Botterill Sets Up Sabres for Low Risks, High Rewards

For the first time in what felt like forever, the Buffalo Sabres were one of the most active teams on the opening day of the National Hockey League’s free agency period for all the right reasons.

On July 1, Sabres general manager Jason Botterill completed seven free agent deals to fill out not only his NHL roster but his also American Hockey League roster for the Rochester Americans.

When Botterill became general manager, he let all know of his future blueprint.

“A lot of people always try to figure out, is it development, is it scouting, is it the American Hockey League? What is it? The bottom line is if anything falls apart in that line, it just doesn’t work. It needs to be an entire group effort. It has to be a priority of management and the development group to get down to Rochester and be around, work with our players, working with our coaches down there.”

Less than 24 hours after his own personal free agent frenzy, the once-murky picture becomes much clearer for all.

For Rochester, he signed a mixed bag of five players that should add more talent and leadership down on the farm from an almost-point-per-game player (Seth Griffith202 points in 203 AHL games) to a former Hobey Baker finalist (Adam Wilcox) to a recent Calder Cup Champion (Kyle Criscuolo) to a defenseman who has tallied 100-plus games in both the AHL and NHL (Matt Tennyson) to a forward who won the Stanley Cup in 2015-16 (Kevin Porter).

Seth Griffith’s presence will certainly help Rochester. (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

“We wanted to add depth to our organization and strengthen Rochester, but also put us in a situation that if we ran into injuries in Buffalo that we would have players and can come in and contribute at the NHL level,” Botterill told the media on Saturday. “As you’ll see with most of the guys we picked up today, we wanted guys in their mid-20s that could help us grow as an organization.”

Adjustments for Buffalo

When it comes to the big club, that is where the real blueprint came to light relatively quickly.

Buffalo signed three NHL deals on the first day of free agencygoaltender Chad Johnson and forwards Benoit Pouliot and Jacob Josefson.

On the surface, these deals don’t seem like a huge deal—they look like a general manager just looking to fill his roster with cheap deals that have minimal length. But these deals represent so much more as we continue to learn more about Botterill’s dealings.

Chad Johnson returns to Buffalo for a second stint, following a year playing for his hometown Calgary Flames. Technically, Johnson was a free agent of the Arizona Coyotes due to the Mike Smith trade a few weeks ago, but he obviously never suited up for the Coyotes.

(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Johnson posted an 18-15-1 record last season with a .910 save percentage and a 2.59 goals-against average. His biggest strength is that he is calm, cool and collected almost all of the time he finds himself in the net. Former Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma spoke highly of Johnson when asked about him back in 2016.

“Probably his best attribute as a goalie is his calm, cool, collectiveness, his positional play. You might not go right to athleticism with his strength of how he plays in net. With the number of acrobatic and the big saves and the athletic saves he’s made this year, it’s a little bit more than a small highlight reel.”

Jacob Josefson leaves New Jersey for the first time in his NHL career. A first round pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, he has failed to live up to expectations of being a first-round talent but he brings a lot of experience to the table.

Josefson, a veteran of seven seasons and 276 NHL games, will likely battle for a fourth line spot heading into the regular season, but it remains to be seen how things will shake out.

The other signing of the day, the biggest made by Buffalo, was recently bought-out Edmonton Oilers forward Benoit Pouliot.

Another first-round pick who has amassed 551 games in his NHL career, he was made a name for himself for better or for worse.

Benoit Pouliot
Benoit Pouliot will have the opportunity to get back on track in Buffalo. (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

Pouliot is considered to be “an example of where hockey analytics failed miserably” but still brings a lot to a franchise looking for a jolt down the left side.

With that being said, the Sabres immediately highlighted his ability to be a fancy stats darling.

As pointed out by Sportsnet’s Stephen Burch, Edmonton might have jumped the gun in buying Pouliot out because last season’s points drop-off may not have been much up to his own play, but the play of his teammates.

Why does all of this matter? Glad you asked.

How Does This Come Together?

We see with these three signings that Botterill is very much rolling the dice. He is walking up to the blackjack table and immediately going all in but in the sense that there is minimal risk to all three of these contracts signed on July 1.

All three deals have manageable moneyJohnson getting $2.5 million, Pouliot gets $1.15 million and Josefson will get $700k.

With the one-year term on all three deals, Botterill is now dealing from a position of strength. If Buffalo struggles again, it would not be incredibly difficult to turn one of these three contracts into some sort of asset during the season.

If the players themselves struggle, there would be minimal overall damage to the Sabres if one of the three players were to be waived.

Also, bringing in these three players allows every line to have the rust essentially knocked off. In an attempt to avoid sounding cliche, every player will have to earn their job this season.

Due to a very thin left wing depth, Pouliot could slot in on either the first line with Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo or a third line with what could be Johan Larsson and Jason Pominville, or a combination of two other bottom-six forwards.

Jason Pominville
Pominville’s presence should help solidify the bottom six. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Johnson’s arrival, likely due to the departure of former prospect Cal Petersen, will allow for just a little extra development for Linus Ullmark down in the AHL, all the while keeping Robin Lehner honest in Buffalo.

Josefson’s arrival to the bottom six will do the samekeep everyone honest. Josefson is not the world’s greatest bottom-six forward but he will be able to challenge a player like Zemgus Girgensons to be his best every night or remember that there is an NHL veteran champing at the bit to take his spot.

Botterill made a giant leap towards creating not only a respectable lineup on July 1 but creating friendly competition through those low-risk, high-reward deals. If all works out, Buffalo will spend the next 82 games reaping the benefits of shrewd moves made on the first day of free agency.