Grading Buffalo Sabres’ GM Jason Botterill: Part 1, Trades
The Buffalo Sabres recently announced that they would retain General Manager Jason Botterill for a fourth season. The decision to do so has not gone over well with the fans of the team as most believe that he has done a generally poor job in his role. 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 first part of the series will look at the trades he made involving regular NHL players. I have discussed the trades in chronological order from oldest to most recent.
Trade for Nathan Beaulieu
Details: Buffalo Acquired D Nathan Beaulieu from Montreal for a 3rd round pick (68th overall)
Botterill’s first player move as a general manager was to add more speed and mobility to the blueline, something that was desperately lacking from the team he inherited. Beaulieu is a defenseman with great speed and puck-moving abilities. He was an odd man out in Montreal but still young enough where it seemed like he could improve. During Beaulieu’s first three years in the league, the Canadiens improved in controlling both shot quantity and quality while he was on the ice. The next two seasons, leading up to him being traded, saw things go south.
When Botterill acquired Beaulieu, there were signs of things going the wrong direction but there had also been signs of strong play earlier in his career. He was a player that had “change of scenery” written all over him. I think overall Beaulieu fit a need for the Sabres and Botterill was able to acquire him for a reasonable price of a third-round pick. Once Beaulieu got to Buffalo, he seemed to fall out of favor for glaring mistakes. However, his metrics were pretty solid for a bottom four defenseman and really did not get a fair chance in Buffalo. It isn’t Botterill’s job to make day to day lineup decisions but he should have had some organizational support/structure in place to assist the coaching staff with lineup decisions. I think there is a lot to like about the process and decision to make the trade but the results did not work out.
Enticing Vegas to take Carrier Opposed to Ullmark
Details: Buffalo gave Vegas a 6th round pick to take William Carrier instead of Linus Ullmark in the expansion draft
This “trade” had mostly been put in place by the previous general manager, Tim Murray, but ultimately Botterill still had to finalize it and could have pulled the plug if he wanted. The Sabres had exactly two desirable assets in the expansion draft, William Carrier and Linus Ullmark. Carrier has turned into a nice role player for Vegas and probably would have been the same in Buffalo. However, allowing Vegas to take Ullmark for nothing would have devastated the organization as he has been the best goalie (not a super high bar to clear) in the organization for the past couple of years. Giving up a 6thround pick to lose a 4th line player instead of a potential number one goalie is a major win. The team got a peek at what life was without him when he was injured this season and the results weren’t pretty. Some of you reading this will probably think I gave Botterill too much credit here but in most group projects in school, everyone gets the same grade. Here, Botterill benefits from having someone else do much of the work but not messing it up at the end.
Trade for Jason Pominville & Marco Scandella
Details: Buffalo acquires Jason Pominville, Marco Scandella and a 4th round pick from Minnesota for Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, and a 3rd round pick.
Jason Botterill’s first couple moves as GM were aimed at shoring up the team’s defense. Much like his trade for Beaulieu, he identified a team that seemed to have a surplus of defensemen and were open to trading them. The best piece in this trade ended up being Jason Pominville. The idea of acquiring a Wild defenseman made a lot of sense. The price of Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno was not steep. If anything, trading them away was a net positive for Botterill as injuries had dramatically reduced Ennis’s effectiveness and he was under a contract that paid him more than the value he was providing. Although Foligno had a tremendous season in 2018-2019, he was nothing more than a 3rd line winger, which isn’t overly valuable in terms of trade value, and didn’t project any higher either.
The knock Botterill gets for this trade is that he settled for Scandella. Minnesota likely would have traded one of Scandella, Brodin, or Spurgeon (more likely one of the first two). Of those Scandella was clearly the weakest. Much like Beaulieu, Scandella had started off strong but saw a drop in play in the two seasons leading up to the trade as the Wild did worse in both shot quantity and quality with him on the ice. Had Botterill viewed Scandella as the bottom four defenseman he really was, this trade would have been a home run. However, Botterill thought Scandella could handle playing on the top pair with Ristolainen and matchup with the opposing team’s top players. That was never going to be the case and his failure to realize that was an issue. Botterill still gets high marks for this trade as a lot of the thought process behind this makes trade made a lot of sense.
Trades Away Evander Kane
Details: Buffalo acquired Danny O’Regan, a conditional 1st (conditions met), conditional 4th (stayed as 4th) for Evander Kane.
The Sabres’ play early in the season quickly signaled that they would miss out on the playoffs so the clock was ticking on making a decision on Kane early in the season. I think Botterill could have justified re-signing him or trading him. Under no circumstances could he allow Kane to walk away for nothing. In my opinion, the total return was very underwhelming as the Sabres were not guaranteed a 1st-round pick. I’m sure Botterill took the best offer at the time but there were probably better trade offers to be had earlier in the season that he failed to make. Kane was not the most tradeable player in the league but he did produce offensively and should have had some appeal as a rental. Botterill turned him into a low-level prospect who had shown no indication of being able to be a full-time NHLer and two draft picks that he later traded away. Botterill doesn’t fail this trade but he certainly doesn’t get high marks either.
Acquires Matt Hunwick and Conor Sheary
Details: Sabres acquire Matt Hunwick and Conor Sheary from Pittsburgh for a conditional 4th round pick that became third based on player performance (stayed a 4th)
In this trade, Botterill had cap space and a need for some depth scoring. He weaponized the cap space to add Sheary for a low cost by also absorbing Matt Hunwick’s contract. The addition of Sheary made complete sense. He had success playing along highly skilled centers (Crosby and Malkin) in Pittsburgh so pairing him with Eichel seemed great in theory. The worst-case would be provided some scoring depth for a low price. Hunwick inexplicitly played some games for Buffalo and was not good in the few games he played. That was probably more of a coaching issue though Botterill gets some blame for even providing the option.
The results of this trade were not good as neither player contributed much at all. The good news is the draft pick was conditional and did not get upgraded. Although Botterill gets knocked a little for that, this was a home run trade on paper at the time the trade was executed. Sheary was decent when looking beyond his basic box score statistics as the Sabres were better when he was on the ice BUT he just couldn’t produce points which was a major issue.
Ryan O’Reilly Trade
Details: Sabres acquire Patrik Berglund, Vladmir Sobotka, Tage Thompson, a conditional 1st round pick and a 2021 2ndround pick
Everyone knows this was Botterill’s worst move as GM and probably the main reason fans are still so upset with him as the team has not recovered from it. There is no doubt this was bad but at the time, there was some rationale for trading O’Reilly but the return he got was dreadful. The Sabres were a top-heavy team that was in desperate need of forward depth. O’Reilly was coming off a down season (when he wasn’t playing with Sam Reinhart, the team was worse with him on the ice during 5v5 play) and he had expressed his displeasure publicly. There also was (and still is) some concern with the length of his contract and his future value.
To me, the idea of trading O’Reilly could have been defendable but the return is not in any way. Patrik Berglund and Vladmir Sobotka were never going to be impact players. They were going to come in and be, at best, third line players. If both players needed to be included for financial reasons to get a better overall package for the Sabres, it would have been one thing. However, those two players were centerpieces of the trade and didn’t help improve the Sabres’ haul. With those two players included, the Sabres should have demanded Robert Thomas be included in addition to Thompson or multiple unprotected 1st round picks. Additionally, Botterill needed to have a better plan for the second-line center than Berglund and/or Mittelstadt (maybe it should have been Sam Reinhart). Ultimately, nothing about the trade made sense or worked out and the team is still recovering from this trade.
Acquire Jeff Skinner
Details: Buffalo acquires Jeff Skinner for Cliff Pu, 2019 2nd round pick, 2020 3rd round & 6th round picks
Just like everyone knows the O’Reilly trade was awful, everyone knows the Jeff Skinner trade was a homerun. I think people forget about how lopsided this trade was. It is incredible that Botterill was able to make a horrible trade and follow it up not long after with an excellent trade. Skinner was everything and more for what the team needed. The line of Skinner, Eichel, and Reinhart kept the team in the playoff mix into March almost singlehandedly. The assets Botterill gave up had little value.
Acquire Brandon Montour
Details: Buffalo acquires Brandon Montour for Brandon Guhle and the higher of previously acquired 1st round picks
This was an interesting trade by Botterill. Even after some changes to the blueline, the Sabres were still in need of a fast-skating, puck-moving defenseman and that is exactly what Montour brings. However, Guhle also provides some of those same traits but was much less polished. The idea of “upgrading” from Guhle to Montour made sense. It also helped the team balance their left and right shots. However, Montour has still not settled into a role in Buffalo mostly because Botterill has failed to alleviate a logjam he created. Montour should ideally be playing second pair (or maybe top pair) minutes (on the right side) and quarterbacking the second power-play unit.
I question the price Botterill paid to get Montour. To me, the price should have been a mid-round pick or prospect plus one of Guhle or a 1st round pick. Using the 1st round pick to marginally upgrade Brandon Guhle seemed a little strange to me but I also don’t think this was a terrible trade either.
Trades Away Nathan Beaulieu
Details: Buffalo acquires a 6th round pick in exchange for Nathan Beaulieu
As discussed above, Beaulieu never found his footing in Buffalo and the coaching staff deserves a lot of blame for that. However, his underlying numbers were solid for a bottom four defenseman. Beaulieu publicly made his displeasure known and once that happens the returns are fairly limited. It seems like Beaulieu’s value was hurt somewhat by Botterill holding on for him for so long. A sixth-round pick for a serviceable defenseman with a decent contract and RFA status is not great compensation but something is better than keeping him and letting him walk for nothing in summer.
Acquires Colin Miller
Details: Buffalo acquires defenseman Colin Miller in exchange for a 2021 2nd round pick and 2022 5th round pick.
On paper, this trade had the markings of another homerun trade for Botterill. When Miller was on the ice, an already good Vegas team performed even better. His advanced metrics were very good. It seemed like Miller would be a perfect fit in the top four in Buffalo and maybe even on the top pair as Rasmus Dahlin’s partner. It seemed like Miller’s acquisition would finally allow Buffalo to move on from Rasmus Ristolainen and recoup or even add assets as they had just found a better, cheaper option.
It took Miller some time to find his footing in Buffalo and finished the shortened season by seeing the team was overall better with him on the ice than when he was off. Miller was not the immediate impact player that Buffalo was hoping and him and Dahlin together early in the season was a disaster (some of that blame also falls on Dahlin). Part of the problem for Miller was his usage was less than ideal for much of the season. Although there were signs that he could maybe slot on the top pair, it became clear that it wasn’t a good idea. Miller also had been given significant power-play time in Vegas as he has a bomb of a shot from the backend. However, Buffalo preferred to use Dahlin and Ristolainen over Miller so he was forced to share the remaining time with Brandon Montour. Confidence goes a long way in hockey and Miller’s seemed shot early but he did rebound as the season went on.
Overall, Botterill gets high marks for this trade as he again capitalized on a team tight to the cap and acquired a quality player for a reduced price. The problem with this trade is it added to an already stocked blueline and created a bigger logjam than one that already existed. Please note, I will have a grade specifically for this aspect of roster management later on so this grade will mostly reflect the acquisition of Miller.
Acquires Jimmy Vesey
Details: Buffalo acquires Jimmy Vesey for a 2021 3rd round pick
This was an interesting trade that isn’t as easy to grade as many may think. Vesey did not produce many points and was not more than a third-line player. However, over the course of the shortened season, the team was better when Vesey was on the ice, both in terms of shot quantity and quality. He provided the same for a bad New York Rangers team during the 2018-2019 season.
Botterill identified the Sabres as a team that lacked depth and has gone about acquiring players to address that. Vesey is a good depth option. However, Botterill viewed him as more than that as he, on more than one occasion, referred to Vesey as a top-nine forward opposed to middle or bottom six, where he should properly slot. Though Botterill thought he could skate on the top line, the compensation he gave up reflects more of a middle-six player, though I still think that was still too much. The positive is the risk of acquiring Vesey was fairly low as he was signed to a relatively small, one-year contract so if he had a breakout season, the Sabres would have gotten some great value.
Overall, the signs were there that Vesey was nothing more than a third-line player who wouldn’t kill your team if he had to slot higher in the lineup on occasion but shouldn’t have been counted on doing so. Botterill overvalued Vesey and ultimately added another player to the mix of many replacement level players he already had. However, the relatively low-risk nature of the trade, the thought process to improve depth, and the acceptable results of Vesey’s play help this grade.
Acquires Henri Jokiharju
Details: Sabres acquire Henri Jokiharju in exchange for Alexander Nylander
If I were to poll Sabres’ fans on what their favorite trade made by Botterill was, I bet a lot would point to this one. Alex Nylander had quickly fallen out of favor with Sabres’ fans and many were happy to see the team move on and I am guessing many would’ve been happy with a much lower return than what the team got. Jokiharju passes all the tests for a young player you would want to acquire. He is still on his entry-level contract, was a high draft selection, dominated the AHL, and has played time in the NHL and has been successful in doing so. The fact that he plays the highly-valued right defense helps as well. On paper, this seems like another home run for Botterill.
Jokiharju was a very steady performer on the blueline for the early part of the season but showed some decline as the season wore on. When he was on the ice, the Sabres gave up more shots but the quality of those shots were less than the quality the Sabres produced. Considering Jokiharju is still incredibly young and many thought he would play most of this season in the AHL, management and fans have the right to be hopeful.
I have two issues with this trade that prevent it from being an “A.” First, Jokiharju was the second right-shot defenseman acquired in almost as many weeks. Botterill now had Ristolainen, Montour, Miller, and Jokiharju on the right side alone. It is perfectly fine that the team allowed Jokiharju to earn his NHL time but his superb play created a further logjam on the blueline. So, like the Miller trade above, this will negatively impact his grade. Second, I am not against the idea of trading Nylander but the trade created a new hole and added to a problem in the organization. The Sabres’ biggest weakness right now is they are lacking prospects that project well as Top Six forwards. The only four players who may fit that mold are Casey Mittelstadt, Tage Thompson, Victor Olofsson, and 2019 first-round pick, Dylan Cozens. The former two are probably middle-six players at best. Olofsson showed tremendous promise in his rookie season but has not solidified himself either. The signs are positive for Cozens but he has no sample playing against “men.” Though Nylander did not project as a surefire Top Six, he had the skill set that could translate to that spot. With Olofsson “graduated” and Nylander traded, the Sabres have a whole in their prospect pipeline at forward. Trading Ristolainen could (have) solved two problems at once. Instead, an excellent trade in a vacuum exasperated a big problem for the Sabres.
Acquires Michael Frolik; Trades Marco Scandella
Details: Buffalo traded Marco Scandella to Montreal for a 4th round pick that was subsequently traded to Calgary for Michael Frolik
Though there may be some recency bias, this trade is probably the one most fans would pin as second-worst to the Ryan O’Reilly trade. However, I don’t have nearly as big of an issue with this trade as many fans. Many fans will point to Scandella’s subsequent trade to the Blues for a 2nd round pick in addition to Frolik providing next to nothing for the Sabres as a clear black-eye for Botterill. However, I can’t fault Botterill for 1) The return Montreal got for Scandella, 2) Frolik providing nothing for the Sabres. In order to fairly assess the trade, we need to look at it at the point of time it was made and not play the “what if” game after it was made. For all intents and purposes, Botterill traded Scandella for Frolik and that is how I am going to assess the trade.
Both Scandella and Frolik are impending unrestricted free agents (UFAs) who probably were going to be nothing more than rentals. The Sabres definitely would not be retaining Scandella at the season’s end and needed to add someone to their forward group. Frolik graded out well analytically over the course of his career BUT was having a down season this year. The question is whether he could bounce back with an increased role or whether age had gotten the best of him. Ironically, the opposite of Marco Scandella was true. He had been down the past couple of seasons but was tremendous this season for Buffalo, which is probably attributable to playing a less demanding role and with a better partner. He had quickly become one of the more attractive assets from the Sabres’ crowded blueline.
If we look at this trade as Scandella for a 4th round pick, it isn’t great but not bad either. Everyone in the league knew Botterill had defensemen to deal so they weren’t going to be aggressively bidding for any of them so it was going to be difficult to get full market value for Scandella, which was probably a 3rd round pick at the time. Yes, Scandella was traded at the deadline for a 2nd round pick and a conditional 4th round pick but the devil is in the details. There are four reasons Montreal was able to get a better return. First, the trade deadline adjusts the supply and demand of the market so the price was going to be naturally higher. Buffalo could’ve waited it out for a slightly better return but Botterill would’ve been crucified for that too. Second, Montreal retained salary. The salary retention likely bumped the pick up a round because it was critical for St. Louis and the same would’ve been true of any other playoff contender that might have acquired Scandella. Third, Scandella proved he could play effectively in a different situation in Montreal. Although that wasn’t likely a major factor, it probably didn’t hurt either. Finally, Botterill was always playing from behind because of the logjam of defenseman he had. No opposing GM was going to allow him to “win” a trade of a defenseman. The one knock I do have on the return is the lack of a conditional pick. Every trade made in-season should include some performance, trading, or re-signing clause. This would better allow teams to capture the value the player is providing.
If we look just at the Frolik side of the trade, there is nothing wrong with the price of a 4th round pick. Frolik’s salary certainly isn’t great and likely delayed the trade until the Sabres could move some salary but the idea of acquiring him was not bad. He was a relatively low-risk acquisition who could have provided a decent reward for the Sabres. Overall, I look at this trade as a trade of Frolik for Marco Scandella, a trade of a bottom-four defenseman for a middle-six forward, with similar contract situations. This is what people like to call a hockey trade. I don’t think Botterill made a brilliant trade but he did what he needed to do. The question is whether he did it involving the correct players.
Acquires Wayne Simmonds
Details: Buffalo acquires Wayne Simmonds (with 50% salary retained) for a 2021 5th round pick
I know there are people that don’t like this move but frankly, it was an incredibly low-risk move that could lead to a reward. Simmonds is no longer the player he used to be put still brought some unique skills to Buffalo. Although the coaching staff continued to use Rasmus Ristolainen as the net-front man on the power play, that area was a major weakness for the team. Sam Reinhart has proven to be effective in that position but he can be equally effective on the perimeter as well. Simmonds should have come in and been immediately inserted in that position. Everything else he could’ve provided would have been a bonus. Had he somehow caught fire, Botterill would’ve looked like a genius. He didn’t, as expected, but Botterill is only out a 5th round pick in next year’s draft, which is basically nothing. At worst, Simmonds would have filled the hole that would soon be created by trading Conor Sheary.
Acquires Dominik Kahun
Details: Buffalo acquires Dominik Kahun in exchange for Evan Rodrigues and Conor Sheary
This is a home run of a trade for Botterill and the creative type of trade he needs to do more of. Both Rodrigues and Sheary were on expiring contracts and neither were going to be back in Buffalo (Rodrigues wouldn’t have received a tender as an RFA). Both were assets that would have been gone at the end of the season for nothing and were nothing more than rentals at the trade deadline. I also don’t think either player had much value in the trade market. Sheary was probably going to return a 4th round pick (3rd if lucky or retaining salary) and Rodrigues was probably a 5th or 6th round pick. In essence, both players would have returned a nearly worthless asset. Instead of shopping both separately, Botterill packaged them and got an intriguing asset, Dominik Kahun, in return. Kahun is young, cheap, and has shown he can play in the NHL. He is probably a middle-six forward but is a fairly safe bet to be no worse than that. Though the results are very limited with the Sabres, he did seem to be fitting in well. Regardless, he is a much better asset to have now and likely in the future than whatever those middle to late-round draft picks would have become.
I think a lot of the flack Botterill receives comes from the singular focus on one horrible trade and his acquisition of Jeff Skinner gets overshadowed by the subsequent contract he signed him to, which was a home run of a trade. I think the biggest issue Botterill has had is many of the trades that have looked good on paper, haven’t produced the expected results. In some instances, it should have been anticipated. However, in many instances, it is somewhat mystifying as to why players have performed so poorly in Buffalo. The other problem in Botterill’s trading history is there are very few trades where the Sabres are the clear “winners.” He has made plenty of fine and balanced trades but he needs to do more to swing trades in his favor. He should take more advantage of adding conditions to trades. Overall, Botterill grades out as very average on his trades.
Overall Grade for Trades: B-
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.
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.
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.