By Nicholas J. Cotsonika @Cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist
NASHVILLE — Jason Botterill stood on the ice at Bridgestone Arena on Sunday when the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrated with the Stanley Cup, a Penguins towel draped over his right shoulder. Sometimes he used the words “our” and “us,” sometimes “their” and “they.”
He’s general manager of the Buffalo Sabres now. But until May 11, he was associate GM of the Penguins. He spent 10 years in Pittsburgh’s front office, so when the Penguins put themselves in position to clinch, they invited him and his family on a charter with other families for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.
When Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin scored late in the third period and the Penguins defeated the Nashville Predators 2-0, Botterill was part of his third championship with Pittsburgh, following 2009 and ’16.
“This is the finale,” he said of his time with the Penguins, “and a pretty good way to go out.”
Botterill was to fly back to Buffalo on Monday. He has to hire a coach, and now that the Final is over, he can pursue Penguins assistant Rick Tocchet or Predators assistant Phil Housley if he wants. He said he hoped to decide on a coach later this week or next week.
He must submit the Sabres’ list of protected players for the NHL Expansion Draft by 5 p.m. ET on Saturday. The Vegas Golden Knights’ selections will be announced at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas on June 21. The 2017 NHL Draft is in Chicago on June 23 and 24. Free agency begins July 1.
Needless to say, Botterill wants to be standing on the ice as the Sabres celebrate with the Stanley Cup someday, using the words “our” and “us,” and this is the beginning. Asked what he wanted to take from Pittsburgh to Buffalo, he didn’t hesitate.
“Just how so many players came through the system and had an opportunity to come up,” he said. “It wasn’t always first-round picks.”
Though the Penguins have been led by elite players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, a key to their success has been their depth within the organization.
Botterill, who was GM of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League, mentioned goaltender Matt Murray, a third-round pick (No. 83) in the 2012 draft who came up from the AHL last season and took over the net for the Penguins’ Cup run.
He mentioned forwards Bryan Rust, a third-round pick (No. 80) in the 2010 draft who came up from the AHL last season and scored big goals in the playoffs, and Jake Guentzel, a third-round pick (No. 77) in the 2013 draft who came up from the AHL this season and led the NHL with 13 goals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
He mentioned forwards Scott Wilson, a seventh-round pick (No. 209) in the 2011 draft, and Conor Sheary, an undrafted free agent.
“Certainly you have to capitalize on your first-round picks, but you’ve got to find players and develop players in different manners,” he said.
Buffalo is a passionate hockey market — just look at the high local TV ratings for the Final — frustrated with a team that has missed the playoffs for six straight seasons. The Sabres have a committed owner in Terry Pegula, first-class facilities and center Jack Eichel, the No. 2 pick of the 2015 draft. People want results, but Botterill needs time to execute his plan.
The Penguins won the Cup in back-to-back seasons but they were the first to do so in almost two decades, since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and ’98, and there was a lot of disappointment between the 2009 championship and these two.
“It’s been an amazing 10 years, but it’s also had some ups and downs in the 10 years,” Botterill said. “Yeah, you look at ’08 and ’09, the success of going to the Stanley Cup finals, but then the adversity of having teams that are supposed to win not win. That’s why I’m so proud of this group. The core group found a way to overcome some of those adversities and become a team that was clutch once again in crucial situations.”
The NHL is tough. The Tampa Bay Lightning went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 and took the Penguins to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final last year, then missed the playoffs this season. The Predators were 16th in the regular-season standings; they came within two games of the Cup.
“We’ve got to do a better job of developing players, and we’ve got some work to do because you look at how competitive this league is,” Botterill said. “It’s amazing, the parity. It’s amazing how difficult the League is, so there’s certainly going to be challenges in Buffalo to get things going.”
Botterill is up to the challenges.
“His fingerprints are all over this team and this organization,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s such a great person. He works extremely hard. He’s a very prepared guy, and I’m thrilled for [him], No. 1 because he’s part of this Stanley Cup again, and No. 2 because of the opportunity he’s been given in Buffalo. I know he’s going to do a terrific job.”
(Reprinted with permission of NHL.com)