Sabres Hoping College Kids are the Trick

Jason Botterill, a former Michigan Wolverine, is a big proponent of the college route in terms of player development. This was evident when he was an assistant GM in Pittsburgh, and it has become more evident in his first year as GM of the Buffalo Sabres. Through the draft and through free-agent signings, Botterill has used the NCAA to make several additions to the Sabres organization.

Botterill’s Pittsburgh Era

While in his position as the assistant GM of the Penguins, Botterill learned under one of the best in the business, Jim Rutherford. Botterill has taken a few of the things that Rutherford taught him and has begun applying them to Buffalo.

He has preached patience and development with his younger players like the Penguins have and he has begun to look to the NCAA as a breeding ground for NHL talent.

In the Penguins’ back-to-back Stanley Cup runs, the NCAA played a prominent role in their lineup. Players like Chris Kunitz, Phil Kessel and Justin Schultz were all brought into the Pens organization via trade and helped the team win championships.

The Penguins also looked to the NCAA in the draft and with respect to undrafted free agents, adding players like Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel, who have all developed into key contributors for the Penguins.

Jake Guentzel
Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jake Guentzel (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

After one year as GM of the Sabres, one can see the same things happening in their organization with Botterill at the helm.

2017 NHL Draft

Botterill’s first draft in charge of an NHL franchise was a key indicator of how he views the NCAA.

The Sabres had six draft picks in last year’s NHL Draft. Three of those draft picks were used on players that were either in the NCAA or committed to an NCAA program. One of those draft picks (Casey Mittelstadt) has already impacted the Sabres organization, and the other draft picks look to be developing into very nice prospects.

Casey Mittelstadt

With Botterill’s first draft selection (eighth overall), he drafted Mittelstadt, who at the time was committed to the University of Minnesota.

Mittelstadt went on to have a very impressive freshman season with the Gophers. He scored 11 goals and added 19 assists for 30 points in 34 games. His first campaign saw him recognized as a member of the Big 10 All-Freshman team.

After one season excelling against tough NCAA competition, it became clear that Mittelstadt was ready for the next level, and the Sabres signed him to his entry-level deal.

Casey Mittelstadt Team USA
Casey Mittelstadt #11 of Team USA, 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)

Thanks to his development in the NCAA, Mittelstadt was able to adjust to the NHL nicely, recording five points in six games, and he looks to be on the verge of being in contention for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie next season.

Jacob Bryson

With the 99th overall selection in last year’s NHL Draft, Botterill selected Jacob Bryson out of Providence College.

In his freshman season, Bryson recorded three goals and 17 assists in 39 games. The Sabres drafted him in hopes that he could take his game to another level during his sophomore season with the Friars.

Bryson did not disappoint. During his sophomore campaign, Bryson set career highs in goals (four), assists (21) and points (25) for the Friars, earning First Team All-Hockey East honors.

The undersized defenceman fits the new modern style of NHL defenders and would fit nicely in a Phil Housley system. The Sabres should look to get him out of college the second the Friars’ 2018-19 season comes to an end.

Linus Weissbach

Normally, a seventh-round pick wouldn’t garner much excitement, but Linus Weissbach’s freshman season at the University of Wisconsin definitely got the attention of Botterill and the Sabres.

Jason Botterill Buffalo Sabres
Jason Botterill of the Buffalo Sabres works the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center on June 23, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

As an undersized forward (5-foot-9, 165 pounds), Weissbach scored 10 goals and 26 total points in 34 games as a freshman.

Like Mittelstadt, Weissbach was also named to the conference All-Freshman team. With the Sabres lacking scoring depth on the wing, Weissbach’s next few NCAA seasons will be worth monitoring. If he can continue to improve his game, he may factor into the Sabres’ long-term plans and earn himself an ELC from Buffalo in one of the next two years.

Undrafted Free Agents

The NCAA also provides a unique opportunity to its undrafted players. At the end of every college season, teams fight for the right to sign big name NCAA prospects who developed later in their careers.

Former Sabres signee Chad Ruhwedel was a factor in the Penguins’ Stanley Cup championships over the last two seasons, and other players that have gone this route have gone on to great NHL careers.

The Sabres have dipped into the UDFA market over the past few seasons and Jason Botterill is hoping some of them will be impacting the NHL roster in the future.

C.J. Smith

Although Smith wasn’t a Botterill signing, he has been directly impacted by Botterill’s developmental style. If Tim Murray was still GM, there could have been a chance that Smith was rushed into NHL action, but because of Botterill, Smith was able to adjust to professional hockey by playing a full season in the AHL with Rochester.

C.J. Smith
C.J. Smith (Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

Smith had a great rookie campaign for the Amerks, leading all Amerks rookies with 44 points in 57 games and finishing third in team scoring. After an impressive rookie campaign, Smith looks to be on the path to being a Sabre full-time next season and possibly fighting for a top-six role as a scoring winger.

Casey Nelson

While he is another player that Botterill didn’t bring to the organization, Nelson has greatly benefited from the new regime in Buffalo. Nelson became a full-time NHLer in the second half of the season and has earned the trust of both Botterill and Housley going forward.

Botterill committed to Nelson for two more years after signing him to an extension this offseason. He looks to be a lock for the NHL roster next year, with a minimum role of the seventh defender and a possible top-five role on a struggling Sabres blue line.

Andrew Oglevie

Botterill dipped into the UDFA market in signing Notre Dame’s 2017-18 leading scorer, Andrew Oglevie, after the Irish lost the NCAA Championship to Minnesota-Duluth.

Oglevie looks to be the same mold as Smith. He will likely spend next year in Rochester and has the potential to develop into a regular NHLer if he can adjust to professional hockey properly.

In his short time with the Sabres, Botterill has already made the NCAA a key source of talent for the Sabres, and if his time with Pittsburgh is any indicator, then Sabres fans should expect to see a lot of NCAA alumni entering the organization in the future.