BUFFALO – Sabres general manager Jason Botterill spoke like a man embarrassed by what he had just experienced and hellbent on never letting it happening again.
Botterill is usually measured in his comments, keeping his emotions in check. But discussing the Sabres’ wretched 31st-place finish this season made him seethe.
The Sabres hired Botterill last year from Pittsburgh, where he won three Stanley Cups in 10 seasons with the Penguins and never missed the playoffs.
So a lost season in which the Sabres regressed so badly they morphed into the NHL’s worst team is humbling for Botterill, who, like his boss, owner Terry Pegula, is ticked off.
“(Pegula’s) level of anger is … high,” a visibly agitated Botterill said Wednesday during a news conference inside KeyBank Center. “I don’t blame him. I’ve been here for one year and I was pretty pissed off and upset throughout the year.
“I guess I could be articulate, but I’ll say it sucks we won’t be watching live playoff hockey right now. It’ll (be) just all on TV.”
Botterill said conducting exit interviews with players earlier this week as other teams prepared for the postseason “flat-out sucked.”
Right now, Botterill said the Sabres, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2011, “have a culture of losing.”
Botterill said he noticed it right away in October, when the Sabres lost tight road games.
“We found ways to lose,” he said. “And to me, in those tight situations and those tight games, we did not have a lot of confidence.”
Botterill said “there will be change” this offseason. Perhaps everyone other than slick center Jack Eichel could be available.
“When you finish where we were, you have to look at everything,” Botterill said. “That means looking at even changing up some of our core players. From a free agent standpoint, we’ll be involved in free agency. But I’m a believer that you just can’t build a team just through free agency. It has to come from within our organization.”
The Penguins built from within and added key pieces through free agency and shrewd trades. Meanwhile, in the last seven years, the Sabres have only drafted one player outside the first round, defenseman Jake McCabe, who became a regular.
They lack talent and depth. No wonder they won only 25 games in 2017-18.
So what are Botterill’s priorities to improve the Sabres?
For starters, they won’t go anywhere until they get faster. They sorely need speed, the most precious commodity in today’s NHL.
“We have to add more skill, and I felt that came with (center) Casey Mittelstadt (late in the season),” Botterill said. “We just have to get faster on the wings.”
Botterill said he also wants more players to “step up” in the dressing room.
Clearly, the Sabres, who used four alternates instead of a captain this season, possess a weak leadership group.
“This game cannot have one player lead the entire team,” Botterill said. “It’s imperative that we have stronger voices in there, because we have some players who have NHL experience in (the) playoffs that need to feel comfortable stepping up in those roles.
“We have younger players … who can’t sit in the background. They have to be a part of it. We have to have (a) stronger leadership group.”
The Sabres often couldn’t follow the game plan and committed the same mistakes all season, signs of poor leadership and even stubbornness.
Botterill, however, wouldn’t say some players are uncoachable.
“We have some players with some strong opinions,” he said. “Part of the reason for those strong opinions got them to the National Hockey League because they were motivated, they were dedicated.”
Botterill said that can change by improving communication.
“We have to make sure our coaches and our players are on the same page,” he said. “You can just see it in any successful organization, you see some of the teams that have turned it around this year. You talk about the relationship with star players, the relationship with core players and the coaches all being on the same page.
“The good thing with our team is whenever we did it, we did have success.”
Botterill believes the Sabres will enjoy more success when their words turn into actions. He said he’s tired of hearing “about how disappointed they are.”
“I want to hear about how what’s going to change, what is the action plan moving forward here?” he said.
For example, Botterill wants to see a better commitment to offseason training. When that changes, perhaps the Sabres’ habits will improve.
“They don’t come natural for us right now,” Botterill said. “And what I mean by that is practice days, intensity in practice, taking care of ourselves, communication with our coaches and our players. We have to do more in that, so when we got into those situations, those tight games, we have more confidence to find a way to win.”
Botterill, of course, has hope for the Sabres, who beat some of the league’s best teams.
“We deserved to finish 31st, but … when we were on the same page, when we played the system, when we were prepared, we had good results.”