BUFFALO – Two months 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 following a last-place finish 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 this afternoon since training camp, Botterill 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,” Botterill said 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.
“Evander’s done a great job for us,” he said. “We’re a team that’s looking for more goals, and he’s scored goals. I think (coach Phil Housley) 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.”
Botterill praised the rookie coach 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.
“It’s an ongoing thing that he’s doing, but 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.”
Check back later for more from Botterill, including his thoughts on the progress the Rochester Americans have made this season.
In other news, the Sabres waived defenseman Matt Tennyson today. With Zach Bogosian close to making his season debut, the Sabres have nine healthy defensemen.
Tennyson has recovered from an ankle injury.
“Hopefully he does clear, because I thought Matt brought a lot to the table,” Housley said.
Tennyson would likely go to the Amerks if he clears.
Bogosian, who suffered a lower-body injury in the preseason finale, could play in the weekend home-and-home series against Pittsburgh, which starts Friday in Buffalo.
Meanwhile, the Sabres gave goalie Robin Lehner a maintenance day today, so they recalled goalie Linus Ullmark from the AHL to practice.