Grading Buffalo Sabres’ GM Jason Botterill: Part 2, Signings
The Buffalo Sabres recently fired General Manager Jason Botterill. The decision to do so has come as a shock after they previously announced he would be retained. I personally haven’t thought that he has done a great job but I also don’t know if going through another regime change, especially given all of the uncertainty in the world right now would be the best course of action for the organization. In this article series, I am going to go through every single move he has made since taking over the organization and grade them. I am going to break the series into four parts: NHL trades, NHL signings, the draft, and minor league management, and overall organizational management. I will provide an individual grade for every move, a grade for each segment, and finally an overall grade.
Before I begin grading, I should set my rubric and the guidelines on how I will arrive at the grade for every move. A good general manager needs to do two things well. First, they need to make good decisions. Second, they need to have good results. In my opinion, when grading a general manager, more weight should be placed on the decision-making process as it needs to be sound to lead to positive results. That said, there are some results that can be predicted and it is a decision maker’s job to do so. As I work through my grading, I will do my best to be objective. I will consider everything from advanced metrics to the current situation of the team. Ultimately though, these will be my opinions that I will try to back with reason.
The second part of the series will look at the signings he made during his tenure. I have discussed the signings in chronological order from oldest to most recent.
Victor Antipin, 1 year $925,000 AAV
In the first month and a half on the job, Botterill added three new defensemen, Nathan Beaulieu and Marco Scandella via trade, and Victor Antipin via free agency from the KHL. Antipin did not work out in Buffalo. A lot of the blame for that could fall on Phil Housely and the rest of the coaching staff. Botterill probably didn’t help the matter either but this grade is mainly based on the thought process and decision-making in signing Antipin. Antipin was a young defenseman who had been excelling in the KHL. He was another puck mover that the Sabres lacked. It seems like a lot of the leg work had been done by Botterill’s predecessor, Tim Murray, but much like the expansion draft trade, Botterill still had to execute and complete the signing.
The idea of Antipin was tremendous. His signing had virtually no risk and a significant reward if things worked out. The signing of Antipin was Botterill’s best shot at finding a young, cheap, immediate impact puck-moving defenseman that could have slotted into the top four sooner than later. Antipin never got a fair shake in Buffalo but that doesn’t mean the signing was bad though it does prevent me from giving this signing an “A.”
Linus Ullmark, 2 years, $750,000 AAV
This was a great signing for Botterill. It was pretty obvious that Ullmark would be in the NHL full-time during this contract and whether that was as a starter or backup, a $750,000 AAV would be a tremendous value. Ullmark had shown in the AHL that he was capable and was projecting well. This was a low-risk, high-reward signing for Botterill and one that was frankly a no-brainer. Any contract for Ullmark at or under a $1M AAV would have been acceptable.
Taylor Fedun, 2 years, $650,000 AAV
Fedun had previously proven to be an extremely valuable depth player for the organization and at times probably should’ve been one of the Sabres’ regular defensemen. There would definitely have been some demand for him had he hit the open market so being able to sign him to a deal worth the minimum (even if it guaranteed him more money in the AHL), was a nice get for Botterill. Ironically, things went south for Fedun in the organization soon after signing this contract. However, I think Botterill gets credit for getting the deal done as it seemed like a smart idea at the time of signing.
Chad Johnson, 1 year, $2,500,000 AAV
The Sabres had been plagued by poor goaltending since the great purge in 2014-2015, where superb goaltending almost derailed the team’s run to the bottom. Since then, they struggled in net and Johnson was one of the issues from his first run with the team. Ironically, it was the goaltender in between Johnson’s stints, Andres Nilsson, who was probably the most consistent of the goalies. Addressing the backup goalie position was a necessity. I would have preferred seeing them keep Nilsson as he ended up signing a deal for the same AAV with Vancouver (though it was two years). However, the market that summer was fairly thin with other options so Botterill did well to get one of the better free-agent options. Of course, there are other routes he could have went to address the situation but I don’t think he did too poorly either. I generally don’t mind one-year contracts as they have little risk and the NHL salary cap system is use it or lose it so you might as well use it. Ultimately, Johnson turned out to be one of many of the problems the team had in route to another last-place finish so Botterill was fortunate to be able to walk away from him after only one season.
Benoit Pouliot, 1 year, $1,150,000 AAV
One of the Sabres’ weaknesses, when Botterill took over, was a major lack of depth. They had some good top-end skill players in Eichel, O’Reilly, Kane, Okposo, and Reinhart but things really fell off after that with an aged Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson being the only other forwards to produce more than 30 points (in all situations) on the season. Pouliot had shown flashes of scoring ability in the past as well as an ability to make his team better when he was on the ice.
However, he was coming off a brutal season in Edmonton so he was able to be signed to a relatively cheap contract. The problem with the signing is it seemed more likely than not that his recent season was the start of a trend opposed to an abnormality because of his age. Signing Pouliot was a risk worth taking, however, Botterill should have anticipated he wouldn’t be much more than a third-line forward due to his aging curve. He had been trending downward the past few seasons and some research and the use of analytics would have indicated that would continue to be the case.
I like Botterill’s idea of signing Pouliot in an effort to provide more depth scoring, especially considering it was a low-risk deal. However, the results should have been more anticipated.
Jacob Josefson, 1 year, $700,000
Another signing aimed at improving organizational depth though there was nothing in his previous performances to suggest that he would add much. Realistically, Josefson should’ve strictly been a player for the Rochester Americans but he somehow played 39 games in Buffalo while missing a good amount of games with injuries. The Sabres were significantly worse with him on the ice. Overall, it was a low-risk move that seemed more aimed at improving organizational depth but circumstances changed that.
Basically, the same that was said for Josefson applies here. Phil Housley seemed to have some sort of favoritism toward Tennyson that had no statistical evidence to support. Had he strictly been an AHL player, this wouldn’t have been such an issue. Botterill could’ve pushed the issue as well by demoting Tennyson.
Johan Larsson, 2 years, $1,475,000 AAV
Larsson has been an adequate fourth line player and good penalty killer for the Sabres over the years but shouldn’t be counted on to be much more than that. This should also be reflected in his pay. Although not horrible, Larsson was a restricted free agent (RFA) who had little negotiating leverage when Botterill signed him to this contract. The AAV on his contract shouldn’t have come in over $1M. I don’t think retaining Larsson was a major issue (and still don’t) but at the time, Botterill overpaid and needed to play more hardball in the negotiations.
Robin Lehner, 1 year, $4M AAV
Tim Murray dealt Botterill a losing hand with Lehner and the overall goaltending situation. Botterill really had no other options than to retain Lehner and the way Lehner’s previous contract was structured forced Botterill into a contract with an AAV of at least $3,125,000 so Botterill bumped him further. Lehner was not bad prior to signing this contract but he also hadn’t shown enough to warrant this high of a salary, which would further increase in the team decided to retain him in any subsequent season. Botterill was stuck between a rock and a hard place with the goaltending situation. His options were to roll with Chad Johnson and one of Lehner or Ullmark. At the time, Lehner was the clear choice.
Evan Rodrigues, 2 years, $650,000 AAV
At the time, Rodrigues had shown some signs that he could be an effective NHL player but also hadn’t shown enough to have complete confidence in him either. Botterill did well to get him signed to a two-year contract that paid him the minimum both years. His most effective season was easily his second year of the contract when he was arguably one of the team’s best forwards during the 2018-2019 season. He generated tremendous surplus value for the team. Frankly, there is nothing to find fault in for this contract. The worst case is Rodrigues was a depth player for the organization, shuttling between Rochester and Buffalo. Even if that had occurred, he was getting paid the minimum to do so.
Nathan Beaulieu, 2 years, $2,400,000 AAV
Botterill upped the price of this contract by simply trading for Beaulieu, who was arbitration-eligible. It is pretty hard to argue in an arbitration case that a player isn’t valuable when you just traded an asset to acquire him. I don’t think this contract was great but it wasn’t terrible either. I further discussed Beaulieu in the first part (the trades) of this series so I will not rehash it here. Had Beaulieu slotted onto the second pair, this would have been a fantastic contract. However, as a third-pair or worse defenseman, the value isn’t great.
Zemgus Girgensons, 2 years, $1,600,000 AAV
Much like Johan Larsson, Girgensons has been a perfectly fine role player for the Sabres in his time with the team. He doesn’t make the team a whole lot better or worse when on the ice and is a fine penalty killer. He will never live up to his draft status but he will probably carve out a nice career in the NHL as a role player, whether that be in Buffalo or elsewhere. However, having a single role player take up $1.6M of cap space is not great cap management. It is even worse when you consider Botterill earlier in the offseason signed Larsson for $1.475M so he committed over $3M to two players who projected to be at best third line players and more realistically fourth liners. Girgensons has shown a little more than Larsson so it makes sense that he would be paid a little more. The problem with both is that it sets the floor for their next contract.
Jack Eichel, 8 years, $10,000,000 AAV
Jack Eichel will arguably be the best player to ever wear a Sabres’ jersey. He was going to get paid at some point and it seemed like a contract around this was a foregone conclusion. In most cases, it makes more sense to sign a player to a long-term contract after their entry-level contract (ELC) EXPIRES. The keyword being expires. Eichel signed this contract before the final year of his ELC. Connor McDavid had set the bar for young superstars. Unless Eichel literally carried the Sabres to a Stanley Cup, I don’t think he was getting paid much more than the $10M AAV regardless of when he signed the contract. However, had he had a down year, the Sabres might have been able to save some money on his contract. It was unlikely to happen but there really was no reason to rush on this contract. No team was going to extend Eichel an offer sheet that the team wasn’t going to match. Retrospectively, this contract has proven to be better as more and more young players sign new contracts off their ELCs for more and more money.
Casey Nelson, 2 years, $812,000 AAV
I will say I might personally overvalue Casey Nelson. I think he has been a quality depth defenseman in the Sabres’ organization and provided a stabilizing presence when playing along some of the team’s young, puck-moving defensemen, namely Brendan Guhle and Rasmus Dahlin. However, he has never put up eye-popping numbers either so his contract was never going to be that high either. I think overall this was a solid deal for Botterill.
Lawrence Pilut, 2 years, $925,000 AAV
I have generally avoided entry-level contracts but since Pilut was more of a free agent, I want to include him here. Pilut was chosen to be the Swedish Elite League Defenseman of the year (ahead of Rasmus Dahlin) so he clearly had the ability to play at the top level. The knock-on him was his size and the question of whether his game could translate. His stats indicated it likely would. This was a great move by Botterill to bring him into the organization. There was no risk in bringing Pilut into the organization and potential for a high reward. I will later address the management of Pilut in another part of the series so this grade will strictly be based on his signing.
Carter Hutton, 3 years, $2,750,000 AAV
Let me remind you that I am grading Botterill more on the decision-making process than the results. Going into the 2018 offseason, it was abundantly clear the Sabres needed to improve their goaltending situation. Ullmark appeared ready to be a full-time NHL goalie but being thrust into the full-time starter role didn’t seem like the best decision. The options on the market at the time were former Sabre, Jaro Halak, Petr Mrazek, Anton Khudobin, Jonathan Bernier, Cam Ward, and Hutton. If I had been in charge, I would have been targeting one of Halak, Mrazek, Khudobin, or Hutton. Mrazek signed for a little less than the other three but ultimately the contract for Hutton seemed to make sense. The only question is whether Botterill got his top choice. If so, we can question a little bit why he favored Hutton over the others. Ultimately, many analysts liked the signing at the time as many thought he could fetch another million-plus per year. Even though the results haven’t been ideal, Botterill gets high marks for this signing.
Scott Wilson, 2 years, $1,050,000 AAV
Scott Wilson had proven to be a useful depth player for the organization but also hadn’t shown anything to indicate he was more than a bottom line player. If Wilson is in the minors, his salary doesn’t impact the Sabres’ cap situation. However, if the team does choose to recall him, they are paying a fourth-line player $300,000 more than the league minimum. When you consider Wilson along with his signings of Girgensons and Larsson in the previous offseason, he has likely cost himself over $1M in cap space by overpaying fourth line players. The good news is Wilson has been a quality player in his role bouncing between the NHL and AHL and has provided what the team has expected from him.
Sam Reinhart, 2 years, $3,650,000 AAV
If we simply look at this contract as relative value, Botterill does fantastic here as Reinhart would clearly provide more value than $3,650,000 per season. The problem is signing Reinhart to a bridge contract was a HORRIBLE decision. I have written and research extensively on why bridge contracts for good players are bad ideas. Reinhart had put up good box score metrics but his real value was in the metrics that measure how he drove play. In Ryan O’Reilly’s last season with Buffalo, the only time the team was better during 5v5 play with O’Reilly on the ice was when Reinhart was one of his wingers! The easiest way for a GM to create future value for his team is to take advantage of a player putting up lower box score statistics while being a strong possession driver. In most negotiations, the contract value will be depressed if a player’s traditional stats are not as strong.
At the time of signing, we at afpanalytics had predicted a long-term contract for Reinhart would be six years and carry an AAV between $5.5M and $6M. If the team had Reinhart locked in for that price, it would answer a lot of questions the team faces this coming offseason, where Reinhart will likely get a minimum of $8M per year. Botterill might have saved approximately $2M over two years but will now likely have to pay an extra $2M to $3M over the next four years. Remember when Botterill overpaid Larsson and Girgensons to a tune of at least $1M (combined)? That money could have been used instead to give Reinhart a long-term contract. Being generous with contracts for role players while playing hardball in negotiations for your top-line players is not going to be a long-term formula for success. Overall, the only reason this signing does not get a failing is that Botterill did well on the contract he did give.
Arttu Ruotsalainen, 3 years, $925,000 AAV
Much like what I have written for Lawerence Pilut and Victor Antipin, this signing comes with relatively low risk for a player who has shown he can produce against high-level competition. I think there is a little more uncertainty with Ruotsalainen than the others but I will never knock rolling the dice on younger players who have produced in Europe and can be signed for cheap contracts. If Ruotsalainen doesn’t pan out, the team isn’t out anything. If they find a hidden gem, it could be a big help in moving the team forward. I knock Botterill slightly for giving Ruotsalainen the ability to go back to Europe this year as he is a smaller player that will probably need to adjust to the smaller ice in North America.
Jeff Skinner, 8 years, $9,000,000 AAV
Botterill had backed himself in between a rock and a hard place with this negotiation. By keeping Skinner and seeing him score 40 goals, Botterill had to retain Skinner. In order to do so, Botterill was going to have to pay and pay him enough to not test the free-agent market. We had predicted Skinner’s market value to be $8.5M per year on a seven-year contract. In order to deter Skinner from talking with other teams, Botterill was going to have to give him an offer he couldn’t refuse and the contract he signed was just that. Had Skinner left for nothing, it would have been a major hit to a team that is desperately seeking goal-scorers. On the flip side, it was apparent that Skinner was not going to continue to score 40 goals a season so his value to the team was never going to be as high as the contract.
Overall, Botterill left himself little choice with Skinner once he was on the roster past the trade deadline. The problem is Skinner’s contract is going to be one of the main reasons the team is not as comfortably under the cap as they should be. The team needs more scoring production out of Skinner than they got this season. They need him to be part of the solution and not further their problems. I don’t mind that Botterill chose to keep a good player who has shown he can produce. I do take issue with how they managed him this year but that doesn’t severely impact the grade too much as this is based mainly on the decision at the time of signing. Had Skinner scored 40 or more goals again this season, the narrative is completely different.
John Gilmour, 1 year, $700,000 AAV
I have generally skipped AHL signings but Gilmour spent enough time in Buffalo to warrant discussion. Gilmour was signed as a depth defenseman for the organization and he filled that role well. He provided speed and puck-moving abilities from the blueline. If Botterill hadn’t created such a logjam of defensemen, Gilmour had shown enough, in a limited sample, to be a bottom-pair player and the team probably would’ve been better for it. The knock here is Botterill added another defenseman to an already packed position in the organization.
Curtis Lazar, 1 year, $700,000
Much like Gilmour, Lazar was signed to provide depth to the organization. Unlike Gilmour, Lazar spent a significant amount of time in the NHL and was a fine depth player. When Lazar was on the ice during 5v5 play, the team was outshot in quantity a little more than when he was on the bench but the Sabres’ took better quality shots. Lazar was also used on the penalty kill. When he was first called-up, he provided better-shot suppression but ultimately finished the season getting shelled on the penalty kill. Realistically, Lazar should have been playing over Sobotka for the entire season as he was a better version of a similar player.
Lazar also brought some intangibles that the team lacks. Every shift Lazar was on the ice, he played like it could be his last. He was never the most talented player on the ice but provided an energy that not everyone else on the team always brought. Lazar will never be more than a depth player but can play in the NHL. As long as Botterill realizes that going forward, everything will be ok.
Zemgus Girgensons, 1 year, $1,600,000 AAV
Botterill previously signed Girgensons to a contract that set his qualifying offer at this price so he had already backed himself into a corner. The alternative would have been to not tender the qualifying offer and let Girgensons become an UFA. There is a chance that Botterill would’ve been able to bring him back at a lower price but it also would have given Girgensons the opportunity to negotiate with other teams and potentially sign with one of them. At the time, I didn’t think the team losing Girgensons would have been detrimental but I don’t know if it would have been a positive development either. Ultimately, Girgensons, Larsson, and Kyle Okposo combined to form a formable line that struggled to score but consistently controlled play. Could have the results been similar if one of Girgensons or Larsson were replaced? Possibly. To be consistent, I will grade mostly on the decision-making process and I am not 100% confident that Botterill made the best decision at the time but did do well to keep Girgensons with the qualifying offer.
Marcus Johansson, 2 years, $4,500,000 AAV
I liked this signing for Botterill a lot. Johansson was the type of secondary scoring player the team had been lacking. According to our contract predictions, Botterill slightly overpaid on AAV but gave a year less in term than we anticipated so the contract was pretty solid. The downside is this contract pushed the Sabres into salary cap danger. The other problem with this signing is Botterill basically forced Johansson into playing center, a position that he hadn’t played in years and was left comfortable with, especially against the strong competition he faced on the second-line. Botterill will be knocked more in a future part of the series than he will be here as this was overall a good signing. The failure to properly address the second-line center position takes a little away but not enough to make this a poor grade.
Johan Larsson, 1 year, $1,550,000 AAV
It seemed logical that the team would move on from at least one of Sobotka, Girgensons, or Larsson as they frankly fill a very similar role. Going into the offseason, an argument to lose any of them could have easily been made. Sobotka was clearly the weakest of the three players but the other two were the easiest to move on from. It seemed the team was poised to lose Larsson to Europe but ultimately things got done with the Sabres. Of the three, Larsson is probably the most valuable player so I don’t fault Botterill for bringing him back, especially since he was able to pay him less than Girgensons. I do have a problem with him bringing all three back. Larsson ultimately had a quality season and the team is going to be in a similar situation with him and Girgensons this offseason as they were last year. Although both players are replaceable, the two departing would create additional holes. I like the signing of Larsson slightly better than Girgensons but a lot said under each applies to both.
Evan Rodrigues, 1 year, $2,000,000
In our contract predictions we had Rodrigues’ value at ~$2.3M AAV on a two-year contract so value-wise, Botterill did well. During the 2018-2019 season, Rodrigues was one of the team’s most impactful forwards. I thought there was a chance that he could’ve solved the team’s second-line center woes in the short-term. Instead, entitlement took hold and he became a toxin in the Sabres’ locker room. Despite his strong underlying metrics during the 2018-2019 season, Rodrigues quickly became a player who the team needed to move on from. Botterill gets high marks on the signing that will be slightly reduced because of poor results.
Jake McCabe, 2 years, $2,850,000 AAV
I still don’t know what to think of Jake McCabe. He has had stretches of a season where he has been the Sabres’ best defender and also stretches where he has been the team’s worst defender. There were times when he was paired with Rasmus Ristolainen and it worked incredibly well and others where they were a complete disaster. In two of the past three seasons, the Sabres have overall been better with him on the ice. However, I fully expect McCabe to be at the top of the list of players available partly due to his inconsistent play throughout the season and partly due to the number of defensemen the team has. That is a discussion for another article.
Overall, I don’t have a problem with the Sabres retaining McCabe as it would have made no sense for them to let him walk for nothing. I also don’t think the contract was a huge overpayment. I don’t think Botterill can be knocked too much for this signing. He paid McCabe bottom four money, which is exactly what McCabe deserved.
Linus Ullmark, 1 year, $1,325,000 AAV
Linus Ullmark came off a successful first season as an NHL regular so getting a new contract was a no-brainer. We had predicted Ullmark to get a one-year contract with a slightly higher AAV but overall this contract seems right in-line with where Ullmark’s value was. I think the only knock here is that the contract was only for one year. Going for multiple years might have been a gamble that would have been worth taking for Botterill, though it takes two to tango and I’m not sure it would have made sense for Ullmark to take something with more term as his stock was most likely going to rise as he received more playing time.
Dalton Smith, 1 year, $700,000 AAV
Even though the impact was minimal, this was a disgraceful signing by Botterill. He signed Smith to play and start a fight against Tampa Bay. Smith had never played an NHL game before and skated less than two minutes in the game. For a team who was starting to slide, wasting a roster spot, even for just a game on a useless player is inexcusable. The last time the Sabres’ did something like this was signing John Scott in 2012. They haven’t sniffed a playoff spot since.
Botterill grades out slightly better for his signings than his trades as his GPA was 2.83 for the signings while only 2.77 for the trades. Though both ultimately land with the same letter grade.
Overall Grade: B-
With the recent news of Botterill being fired, I may condense the remaining planned articles into one. Please follow @afpanalytics and check back to read the remaining articles in the series. Feel free to share your thoughts with @afpanalytics or @k_sticher on Twitter.
Please note all salary figures and trade compensations are courtesy of Capfriendly.com and all statistical information is courtesy of Naturalstattrick.com. Featured image is via the Buffalo News.
KYLE STICH is the Director of AFP Analytics. In addition, Mr. Stich is a tax specialist and Director of Operations at AFP Consulting LLC, whose clientele include professional athletes performing services on three separate continents. Mr. Stich earned his Master of Science in Sport Management with a Concentration in Sport Analytics from Columbia University in 2017. He earned his undergraduate degrees in Accounting and Sport Management from St. John Fisher College in 2015, where he has served as an adjunct professor teaching Sport Finance and Baseball Analytics.