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Botterill sees opportunity for Thompson to grow with Sabres' core

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

Following a last-place finish, Jason Botterill foreshadowed potential changes to the Sabres' core at his end-of-season press conference in the spring. Botterill followed through on Sunday, acquiring three forwards and a pair of draft picks from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for forward Ryan O'Reilly. 

The package the Sabres received from the Blues includes a promising young prospect in Tage Thompson, a pair of veterans in Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, a first-round pick in 2019 and a second-round pick in 2021.

The Sabres could now have up to three first-round picks in next year's NHL Draft. In addition to their own pick and the one they acquired from St. Louis, the Sabres will also receive a first-round pick from San Jose if the Sharks qualify for the playoffs next season (otherwise, the Sharks can retain the pick until 2020). 

"We felt that, in our meetings at the end of last season as a management group, we had to change the dynamic," Botterill said. "The bottom line was, there's a lot of great people in that locker room, but when you finish 31st you have to look to make changes.

"That's why we felt there was a good balance in making this move. We felt there were some good pieces for the future, we thought we were bringing in young players that can grow with our other young players who are part of our core and bringing in veteran players who can help our young players in those situations."

Botterill cited the general age of Buffalo's core as a reason for O'Reilly's departure, with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart still in their early twenties and Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt both still teenagers. O'Reilly is 27, meanwhile, and his reputation around the league made him an attractive asset for other teams.

The Sabres feel they are receiving a player who can grow as part of Buffalo's core in Thompson, a first-round pick by the Blues in 2016. The 20-year-old scored nine points (3+6) in 41 NHL games as a first-year pro last season and tallied an additional 18 points (8+10) in 30 AHL games.

Thompson brings size - he's listed at 6-feet-5-inches tall and 201 pounds - but the Sabres see him as more than just a big body.

"One of the biggest things we like about him is his size, his reach, his ability to protect pucks," Botterill said. "But also, we really like his hockey sense. He has a little bit of a shooter's mentality and that's what we're looking for. 

"We feel with Jack and Casey and Sam, we have players that can make the plays. Now we're looking for more players to finish them off."

While Thompson may still be early in his development, Berglund and Sobotka are veterans who should be able to step in and contribute right away. Sobotka has played nine NHL seasons, the last six of which came with St. Louis, and is coming off a season in which he scored 31 points (11+20) in 82 games.

Berglund, meanwhile, has spent his entire 10-year career with the Blues. He scored 26 points (17+9) last season despite being limited to 57 games due to an injury, and his faceoff percentage of 55.1 suggests he can pick up some of the slack in the circle with O'Reilly gone. 

"We're very excited about that," Botterill said. "He comes into the league as a first-round pick, been in St. Louis his entire career, played in a lot of different roles - power play, penalty killing, wing, center - and I think that versatility is something that we were really intrigued by."

The trade puts a cap on a day that began with four signings, headlined by the addition of goaltender Carter Hutton. The Sabres also brought back forward Scott Wilson on a two-year deal, added organizational depth with goalie Scott Wedgewood and signed defenseman Brandon Hickey to an entry-level contract.

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