The NHL announced their plans for a 24-team Stanley Cup Playoffs this week. The expanded format involving the top 12 teams in each conference (based on points percentage) will not include the Buffalo Sabres, who have missed the postseason for the ninth straight year.
The Sabres held their season-ending interviews this week, starting with the announcement from Team President Kim Pegula that GM Jason Botterill would keep his job for a fourth season and highlighted by team captain Jack Eichel admittance that missing the playoffs is beginning to wear on his nerves.
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Botterill’s clubs have gone 88-115-20 in three years and while improving in their first season under veteran head coach Ralph Kreuger, the 30-31-8 record made Sabres fans react with disdain at the end of the season and with disapproval at the news of retaining his job.
“(Jason is) our GM. Our plan is to continue with him,” Pegula said to John Wawrow of the Associated Press. “I realize, maybe it’s not popular with the fans, but we have to do the things that we feel are right. We have a little bit more information than maybe a fan does, some inner workings that we see some positives in.”
Eichel, who finished 10th in NHL scoring with 78 points (including a career-high 36 goals), has missed the playoffs under three different head coaches in five seasons with Buffalo and expressed exasperation at being on the outside looking in once again.
“Listen, I’m fed up with losing, and I’m fed up and I’m frustrated,” Eichel said during a Zoom interview on Thursday. “It’s definitely not an easy pill to swallow right now. It’s been a tough couple of months. It’s been a tough five years with where things have went.”
Most of the players said that the addition of Kreuger was a positive step forward for the organization, and the head coach was supportive of his star center’s statement.
“We’re on two different sides here, we’re emotionally angry and frustrated, because we all know that more than halfway into the season we were expecting to be a playoff team and we slipped out of that.” Kreuger said. “I have no problem with people outing frustration on the past, but then let’s move that conversation forward real quick, and let’s figure out what we’re going to do about it and that’s going to be our job now no matter how long the break is.”
Eichel would not venture an opinion on what the club needed to take the next step and make the playoffs for the first time since 2011, but the 23-year-old has a great deal of influence entering the third year of his eight-year, $80 million contract.
Botterill has been unable to find an adequate second-line center to replace Ryan O’Reilly after trading the Conn Smythe Trophy winner to St. Louis in July 2018 and was forced to overpay winger Jeff Skinner to stay with the Sabres after scoring 40 goals in 2019.
The premature end of the season likely bought Botterill another chance, but the clock is clearly ticking on the Sabres GM to improve the club immediately and on the organization if they miss the playoffs again and Eichel decides to ask for a trade.