TAMPA - Jason Botterill spoke with the media while the Sabres practiced at Amalie Arena on Wednesday afternoon, covering the current state of the team, the upcoming trade deadline and the status of contract negotiations with Jeff Skinner.
With the deadline less than a week away (3 p.m. on Monday), the Sabres general manager affirmed that he's continuing to pursue options to improve the roster while also expressing confidence in the current players and coaching staff.
"We've had a lot of conversations going on," Botterill said. "Whether those things come to fruition over the next couple days, it's always hard to predict. As I think we saw last year, sometimes you look at the draft and then things can move into July 1 and things can move into the summer.
"... We are always looking to make moves that are going to help our group," Botterill said. "I'd also say we're going to trust our players, we're going to trust our group."
Video: SABRES NOW
The Sabres sit six points out of the second Wild Card spot, currently occupied by the Columbus Blue Jackets, after losing three straight games and four of their last five.
Botterill expressed disappointment with the team's current predicament while also echoing his coaches and veteran leaders in saying that the Sabres' young core is learning on the fly how games become more difficult in the thick of a playoff race.
"Look, we're disappointed with our results right now," he said. "It's a situation where we felt, if you take a step back, we've made improvements as an organization. We like parts of our game and the development of some of our players. But we are facing a new challenge here.
"It's a scenario where our players are playing games in the second half of a season that mean a lot. The intensity of NHL games in the second half ramp up, and it's a challenge to win hockey games in the second half. That's, right now, what we're looking at and we're trying to find solutions there."
The slim margin for error supports that outlook. Nine of the Sabres' victories during their 10-game streak in November were decided by one goal. All five of their losses in February have been one-goal games in the third period; they're simply coming out on the other side.
"We're putting players in roles that they're not used to," Botterill said. "Some nights they're going to succeed in those roles, sometimes they're not. I think you've seen our blueprint. You've seen when we played well, when we've played assertive in the offensive zone, we've gotten to the front of the net in the offensive zone, we've played good defensive hockey, we've received results. … We haven't done that enough on a consistent basis."
Botterill complimented coach Phil Housley and his staff for their communication with players throughout the season.
"I've liked the interaction, two-way interaction, with our players coming to coaches," he said. "You look at after practice, on the ice, off the ice, our coaches interacting with our players from a standpoint of their individual games and as a team concept, to me those are the things that are at least allowing us to be in the situation to win games in the third period."
As for Skinner, the GM confirmed that negotiations regarding a contract extension are ongoing. The Sabres' leading goal scorer is due to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season but has said he's enjoyed his time in Buffalo thus far.
"We've, his group and ours, have obviously continued our dialogue," Botterill said. "We haven't done play-by-play in the media just because that's the way we wanted to go about things. Both sides continue to work to try and find a resolution."
Video: AFTER PRACTICE: Housley
Matt Hunwick (lower body) was back on the ice after taking a precautionary day off in Florida on Wednesday. Housley continued to tweak his forward lines, moving Evan Rodrigues up to the right wing alongside Skinner and former Boston University linemate Jack Eichel.
Eichel and Rodrigues haven't played together often in the NHL, but the results have been positive when they have. The Sabres have outscored opponents 5-2 in 46:34 when the two have shared the ice at 5-on-5 over the past three seasons, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
Rodrigues was a senior when Eichel arrived for his freshman campaign at BU, and the two found quick chemistry.
"I think from the first game we played together, it just seemed like we knew where each other was going to be," Rodrigues said. "We knew to find open ice and we both like going cross-ice, so we tried to stay away from each other, give each other space and just tried to find an open area so that when we did get in trouble, we'd have a release."
The Sabres will be tasked with slowing down the NHL's top team in the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday, a team they've played closely through three matchups this season. The Sabres won the first meeting of the season, 2-1, then held third-period leads before dropping each of the last two contests.
"You've got to get off to quick start and you have to be ready to defend," Rodrigues said. "They're going to come out flying, they're going to come out skating. They're a fast team with a ton of skill so we have to be 110 percent committed to just defending, making sure our legs are ready to go.
"We can't force anything. We have to wait for our chances and just capitalize when we get them. If we do that we'll have a chance, because we've done it before."
Here's how the Sabres lined up on Wednesday:
53 Jeff Skinner - 9 Jack Eichel - 71 Evan Rodrigues
43 Conor Sheary - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 23 Sam Reinhart
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 22 Johan Larsson - 29 Jason Pominville
49 C.J. Smith - 17 Vladimir Sobotka - 72 Tage Thompson
19 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
26 Rasmus Dahlin - 4 Zach Bogosian
82 Nathan Beaulieu - 8 Casey Nelson
24 Lawrence Pilut - 48 Matt Hunwick
40 Carter Hutton
35 Linus Ullmark