BUFFALO – Jason Botterill indicated months ago, long before he traded center Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues, a significant move was needed to shake up the Sabres.
The Sabres’ wretched 31st-place finish embarrassed Botterill and the entire organization. The general manager knew the group he had wasn’t working.
“We felt that in our meetings at the end of our season as a management group, we had to change the dynamic,” Botterill said on a conference call.
So the Sabres dealt O’Reilly, the versatile former NHL All-Star, to the Blues late Sunday, just hours before he was due to be paid a $7.5 million bonus.
Any deal involving O’Reilly, 27, figured to be a blockbuster, and the Sabres received five assets in return: forwards Tage Thompson, Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka and a first-round pick in 2019 and a second-round selection in 2021.
“There’s a lot of great people in that locker room,” Botterill said. “But when you finish 31st, you have to look to make changes, and that’s that we felt there was a good balance in making this move. We felt there were some pieces for that future. We thought bringing in young players that can grow with our other young players who are part of our core, and bringing in veteran players that can help those young players in situations.”
Rumors have been swirling for weeks the Sabres would trade O’Reilly. Botterill said he had been talking to his counterpart, St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong, for a couple of months.
Earlier Sunday, hours before he completed his first huge deal as GM, Botterill said the price would go up if the Sabres paid the bonus, which was due by midnight.
O’Reilly played three seasons with the Sabres. When he signed his seven-year, $52.5 million contract extension in 2015, it was then the richest deal in Sabres history.
The Sabres, however, never improved with him, and following their last-place finish in 2017-18, he talked about the how the constant losing sapped his love for hockey.
“I don’t think he needed a change of scenery at all,” Botterill said. “I’ve said it before. I think he was being very honest about the situation. I think it was probably a situation where other players felt the same way. We have discussed over the last couple months making adjustments to our team.
“You look at just the age of a lot of our young players, a lot of our sort of core players, they’re more of the 18 to 22, 23 range. It just didn’t mix in with Ryan from that standpoint.”
Even with three NHL players coming back, O’Reilly’s departure leaves a huge hole in the lineup. Sabres coach Phil Housley utilized him constantly. He skated more than 20 minutes a game, playing in every situation. Last season, O’Reilly set an NHL record for faceoffs won.
“We’ll certainly miss Ryan’s productivity, because he’s a top end player for us,” Botterill said. “But that’s why it was key to get NHL players back.”
What have the Sabres acquired?
– Thompson, 20, has compiled three goals and nine points in his 41-game career. The Blues selected him 26th overall in 2016. The American has two years and a $925,000 cap hit left on his entry-level contract, according to capfriendly.com.
The 6-foot-5 Thompson, a winger, might’ve been the key to the deal. The Sabres sorely need more scoring from that position.
“What we see with Tage is a kid with a great shot, great size and a really good reach on the ice, played NHL games as a 20-year-old, had an opportunity to win a World Junior gold medal,” Botterill said. “We think he’s going to be able to step into our lineup and grow with our young centermen.”
– Berglund, 30, has compiled 168 goals and 322 points in his 622-game career. The Swede has four years left on his contract with a $3.85 million cap hit.
– Sobotka, 30, has compiled 47 goals and 155 points in his 463-game career. The Czech has two years left on his deal with a $3.5 million cap hit.
Botterill said Berglund and Sobotka can play center and the wing.
“We love their versatility from that aspect,” he said. “We’re bringing in players who have NHL playoff experience. It’s something that we need more of in our locker room.”
The Sabres have $13,115,476 of cap space, according to capfriendly.com.