January 14, 2020
Schopp & Bulldog (5:30 p.m.)
Mike Schopp: Jason Botterill with us now. Hi, Jason.
Jason Botterill: Hey, how’re you guys doing?
MS: This has been, like, we’ve been missing each other a couple times lately, but you made it.
JB: Yeah, I think I was supposed to be on and we were in the middle of the [Marco] Scandella and [Michael] Frolik trade at that time, so I do appreciate your understanding from that. Happy New Year to you guys.
MS: Happy New Year.
MS: That was interesting. So Chris Bandura, from the front office, called me early that day and used the term ‘league call’ and in retrospect that night I thought, ‘Maybe that should’ve been, should’ve been a term that I would associate with a trade.’ Now there was no news of a trade at noon that day, but I wonder if that was a tell.
JB: And that one took a little bit longer just because Frolik did have the no-trade clause and it was — there was a few different things in it. Because, obviously, Montreal had a trade going with Ottawa, then the trade with us. We then had the trade with Calgary going and it was one of those things where you knew everything was correlated from that. So it sometimes took a little bit to organize it all.
MS: So, you had to wait for Montreal to make its other move?
JB: Yeah, it’s one of those things where you knew everything was contingent on the other one working out, and obviously it was contingent on Frolik waiving his no-trade too. It wasn’t a situation until Calgary went to talk to Michael after their morning skate. So, it was one of those things, too, where Calgary was having a game, we were having a game that day. We had a few things to get through and stuff, but glad it worked all out for our group here.
Chris Parker: Very understandable. I think maybe a lot of our audience was kind of hoping you wouldn’t show up today because that would mean something was happening. I mean, I hope you take that in the spirit it’s intended, you know? With that in mind, how do you feel about where you team is right now? Like, what do you think can still be accomplished this year?
JB: Well, I think it’s a situation where we’ve, you know, coming out of the break at Christmas time, I thought we played very well against Boston and Tampa Bay. To get zero points out of those three games was disheartening, for sure. I liked how our group responded against Edmonton and Florida there. Going into St. Louis, that’s a level that we still have to get to: that upper echelon in the National Hockey League. The way I look at the league right now, I think there’s, you may debate it a little bit, but I think there’s seven or eight really, very top teams and then everyone else can beat anybody on any given night. And that’s what we’re trying to accomplish here right now. I thought it was important that we got the victory in Detroit after a game against Vancouver where, that’s a game that we have to find a way to win. 3-3 in our own building, we have to find a way to at least come away with points in that situation there. We’ve got three games here before the break, have our fathers trip starting tomorrow. I think, hopefully just in a little more added incentive for some of our players and then we’ll see where we go from there.
MS: In that calculation you revealed about seven or eight top teams, is there room for you — as you break that down — to make the playoffs? I mean you’re seven points out, I think, at the moment. We talked earlier about last night’s Philadelphia-Boston game and brought up [Brad] Marchand whiffing on that shootout attempt and Bulldog’s like, ‘Well, my first thought was that’s two more points for the Flyers.’ I’m like, ‘Good thing you’re here, because I was not really thinking of it that way.’ Like I wondered, if you’re watching that game thinking the same way.
JB: Trust me, there’s going to be a ton of three-point games that teams are going to go continue to work on, some teams are going to get hot, and you’ve seen it throughout the league and stuff from that standpoint. What our focus has to be is our own internal — how we play, how we’re doing against our own teams here. And, you know, I know Ralph [Krueger] has mentioned a lot about winning two out of three games, trying to minimize things. You can’t always look at the big picture. I think our group has excelled when it’s tried to stay in the small picture there. Our focus here now is on the next few games here, see where it goes from the break and then materialize from there. But if you’re scoreboard watching in January, look, teams around you are going to win, it’s just that, especially when they’re playing against each other all the time and there’s going to be a lot of three-point games with how close the league is.
MS: I think, if I may, this may sound like you think your team is at a level where someone else might think that more dramatic changes are necessary to see this team actually, you know, really compete. You’re on an 85-, 86-point pace. Would that be wrong? Do you see this as a team that’s close to really rising?
JB: Well we haven’t had the production yet. We haven’t had the results yet, so we still have to improve. 100 percent. There’s a situation where we’re not an elite team by any means and should we be in a conversation for playoffs? Yeah, I think we should, certainly should be in that conversation, but, hey, we can continue to talk about it, but we have to go out there and actually have the results. It’s one thing to play well against the Bostons and Tampa Bays, but when we have a 4-1 lead at home, we have to find a way to finish off that game. It’s good that we’re playing well against those teams, but now finding better results is certainly what we have to do.
CP: When you face a situation like that — the 4-1 lead against Tampa’s a great example — how do you feel like your coach is handling the team? Is that tough talk time? How do you think he proceeds in those situations?
JB: I think one of Ralph’s best things was the day afterwards from that standpoint. Look, it was a disheartening loss. It was a situation where we talked about it, Tampa Bay, you know, we knew coming into the season this year, they were going to be a top team to go 0-3 against them and then going into that game, we had certainly circled that game as an important challenge for our group. I liked how we came out, got the lead from that standpoint, got some secondary scoring, which I think was key in that game. Then to let it slip, to go from sort of a festive environment in the second period to, hey, losing the game at home, it was difficult. And then what I liked was Ralph did with our group to try to refocus them to get back on taking it small. The playoffs, hey we’ll worry about that another time, but what we have to work on right now is getting back in the swing of things. Then we start the next game against Edmonton, it’s not a great start, it’s down 2-0. Like, okay, everything could unravel here at this point, but our group found a way to get that win in that game and then went and had a strong game against Florida.
CP: So that’s New Year’s Eve, the Tampa game, right?
CP: New Year’s Day is the day that I — I don’t attend these practices or the news conferences, but the video that the team posted, (Ralph Krueger) just spoke for like 15 minutes and I watched every minute of it. And, I’m not going to lie to you, I don’t often do that. I hear highlights and I read what happened, but I sat watching that and I loved it, like how he communicated that day. Can you tell us, like is that basically the same message he gave to the team that day?
JB: The biggest message is, obviously it’s a cliché of keeping it simple, but (the message is) keeping it small. That’s what we have to do in a situation like this. And if you look at the small picture, we just came away from three games where we felt we played well. But we didn’t get the results. So, at the end of the day that’s not acceptable. So you pull the positives of what you’re trying to do as a team, but then, hey, what do we have to do now to change to make sure that that outcome changes in the future here? And that’s where I think Ralph’s done a very good job with our group in speaking to the group, but then also in smaller, you know, whether it’s this line or this power-play group, just that dynamics of not always being the group mentality, of individuals. I think as Donny Granato’s got back into the mix here, been healthy and been working with us, I think our system coaches have done a good job with the development of our individual players. So as a staff they continue to grow and hopefully have a strong second half here.
MS: Jason Botterill here with us. You are talking about the playoffs a little bit here. We’ll see what happens. There’s some work to do to make it. I think fans would like to think that there is, from a development standpoint, a lot coming into the equation here that would make people reinforce the idea that the Sabres are about to become a real contender. I don’t know where that is — where that stands — Jason. I’d like to hear you talk about this. Since you’ve gotten here, important players have been traded away and, I know you have the [Tage] Thompson injury too, he was on the team last year, [Casey] Mittelstadt is down [in Rochester]. What else, especially in terms of forwards, because it seems to me that the Sabres have had this same lack of scoring depth past Jack Eichel for several years.
JB: And I think Ralph’s done a great job of getting the most out of Jack and continuing to work with Jack to expand his game. Obviously, Victor Olofsson’s had a great season so far, the injury hurts him. Knowing Victor and his dedication, he’s certainly going to come back from that. But just the continued development of Jack and Sam Reinhart and their production I think is, I think Ralph has done an excellent job there. Tage [Thompson’s injury] is a disappointment; it’s a disappointing thing for our entire organization just because of what we challenged Tage in the offseason, he went through with it; there was things for him to work on specifically in Rochester, I thought he did that. I thought he had a great start to the season in Rochester, came up and obviously got the injury. It’s just something that we have to deal with; Tage has to deal with it. The good thing is he’s going to have the opportunity to have a strong summer and be ready to go next year. With a player like Casey Mittelstadt, Casey could be up here in the National Hockey League right now surviving, but we don’t view that as a situation long term with him. We view him as a player that can certainly help and add to our offensive punch. You’ve seen that in games: the first game of the season this year against Pittsburgh, out in L.A.. He has that ability, but now has to work from a consistent standpoint. Development, you wish it would just always be a linear approach, and you’re always, every day you’re seeing improvement in players, but sometimes there’s dips. In a situation with that, we felt very comfortable placing him in Rochester with a coach in Chris Taylor that worked very closely with Casey at the National Hockey League level, had seen Casey’s best games and also some of the games where he struggled and knew exactly what he had to work on for him to get back into the system here and what Ralph needs from him moving forward here. So, there’s that. I would also say, you look at the development of Rasmus Asplund we’ve been happy about. He stepped in earlier than what we anticipated from that standpoint. And then I think just what we can continue to try to add on our back end is players with that skill, that puck-moving ability that can create more offense from our back end there. We all would love our 19- and 20-year-old defensemen in [Henri] Jokiharju and [Rasmus] Dahlin to be Norris Trophy winners this year and everything like that, but there’s going to be a development process for those guys. That’s why we also wanted bring up Lawrence Pilut. He’s accomplished in the American Hockey League that we’ve been very happy with. We wanted to see how he’d fit in with our group here right now. It’s important for us, as an organization, to continue to develop these guys. And I think, as an organization, it’s finding ways to get more offense from our back end here to help out our forwards.
MS: I’m, just thinking though, with due respect, you talked about, we talked about the three players: Mittelstadt, Thompson and Asplund, and they might have — and I’m just guessing here — 200 games in the league at this point and how many goals is it? Like 20 goals? I don’t even know how many goals it is, right? Like you’ve got guys, less so — least so Asplund, who just doesn’t have as much NHL experience — but beyond guys who’ve played in the league, is there hope for someone else in the organization to become a real scorer for you? And yes, of course, you’re right to mention Olofsson who’s absolutely done that.
JB: He’s certainly helped our group a lot there. We’re excited about where Dylan Cozens is from his development. We think he had a very good World Juniors from a standpoint of being a player to rely on for Team Canada and gaining that experience at an elite level. And them, hey, look it’s our job to find ways to get more out of our players. I still think there’s more offense to come from a player like Conor Sheary or a player like Jimmy Vesey. It’s important to pull that out of them. You look at a player like Marcus Johansson is showing glimpses of it and has been a good leader for us, but I know Marcus also wants to contribute more offensively from that standpoint. So that’s the responsibility of our players and also, as an organization, to find more players to support some of our young players.
CP: So you mentioned here at the outset some of the results haven’t been there even though the performances were good, good games. And I have no problem with that; I would agree with it. The games against Boston, specifically, I think maybe have been some of your best games and you haven’t gotten any points out of those games. So the team has to perform, you need to get results. How much urgency do you feel to do something to supplement the group here? We started with trades, I guess maybe we’ll end with trades. Do you feel some urgency to do something for the group to try to help even when [Jeff] Skinner comes back and eventually Olofsson?
JB: Yeah, look, missing Skinner and Olofsson are big from our group from an offensive standpoint. But, come on, everybody in the league has injuries that they deal with and that’s something that, you know, we have to continue to improve our depth to handle these injuries better in the future. But yeah, we want to make trades; we’re looking to add to our group from that, I don’t think we’ve hid from that situation even all the way back to November. People ask, ‘Well, are you waiting until the trade deadline for these type of things?’ No, we’re open to trying to find something that can certainly add to our group, but it hasn’t materialized. We’ll continue to look at it. There’s no use — and I’ve mentioned this before — there’s no use in saying we’re close on a trade or this and that. Until it actually happens and we announce something, it’s just talk. We’re trying to proceed with some things; it hasn’t materialized, but we’ll continue to look.
MS: Yes, unless you tell us about every conversation you’re having with almost trades, maybe there are hundreds of those. If you could just acknowledge, if you just admit those things, divulge that information…
CP: Those might be more interesting than the actual trade.
MS: …the talk can be more interesting, yes. We would know what’s out there.
JB: The next time here I’ll bring my notebook so you guys can all have it and we can follow up with it.
MS: It would be great if you had, like, stacks of notebooks with these things in it.
MS: Real quick, Jason, one more thing. Goaltending. Carter Hutton is barely playing, lots of goals are going in his last couple of games. Who’s, can you at least say, who would be the guy? Is it [Andrew] Hammond? We’re not watching Rochester. Is he next? Or maybe this is more a question about younger guys, [Ukko-Pekka] Luukkonen or whoever in the organization. What are the options?
JB: We’ve been very happy with how Linus Ullmark has been from a consistency standpoint. He’s been able to handle more of a workload this year. I think he’s done a very good job from that standpoint. We’re disappointed in Carter’s performance. Carter’s disappointed in that performance. And that’s what we’re trying to find: What is the trigger to get him back on track here? The good thing is that’s where his whole career has been. He’s been someone who’s been against the odds, someone who’s been counted out and he’s always found a way to get back, and that’s where his work ethic in practice, we’re hoping that’s going to trigger something here to help him out and help our group out in the second half. You look at it, we’ve had solid goaltending in Rochester throughout the season here. It’s great to see Jonas Johansson make it to the American Hockey League All-Star Game. You talk about a longer-term process, him playing a lot of the games in the East Coast League the last couple of years, now getting the opportunity to step in there. Andrew Hammond’s a veteran player who we feel comfortable playing National Hockey League games. You talked about Luukkonen; we brought him into Rochester this week. That was part of the plan way in advance to get him some experience, practice at the American Hockey League. Going to get an opportunity to play games and then we’ll get him back to the ECHL and continue his development there.
MS: So Johansson is their No. 1 at this time?
JB: Johansson and Hammond are both, they both split the duties from that standpoint.
MS: Ok, and Johnasson is an All-Star?
MS: Very good. Thank you, Jason. Nice to see you.
JB: I appreciate it, guys. You have a good evening.