TORONTO – When Jason Botterill acquired high-scoring winger Jeff Skinner last summer, the general manager said he underestimated how much adding an established NHL talent to the Buffalo Sabres would excite his players.
“It wasn’t a situation talking about futures or a prospect,” Botterill told reporters Monday in Buffalo. “He was a player that helped our group right now.”
Botterill’s latest acquisition before Monday’s trade deadline, puck-moving defenseman Brandon Montour, could have the same effect for the Sabres.
While Montour, 24, is young, having compiled 16 goals and 63 points over 169 games, he’s a proven NHL performer. Adding him to the mix Sunday was a significant move for a playoff push.
“It shows they believe in this group,” Sabres center Evan Rodrigues said prior to Monday’s 5-3 loss to the Maple Leafs, a game Montour sat out after traveling. “I think we have a big belief in here and obviously adding someone like that is going to make us more dynamic, especially offensively.”
Without Montour, the Sabres roared out of the gate Monday, outshooting the Leafs 16-6 in the first period and grabbing the lead on captain Jack Eichel’s late power-play goal, his 20th score this season.
Then the Sabres imploded early in the second period before the capacity crowd of 19,026 inside Scotiabank Arena, allowing three goals in about a two-minute span.
“But it’s not really what they did,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said. “It’s what we didn’t do.”
The Sabres didn’t pick up guys in front or do much of anything for goalie Carter Hutton, hanging him out to dry.
Housley yanked Hutton, who played two terrific games last week, after Frederik Gauthier made it 3-1 at 5:51.
“Trying to spark our team, maybe send a message,” Housley said of pulling Hutton for Linus Ullmark.
The move hardly ignited the Sabres. Tyler Ennis’ breakaway goal later in the period made it 4-1.
“He’s been such a key part of our team this year, so you can’t really blame Hutts for some of the stuff that was happening,” Eichel said. “He’s keeping us in most games that we’re in. They get a breakaway. They’re scoring their goals from right inside the hashmarks. That’s on us, not Hutts.”
Still, the Sabres fought back later. Winger Sam Reinhart scored a power-play goal late in the second period. Then Eichel scored nine seconds into the third.
“I really like our fight and push in the third period, Housley said.
The Sabres nearly tied it in the waning minutes, but goalie Frederik Andersen stymied defenseman Rasmus Dahlin’s point-blank chance on the power play.
Later in the man advantage, the puck hit an official’s skate, Dahlin fell down and Kasperi Kapanen roared by and scored a short-handed breakaway.
“It’s a fluky thing,” Housley said of the goal.
So with 20 games left, the Sabres trail the eighth-place Carolina Hurricanes by six points for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot.
Botterill made one other move shortly before Monday’s 3 p.m. deadline, trading defenseman Nathan Beaulieu to the Winnipeg Jets for a sixth-round pick in 2019.
Beaulieu, 26, requested a trade last month during a stretch in which he sat out 21 of 25 games as a healthy scratch. Montour’s arrival gave the Sabres nine defensemen.
Hours before the deal, Beaulieu acknowledged sitting out “was definitely the toughest thing I’ve had to deal with.”
“I never thought I’d find myself in that position,” said Beaulieu, who played three straight games last week. “Obviously, it was very difficult. Sometimes you don’t always get the reasoning or the answer you want. But there’s going to be ups and downs for careers.”
In Montour, Botterill believes he snagged a youngster whose career could be on the upswing.
“We see a young player who has established himself in the National Hockey League but we still think there’s more ceiling there, too,” Botterill said.
He added: “That’s why we felt good about making this move: short-term, helping our team get in the playoffs; long-term, helping our team grow.”
But has Botterill done enough to help the Sabres make the playoff this year? He dodged that question, searching for words before talking about how the team is hungry to make the postseason.
Botterill said Montour will play in tonight’s road contest against the Philadelphia Flyers.