By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Based on Wednesday’s news conference by Buffalo Sabres’ general manager Jason Botterill, there are a lot of grumpy people who call the KeyBank Center home these days.
Botterill isn’t a happy man. He told us that owner Terry Pegula isn’t happy. On Monday we found out that coach Phil Housley isn’t happy, and the players aren’t happy.
That covers most of the key principals of the team’s hockey department. Come to think of it, the building’s cleaning crew probably isn’t happy about the way it has been criticized about how the arena looks to the paying customers these days.
A 31st-place finish will do that. And that’s left the fans unhappy – at least the ones that still care.
Botterill had the chance to express his anger at some length on Wednesday, and he sprinkled in a few mild vulgarities along the way in revealing the depth of his feelings.
“It seems early to do exit meetings,” said Botterill, who was used to having his team play much deeper into spring when he worked for the Pittsburgh Penguins. “It’s not fun.”
HOW FRAGILE THEY WERE
It’s not going to be easy to change that easily, as Botterill no doubt discovered in what must have been a nightmare of a rookie season as a GM. It didn’t take him long to figure out that he was overseeing a group that was incredibly fragile in its mental approach to the game.
“I did notice it right off the bat. You could go back to our first long road trip in California,” Botterill said. “I thought we had some good efforts, but we found ways to lose. In those tight situations and tight games, we did not have a lot of confidence. Someone can always say once you win a few games, you can build confidence as a group. But it’s hard to find a way to win those games. That’s what we have to improve as an organization.
“Right now, we have a losing culture. We haven’t won here. It’s up to Phil and me to work with our players to work through that, to change our culture.”
The approach probably will be two-pronged. Buffalo does have a group of young players who have a chance to develop together. Admittedly, it’s easier to sell patience going toward the future rather than trying to sell a dreary present. But what else is there?
Botterill essentially handed Linus Ullmark a roster spot on next year’s Sabre team during the news conference. That’s probably a sign that Robin Lehner might at least call a real estate agent to see how property is selling these days. Botterill also praised the development of Casey Nelson and Brendan Guhle.
“I’ve always been a proponent of building things in Rochester,” Botterill said. “They’re excited about going down there (for the playoffs) and gaining some playoff experience.”
You can mix those players with Alexander Nylander and Casey Mittelstadt, among others. And you can throw in the first-round pick this season, which will be somewhere in the top four selections depending on the draft lottery’s results. The hope is that the young players grow up together and form a solid nucleus, much like Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville did in 2006. But there are no guarantees.
Then there’s the rest of the roster. Botterill brought in about 10 new faces to this season’s team, depending on how you count, and that losing culture got worse and not better. The team has to make better roster decisions in the coming months.
“Certainly there has to be change, and there will be change,” Botterill said. “When you finish where we did, you have to look at everything.”
LEARNING SOME LESSONS
A few free agents who know something about winning would be welcome in the locker room. It sure sounds like almost anyone over the age of 25 might be available in a trade, although other factor such as salaries, available roster spots, etc. might have something to do with that.
From there, the Sabres hope to mix in a few lessons learned the hard way during this past season. Botterill is hoping that better offseason conditioning will lead to a roster than isn’t among the league leaders in man-games lost to injury – a huge problem for a team that had little depth to overcome missing pieces. There are other items on that list.
“We have to improve our habits – practice days, intensity in practice, taking care of ourselves, communication between our coaches and our players,” Botterill said.
All of that makes good sense and is a very rational and logical response under the circumstances. Yes, it will require patience, but this is not a team like Colorado that wasn’t trying to rebuild from Square One this season and went from last to the playoffs. A couple of good drafts, including a lucky bounce of the ping-pong balls this summer, would help too.
Even so, there’s a big question that hangs over this entire organization: Why doesn’t it win?
The last winning season was in 2010-11, and that leads to other, smaller questions. Is there something wrong structurally and systemically with the Sabres? Would a new president of the team help (sending Russ Brandon back to full-time duty with the Bills)? Does the hockey department need a Wise Man to offer advice? Is the owner helping in some ways and hurting in others that we don’t know about?
Sports teams usually lose for a reason. The Sabres of the 1980s as an organization were happy to be decent but often unwilling to take those next steps forward. So they stood still. Compared to the last several years, that era – which featured no playoff series wins between 1983 and 1993 – feels like The Good Old Days.
Until the problems are fully identified and solved, we’ll continue to have grumpy people around town at this time of the year.
Follow Budd Bailey on Twitter @WDX2BB.
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