Botterill looking forward to the upcoming stretch of games

January 28, 2020

The Buffalo Sabres find themselves 10 points back of a playoff spot in both the Atlantic Division and the Wild Card picture with 33 games remaining in the 2019-20 season.

After a 10-day break from game action, the Sabres will start their final stretch of the season on Tuesday night with a matchup against the Ottawa Senators at KeyBank Center.

With a 22-20-7 record and 51 points, the Sabres are still in shooting distance of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but there will be plenty of work that needs to be done to get themselves into serious contention for a top-eight spot in the playoff picture.

However, the Sabres will have an advantage on their schedule with nine of the next 10 games on home ice. Buffalo has played remarkably well at KeyBank Center this season, going 14-5-3 in front of the hometown faithful.

Not only is this upcoming stretch of games significant for their playoff chances, but it will also be important towards dictating the direction the team will take heading into the NHL Trade Deadline on Monday, Feb. 24 at 3 p.m.

Sabres general manager Jason Botterill has not yet determined whether or not he will take a buyer or seller’s mentality towards the deadline, but he knows that these upcoming games at home will be of significant importance for the development of his group.

"I think ever since the game against Tampa Bay on New Year's Eve, which was certainly a disappointing game, you look at where we were at the mid-point of that game. I think Ralph is really focused a lot with our group about our short-term goals, and that's great for our internal group,” Botterill said when speaking with the Buffalo media on Tuesday. “From our standpoint, from a managerial perspective, we do have to take it a little bit more from a longer range perspective, and we'll certainly see how things progress here.

"I think it's exciting to have [nine of the next 10 games] at home, which at the start of the year that was a challenge to our group here to have a strong home ice presence. For the most part, I think we've done a good job with that. [When] you look at our group from the Christmas break on, we've played fairly well, but maybe haven't gotten the results that we wanted to all the time. Now it's important, starting here tonight against Ottawa, to try to get the results, but continue to improve as a group."

The Sabres have not played a game since Jan. 18 when they dropped a 2-1 decisions against the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena. Following that loss, the Sabres found themselves behind just six points of the Florida Panthers in the Atlantic Division, while they trailed the Carolina Hurricanes by eight points in the Wild Card race. Heading into the All-Star break, those deficits sat at 10 points.

Although Buffalo ended up sliding back in the playoff race, Botterill has been pleased with his team’s play and is hopeful that their stretch of play ahead of the break will continue to carry over.

“You go last week with not playing games and other teams are going to win and they move up in the standings from you and pull away. But then you have to take a step back and realize that we've won three of the last four, and I thought, especially against Vegas, Dallas and Nashville, three strong Western Conference teams, we played fairly well in those games,” Botterill said. “We could have come away with six point but didn't, so that's what we have to work on. It's important that with a young group that we continue to develop, but it's important that in crucial situations like we have coming up that we earn points. It's what Ralph and myself are certainly excited about just in the last couple of days is just how the group has come back here. Now we have to go out there and perform that in the game, but guys are re-energized, guys are excited, and I think our execution certainly was a lot better in Day 2 of practice than in Day 1 of practice, but now let's go out there and see what we can do."

It may be a nice look to see the team starting to come together as a group and play better, but the unrest from some fans is starting to grow.

The Sabres currently hold the longest active streak of seasons without a postseason appearance, and with another slip up in the final 33 games, it could see the team extend its streak to nine consecutive seasons without the playoffs.

While the organization does not want to seem too desperate to end the playoff drought and return to the postseason, Botterill insists that the playoffs remain a top goal for the team in the long-term focus.

"I don't think our team is that much different from anywhere else. What team doesn't want to be in the playoffs? What team doesn't strive at the start of the year [to have] a good year?” Botterill said. “It's a situation where I think there's a difference between having that to be your focus every day of playoffs, playoffs, playoffs versus what we've realized with this group, and what Ralph has realized of the group, is when you keep it short-term and you can focus on the short-term goals, we seem to play better and focus better. In our conversations, the goal is to ultimately get to the playoffs. We understand the importance of our young players gaining that experience. It's what we've tried to create in Rochester, tried to create in Cincinnati is players gaining experience in the playoffs and in those situations. It's why we're ecstatic about Dylan Cozens being in the World Junior Championship and playing in the gold medal game. You get that experience of pressure situations. We want our young players to be in there. That's across the board here in our organization, but it's not something that we talk about every day because I think there's more short-term goals that we have to work on that will eventually lead to our long-term success and long-term goals."

The team has seemed to be relatively solid on the back end with a plethora of NHL ready defensemen on the roster. Linus Ullmark has looked much more solid in goal for the Sabres in recent games, and has certainly given Buffalo a chance to stay in the conversation.

Where the Sabres need some help is up front with the lack of depth scoring this season.

While Jack Eichel has proven his worth this season with a Hart Trophy caliber effort through 48 games (28+34), the team behind him has sorely lacked in support. Sam Reinhart is right behind Eichel with 41 points (17:24) in 49 games, followed by rookie Victor Olofsson with 35 points (16+19) in 42 games. However, those three have spent most of the season playing on the same line and driving the offense.

Marcus Johansson is the next closest forward with 21 points (6+15) in just 42 games. Jeff Skinner had slumped for an 11-game goalless drought before returning from an upper-body injury on Tuesday night, scoring just 11 goals and registering 19 points in 39 games. Other players like Conor Sheary (16 points), Jimmy Vesey (14 points), Kyle Okposo (12 points) and Evan Rodrigues (five points) have all also underwhelmed offensively through the first part of the season.

That has led Botterill to try and find some help on the trade market with bringing in other assets to help find an offensive spark.

Michael Frolik was the first part acquired in-season by Botterill in a Jan. 2 trade with the Calgary Flames in exchange for a fourth round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft acquired from the Montreal Canadiens for defenseman Marco Scandella.

However, Botterill has made it clear that he is still in the hunt for more help offensively as they hope to inch closer to a playoff spot.

"I think we've been very honest from that standpoint,” he said. “With some of the injuries to Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson, to some of the development of some of our younger players such as [Henri] Jokiharju or a Lawrence Pilut, that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to add to our group there. I think if we can add more to the offensive mix, it would certainly be good for it. I think also too whenever you can add to our team speed up front, it's another thing we can look at.

“We are excited tonight to get Jeff [Skinner] back in the lineup. That's going to be a huge addition, and now we'll see for the first time that sort of mix of Skinner, Johansson and Frolik. Do they have chemistry as a line there?"

Another piece to the long-term puzzle that started in Buffalo but struggled to stay afloat in the NHL as a 20-year-old and 21-year-old is forward Casey Mittelstadt.

The Sabres assigned Mittelstadt to the Rochester Americans back on Dec. 15 after scoring four goals and registering five assists in just 31 games played. The young center was not firmly grasping the professional game with the Sabres, and it was clear from the start that he needed some time in Rochester to regroup and re-gain his confidence going forward.

Since his assignment to the Amerks, Mittelstadt has started to play more of his game with five goals and five assists for 10 points in 17 games.

Botterill has liked what he has seen from the former first round pick (eighth overall) in the 2017 NHL Draft in his time with the Amerks under head coach Chris Taylor.

"I think Casey has done a great job with integrating himself with the team in Rochester,” he said. “We've been very dialed in with our coaches down there. Something I've said that one of my comfort levels of sending Casey to Rochester was his relationship with Chris Taylor, and I think that's blossomed here. I think over the last little bit, he's played in key situations. I think last week in his game in Cleveland, him and Lawrence Pilut hooked up for the game-winning goal in overtime. I believe Casey could play in the National Hockey League right now, but we want him to not just survive, we want him to excel. We have high expectations for Casey, and Casey does for himself too. What we've really liked about his attitude in Rochester is he's been very proactive with what he needs to work on with the coaching staff, with his other teammates, and overall it's been a good experience for him."

You can listen to the entire media session with Botterill below: