffs. The hand pass last night and the high stick in the San Jose-Vegas series. The next time the general managers get together, do you think there will be — or even should be — an expansion or something with video review to cover what’s happened?
JB: It’s a very, very difficult decision, because I agree you need to get it right. We need to find a way to get it right. Especially with the magnitude of these games — and we’ve talked already about the parity that’s in our league — these little plays have a huge impact on games and series. But you also look at what NCAA hockey did these past couple years with some of the reviews of hits to the head or hits from behind; it really slows down the games.
HS: Frozen Four games were stopping every five minutes, it felt like, at times.
JB: Exactly. I know people have strong opinions right now because of the emotions of the games, and teams’ seasons are ending over some of these calls, but if you go the other way and do everything and have all these delays, one of the best parts of our game is the speed of our game. The pace of our game. We don’t want to lose sight of that. I certainly believe there will be a lot of discussions, but to say that I have, “This is what we need to do moving forward,” I don’t have that perfect answer right now.