The hiring of Jason Botterill has proven controversial; it shouldn’t be

by Kevin Nesgoda

On January 5th, an email notification flickered on my screen from the Kraken front office. Expecting an update on one of the clubs facilities, I was taken aback when the subject line read “Seattle Kraken Sign Assistant GM and Director of Player Personnel as Countdown to Inaugural Season Begins”. My blood pressure went through the roof as I began reading the media advisory – until I made it about half way through the first sentence.

“The Seattle Kraken today announce Jason Botterill and Norm Maciver as the newest additions to its hockey operations department.”

The Kraken front office has been brilliant throughout this entire process with their hiring. Ron Francis as GM, Gary Robert as a sports science and performance consultant, Namita Nandakumar as Senior Quantitative Analyst; the list goes on. For a team that seemed it could do no wrong, Botterill appeared to be an outlier. It’s an opinion that I increasingly encounter the more I talk with people.

On the surface, and upon initial discovery, it sounds questionable. However, the more we dig into the move, the more we realize that it shouldn’t be. I’d go so far as to say this is an outstanding hire and is just another example of the Kraken doing everything right to set this organization up for success.

Before we get into his accolades off the ice, let’s talk about his success on it.

Botterill played four years at Michigan, an NCAA powerhouse, where he helped lead the team to a national championship in 1996. He won gold in three straight World Junior Championships (the only Canadian to do so), played 88 games in the NHL, over 300 in the AHL, and won the Calder Cup in 2001. Unfortunately, a severe concussion forced him to retire in 2004.

Three years later, he graduated from Michigan with an MBA and began working in the NHL front offices before landing a scouting job with the Dallas Stars in 2006. In 2007, he was hired by the Pittsburgh Penguins as director of hockey administration. His responsibilities essentially boiled down to salary cap management, pro and amateur scouting, as well as overseeing prospects as they worked their way through the organization’s ranks.

Two years later, the Pens were announcing Botterill as their new assistant GM to replace a departing Chuck Fletcher. Fletcher was leaving for the Minnesota Wild, who hired him as their second general manager in team history.

“At the same time, we are excited by the opportunity to promote Jason Botterill to Assistant General Manager. Jason is one of the bright young executives in hockey, and he has made major contributions to the success we have had the past two seasons. We expect a seamless transition, because Jason has worked closely with Chuck and me in all facets of hockey operations” read the press release.

Call that foreshadowing at its best as Botterill was later named one of the most powerful people in the game by The Hockey News.

Up until that point, everything was fantastic. But here is where the controversy begins.

In May of 2017, Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula announced Jason Botterill as the team’s new General Manager.

“We are very happy to welcome Jason Botterill to the Buffalo Sabres family,” Owner Terry Pegula said during his hiring. “Jason’s hockey knowledge, experience drafting and developing players, and his approach to management stood out to us during our interview process. Jason has built a solid reputation as a leader that connects strongly with players and staff around him. We are confident he will have a positive impact within our organization and will help us get to our ultimate goal.”

At the time, the Sabres appeared to be on their way up. They drafted solid talent in forwards Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, as well as defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane marked some of the veteran presence on the ice, building out what appeared to be an opportunity for the team to crawl out of their destined 8th place spot to maybe reach the playoffs for the first time in six years.

When the dust settled in June of 2020, Botterill was out of a job and the team still had not made the playoffs; finishing 8th, 6th, and 6th between 2017 and 2020 Ryan O’Reilly was traded to the Blues, Jeff Skinner signed an 8-year $72-million contract, Evander Kane was shipped to San Jose. What role Botterill actually played in these decisions, and whether he is simply being used as a scapegoat by ownership, is something we will never really know.

Regardless of what actual responsibility Botterill held for the disastrous moves in Buffalo, many still consider his hiring by Seattle to be a questionable move.

Before I breakdown why it shouldn’t be, lets take a quick look at what’s coming down the pipeline for the Kraken and some of the challenges presented by COVID.

  • February 1st: Teams can begin requesting that players waive their no-trade-clause ahead of the expansion draft

  • February 11th: Deadline to sign group 2 restricted free agents

  • March 12th: Players on one-year deals are able to begin signing extensions

  • April 12th: Trade deadline

  • May 8th: End of regular season

  • May 11th: Playoffs begin

  • July 17th: Expansion draft protection lists due to the NHL

  • July 21st: Expansion draft at 5pm

  • July 23rd-24th: 2021 NHL Entry Draft

  • July 28th: Free agency opens

The no-trade-clause waivers, restricted free agent singings, contract extensions, and trade deadlines are massive when determining who is most likely to be available to the Kraken in the expansion draft. The protection lists will be made public on July 17th, then it’s a seven day sprint of deciding the team’s future. By July 24th, we will officially have a roster of players (led by Mount Vernon native T.J. Oshie please), and four days after that the Kraken will be free to start negotiating with any free agents to round out the club.

This is challenging in a normal year. COVID makes it nearly impossible.

If the team is to build a roster that represents their vision of how to play hockey, they need to be scouting. Sure, Director of Amateur Scouting Robert Kron and his team will help pick up a lot of the slack, but analytics is a piece of a larger puzzle that includes getting eyes on and speaking with players. There are going to be fewer games to watch with a shortened NHL season, many junior and college teams are opting to not take the ice, and NHL facilities as a whole are locked down to outsiders.

What does this have to do with Botterill? Experience.

For ten seasons, he helped build, draft, and maintain a player pool that includes Bryan Rust, who was drafted by the Pen
guins 80th overall in 2010, Jake Guentzel when he was selected in the third round of the 2013 draft, and first line defenseman Brian Dumoulin who was acquired in a trade with Carolina. These three players, among others, played big roles at one point or another in the three Stanley Cup championships that Boterill won with the team. In the AHL, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins took home two regular season titles, three division championships, and one conference championship under Botterill’s watch.

At a time when scouting and player development, especially at the AHL level, are going to be extremely challenging, the Kraken management brought in someone with proven experience who has found success at all levels of the game. We also can’t forget that he worked alongside Kraken GM Ron Francis to build a Canadian squad for the 2019 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia.

This isn’t, however, the only challenge they face.

COVID has thrown the league’s finances into complete chaos (Hello, helmet sponsors!) and forced a flat cap upon the owners. NHL teams will have to keep their rosters within the $81.5 million cap for another year. There are also signs that the 2021-2022 cap, the Kraken’s inaugural season, will increase only a fraction if at all. For high spending teams with deep rosters, there is a good chance they’ll be looking for cap relief.

With other clubs hesitant to bite due to financial pressures caused by the pandemic, it opens up a door for Seattle to find leverage that would have otherwise disappeared after lessons learned from the Vegas expansion.

“I think there are pros and cons, right? Obviously, the cap being flat should be a benefit to us,” Kraken GM Ron Francis told the Atheltic back in October.

Current teams were built around an increasing cap while Seattle enters with full knowledge of the current climate (Pledge Arena?) and future cap limits. Having an executive such as Botterill, who spent a decade working successfully within these restraints in Pittsburgh, is key.

Was his tenure as GM in Buffalo a disaster? Absolutely. They are still searching for the elusive playoff spot, hoping to avoid the fate of the Mariners. But what we need to recognize is that he isn’t coming here to be a GM. The Kraken have one of those in Ron Francis. He isn’t even the only assistant GM. He is one of two joining Rick Olczyk, who was hired in September of 2019.

Jason Boterill is here to assist with building, making sure the Kraken properly manage the cap, as well as maintaining a strong player pool through player scouting and the AHL affiliate in Palm Springs. He isn’t making final decisions; instead he brings much needed experience to an already stacked front office that will be building this organization from scratch over the next year. I think once we realize that, we can safely say that his hiring was not all that controversial. It was simply the Kraken doing what they do best – placing the right people in the right position to ensure this team succeeds when they take the ice next season.

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