Jason Botterill is used to conducting exit interviews with his players late in the spring, recently as late as June. During his tenure with the Pittsburgh Penguins, early April was a time for looking ahead to playoff runs, not back on a disappointing season.
Speaking to the media on Wednesday, Botterill made no secret of his frustration with the way his first season played out as general manager of the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres finished 31st in the NHL, and Botterill found himself conduction exit meetings on April 9.
"I guess I could be articulate," he said, "but I'll just say it sucks that we won't be watching live playoff hockey right now."
Botterill was vocal in his displeasure with the season, but he also emphasized the need to replace words with actions. His message to players echoed the message his coach, Phil Housley, delivered Monday: they want to know what players are willing to change moving forward.
The GM offered a similar message to Sabres fans.
"We feel their pain," he said. "I understand where we're at right now. I think you saw in the player exit meetings the last couple days there's disappointment from their standpoint. They understand how passionate the fans are in Buffalo and how much we all want playoff hockey. But I also think what happened at times in the past here has been there's a lot of talk.
"When I talked to the players over the last little bit here, I don't want to hear about how disappointed they are, I want to hear about what's going to change, what is the action plan moving forward here? So, from my standpoint, yeah, there's some things I'm excited about in this organization - the development of Casey Mittelstadt, what's going on in Rochester, some of our young talent. But I'm also aware of we have to earn their respect back. It can't just be about words, we have to have better results."
So, what could change in the coming months and beyond? Here are the highlights from Botterill's end-of-season press conference.
Sabres are excited about Eichel, but need more leaders
Botterill said he was pleased with the way Jack Eichel developed both on and off the ice during the season, Eichel's first as an alternate captain. Whether the Sabres name Eichel or another player as captain next season is a discussion for later, but Botterill emphasized the need for more leadership from throughout the roster.
"As excited as we are about Jack moving forward as a leader, it's imperative that we have more players in that locker room step up from that standpoint," he said. "This game cannot have one player lead the entire team. It's imperative that we have stronger bases in there.
"We have some players who have some NHL experience in playoffs that need to feel more comfortable stepping up in those roles. We have younger players that have been part of this organization now for three, four, five years who can't sit in the background anymore. [They] have to be a part of it. We have to have a stronger leadership group."
Housley will remain coach
Botterill said he enjoyed working with Housley during their first year together and confirmed Housley will be returning as coach next season.
"I feel he improved his communication with the players, I like how he wants to play, I like the system that he wants to play," Botterill said. "You just look at the development of a player like Sam Reinhart who struggled at the start of the year, came on in the second half of the year. You look at how some of our players such as Casey Nelson and Brendan Guhle came up from Rochester and how they performed here. I like what he's done from a development standpoint."
That being said, Botterill added that communication between coaches and players remains an area in need of improvement. Inconsistency when it comes to following game plans has been an issue cited by veteran players in years past, and it continued this season.
"You can just see it in any successful organization, you see some of the teams that have turned it around this year," Botterill said. "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.
"Look we finished 31st, we deserved to finish 31st. But against some of the top teams, especially the top teams in the East, we had some strong performances. When we were on the same page, when we played the system, when we were prepared, we had good results. We just were far too inconsistent in that throughout the year."
Changing the core is on the table
Botterill said back at the trade deadline that roster change would be imminent in the offseason. Some of that will come from within, with many of the players who came up from Rochester throughout the season expected to challenge for roster spots in the fall.
That said, Botterill also didn't rule out moving some of the players who currently comprise the team's core.
"When you finish where we were, you have to look at everything," he 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."
Sabres need to improve their habits
As difficult as the season was, Botterill said it only reinforced his idea of what a winning organization should look like. He said it became apparent early in his tenure that a losing culture had found its way into the Buffalo dressing room during what has now become a seven-year playoff drought.
"I don't know if I'd say I underestimated it, but I did notice it right off the bat," Botterill said. "In tight games, I felt - and there were certainly times, and you could go back to our first long road trip - I felt we had some good efforts in San Jose and some good efforts in LA, yet ... we found ways to lose. And to me in those tight situations and those tight games, we did not have a lot of confidence.
"… It's hard finding a way to win those games. and that's what we have to improve on as an organization. We have to improve our habits. They don't come natural for us right now. 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 get into those situations, those tight games, we have more confidence to find a way to win."
Ullmark will be in the NHL next season
Botterill said the Sabres are looking forward to Linus Ullmark being one of their two NHL goalies next season. The other goalie has yet to be determined.
Ullmark posted a 20-11-10 record to go with a .923 save percentage in 42 games with Rochester, earning him a second-straight selection as an AHL All-Star. He went 3-1-2 with .935 save percentage in five appearances with Buffalo.
Chad Johnson will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 but said he is open to returning under the right circumstances. Robin Lehner, a restricted free agent, had his season end early due to a lower-body injury but received a second opinion and will not need surgery.
More contract matters
Botterill said he has not yet had discussions regarding a contract extension for Sam Reinhart, who will be a restricted free agent in the offseason, but he remains excited about the forward's future. Reinhart scored 37 points in his final 38 games of the season and set career-high with 50 points overall.
"We were very happy with his second half," Botterill said. "I think that illustrates communicating with our coaching staff and developing as a young player. That's what gets us excited, we have so many young players. They've been around here a little bit, - - whether it's Jack, Sam, [Rasmus] Ristolainen - they're very young and there's lots of room for development."
Defenseman Casey Nelson can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, but Botterill was optimistic about the two sides getting a deal done.
"Our experience with him has been very positive, he's excited about going down to Rochester for the playoffs and helping them on a playoff run," he said. "I can never say players are going to be 100 percent coming back until we got a contract done, but our communication just with talking about Casey and his development in our organization has been very positive."
As for Swedish prospects Rasmus Asplund and Victor Olofsson, Botterill said the organization hopes for both players to participate in the IIHF World Championship in May but is confident that both players will be playing in North America next season.
Asplund, a second-round pick in 2016, scored a career-high 28 points (8+20) for Farjestad BK of the Swedish Hockey League. Olofsson, a seventh-rough pick in 2014, scored 43 points and led the same league with 27 goals.