The Buffalo Sabres golden anniversary season failed to bring about a resurgence in the once proud NHL franchise. The club was well on their way to missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the ninth straight season when the COVID-19 pandemic halted play in mid-March and GM Jason Botterill is being held mostly responsible for the Sabres wallowing in mediocrity.
Botterill was thought to be relatively safe in his position entering his third season in Buffalo. In spite of swinging and missing on Phil Housley as his first choice as head coach, the first-time GM got another chance at the plate with the hiring of former Oilers bench boss Ralph Kreuger.
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When the NHL paused the season, the Sabres were 13 points out of Eastern Conference wildcard spot, even with center Jack Eichel scoring a career-high 36 goals and getting mentioned as a Hart Trophy candidate.
The main hurdle for the former Penguins assistant GM when he was hired in 2017 was to chart a course out of the morass left by predecessor Tim Murray, but his record in accomplishing that has been mixed at best.
The organization under the ownership of Terry and Kim Pegula did not help clear up some inherited cap issues by buying out bad contracts like Matt Moulson or Zach Bogosian, but Botterill contributed to his problems by getting little in return from St. Louis for Conn Smythe Trophy winner Ryan O’Reilly and failing to pull the trigger on a deal for defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.
While Buffalo under Botterill made have made good deals like acquiring Jeff Skinner from Carolina, even that trade eventually became a negative when the Sabres overpaid the speedy winger on an eight-year, $72 Million deal last summer.
Other trades to acquire Colin Miller, Brandon Montour and Jimmy Vesey have not had much impact, and while 2018 top pick Rasmus Dahlin is a star in the making, Botterill’s draft record is considered mixed with the failure thus far of 2017 first rounder Casey Mittelstadt.
The assumption that the Sabres would stick with young GM began to wane in February, as the club sold the expiring contracts of Marco Scandella, Conor Sheary, and terminated the contract of Bogosian, while buying short-term fixes like Michael Frolik and Wayne Simmonds to stay in the playoff race.
Had the season reached its conclusion, it looked to be even odds whether Buffalo ownership would have given Botterill another year to straighten things out, but the decrease of attendance at Key Bank Center in the second half and the chilling effects of the league shutdown may make the Pegula’s yield to the pressure of their fan base to make changes.