BUFFALO – Very quietly, general manager Jason Botterill played a key role in the development of the talent that once made the Sabres a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Botterill played three seasons with the Rochester Americans, piling up goals while helping prospects like Paul Gaustad, Ryan Miller, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek acclimate to the AHL and eventually graduate to the Sabres.
“Reflecting back on my career, I’m now proud so many people came from those teams and had success both in Buffalo and the rest of the National Hockey League,” Botterill said Thursday inside KeyBank Center. “That’s something we’ll have to really work at here.”
Right away in his introductory remarks as GM, Botterill made it clear development and winning in Rochester will be a top priority, repeatedly mentioning the Amerks.
Having played in the AHL and served as GM of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for eight seasons, part of his duties as Pittsburgh’s associate GM, he has a unique perspective on the feeder league. Botterill won a Calder Cup with Calgary’s affiliate in 2001 and scored 37 goals with the Amerks in 2002-03.
Back then, the Amerks were a perennial playoff team. But they’ve morphed into one of the AHL’s dregs, missing the postseason three straight seasons. They just finished a 32-41-0-3 campaign. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2004-05, Botterill’s last season.
It’s no coincidence the development of youngsters like Miller and Pominville in the minors led to two powerhouse Sabres teams in 2006 and 2007. Successful NHL clubs must have an affiliate that consistently prepares prospects for the next level.
“A lot of people always try to figure out, is it development, is it scouting, is it American Hockey League? What is it?” Botterill said. “The bottom line is if anything falls apart in that line, it just doesn’t work. It needs to be an entire group effort.”
Botterill saw the benefits of that approach with Pittsburgh. Yes, the Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two of greatest players in the world. But they have also kept complementing their stars by drafting and developing talent.
They won the Stanley Cup last season with Matt Murray, a rookie goalie who spent most of the season in Wilkes-Barre. This year, Jake Guentzel, a rookie winger who began the year in the AHL, has a playoff-high nine goals.
“He wasn’t ready to play in the National Hockey League in September or October, but in December or January he was,” Botterill said of Guentzel.
Botterill plans to implement the Pittsburgh model in Rochester. He wants the Sabres to have a presence down the New York State Thruway.
“It has to be a priority of management and the development group to get down to Rochester and be around, work with our players, working with our coaches down there,” he said.
Botterill said he or one of the Penguins’ assistant GMs visited Wilkes-Barre for about 95 percent of the games.
“Players realize that,” he said. “Players notice when management is around making that a priority. I think it just gives them a little bit more incentive to get to the National Hockey League.”
Botterill said someone will be named Rochester GM in the coming months, perhaps one of the assistant GMs he plans to hire or someone from the development staff. Former Sabres GM Tim Murray had the Rochester title.
What about Rochester’s coach? Dan Lambert is still in charge. Lambert, of course, was a Murray hire and a good friend of former Sabres coach Dan Bylsma.
Botterill plans to talk to Lambert soon.
“I don’t have a personal relationship with Dan,” he said. “He’s a Manitoba guy, and I’ve heard positive things about him in that regards. But look, it will be important for me to sit down with Dan … to go over what happened there this year and get a feel for, hey, does his expectations, does his philosophy coincide with what we’re trying to do?”