BUFFALO – Barely one-quarter into Jason Botterill’s first season as general manager, the Sabres are a mess, tied for the NHL’s lowest point total with a measly 16.
A team expected to improve and showcase an exciting style under new coach Phil Housley has regressed and averaged a league-low 2.2 goals through its first 25 games. Slick center Jack Eichel, who signed an $80 million contract extension in October, has struggled along with many of the team’s other top players.
Botterill has remained quiet over the last seven weeks, making no notable moves. In his first public chat with the media since training camp, Botterill on Thursday acknowledged many of the Sabres’ problems while going out of his way to note the positives and growth within the organization.
“I’m optimistic and I’m very happy with our players and especially our coaching staff,” said Botterill, whose Sabres host the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight inside KeyBank Center.
Botterill said the Sabres will “have a long discussion” on whether they’re better or worse than their awful 6-15-4 record.
“Bottom line is our record’s our record,” he said. “We’re looking for players to help us out of this situation here, players who want to improve and want to become part of the solution here, and that’s where I like the communication with our coaching staff and the players.”
The Sabres’ best player, winger Evander Kane, has morphed into a top scoring threat, compiling 12 goals and 23 points. Kane, 26, will be a free agent following the season, igniting speculation Botterill will deal him before the trade deadline.
But Botterill said Kane’s future hasn’t been decided.
“We’re a team that’s looking for more goals, and he’s scored goals,” he said. “I think Phil deserves a lot of credit with Evander. It was one of those situations where he reached out to build that relationship early in the season, and Evander’s come in here and from Day One of training camp has performed very well for us.”
If the Sabres have won just 24 percent of their games with Kane scoring 22 percent of their goals, how bad could they become if they trade him?
Botterill praised Housley and his staff for their communication skills throughout a rough stretch. He said he hired Housley, in part, because he believed he could build relationships with his players.
“He’s done a very good job communicating with the players of what we’re trying to improve on and what we try to ask for,” Botterill said. “What I’ve really liked is he’s an emotional guy, he keeps guys accountable, and … there’s frustration with the results on the ice, but then the next day, instead of just being disappointed about it, he’s like, ‘These are the things we have to do to improve.’”
Of course, the Sabres can improve their effort many nights. They’ve showcased little consistency, something Botterill knows.
“Where some of the frustration comes from even our own players is that I think there is a work ethic, I think they are working, but it’s a game-by-game basis,” Botterill said. “It’s one player working hard, not all the players working hard at the same time. You see one line going well, but the other line’s not going well.
“The penalty killing’s improved this year, but the power play has slipped. So there has to be more consistency for us to be a successful team.”
The Sabres often fall behind early before roaring back, a disturbing trend. While Botterill likes the “compete” and “resilience” they’ve shown late, he said they “can’t be chasing games all the time.”
“We have to have that desperation, that jump at the start of the games,” he said. “We’ve talked about our leadership group a lot, and the good thing is they keep communicating with each other, they keep communicating with Phil.
“Phil and our coaches can keep pushing things and stuff, but it’s that internal drive from our leaders that has to keep for us to become a more consistent team.”
One team under Botterill, the Rochester Americans, has performed consistently all season, starting 11-5-3-1. Botterill overhauled the Amerks during the summer, hiring a new coach, Chris Taylor, and GM for the AHL affiliate, Randy Sexton.
Botterill also signed a slew of players he had during his tenure with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the affiliate he ran as Pittsburgh’s associate GM.
“Chris Taylor and his staff have done an excellent job down there on getting guys to buy into the system, getting guys to buy into their games to get up to the National Hockey League,” Botterill said.
Still, the Amerks, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2014, are short on impact prospects the Sabres could summon.
Rookie Brendan Guhle, the Sabres’ top defense prospect, has been bypassed for recalls all season. The Sabres seem intent on leaving him in the AHL for a bit. Second-year forward Alexander Nylander has only played six games this season. The eighth overall pick in 2016 suffered a lower-body injury in training camp. While goalie Linus Ullmark seems ready to graduate, the Sabres have two NHL netminders, Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson, blocking his path.
There’s no quick fix for the Sabres.