Three weeks ago in an interview with John Wawrow of the Associated Press, Buffalo Sabres owner and President Kim Pegula gave the vote of confidence for Jason Botterill, saying that he would remain with the team for his fourth season as general manager.
That vote of confidence was rescinded on Tuesday as the team made the decision to fire Botterill, as well as assistant general managers Randy Sexton and Steve Greeley, and promote Senior Vice President of Business Administration Kevyn Adams to general manager.
"We certainly had this conversation three weeks ago... certainly that was our intent that Jason was going to continue [as the general manager>," Kim said on Tuesday in a Zoom conference call with the Buffalo media. "If you recall at that time, we had just found out that the regular season had ended. And then in the next three weeks, especially with the announcement of the draft being pushed back to some time this fall, it gave us a little bit more time to really start digging in saying, 'Okay, what does the future look like? Let's start looking and planning for the future.' I think that's what changed over the last three weeks."
"When we were in detailed discussions with Jason and how we felt we needed to move forward effectively, efficiently and economically, running this franchise, we felt that there were too many differences in opinion going into the future that we just thought that since we had more time, it would be best for us to make this change," added Sabres owner Terry Pegula as he joined his wife on the conference call.
It may not come as a surprise with the decision to let Botterill go after three seasons of middling to below average hockey with minimal improvement shown on the ice. Buffalo went 88-115-30 in Botterill's tenure, which amounted to finishes of 31st, 27th and 25th place in the overall standings in that span.
This past season saw the Sabres get off to another great start to the campaign, only to falter later on and fall out of serious contention come March. Buffalo ended up finishing the 2019-20 campaign with a 30-31-8 record in 69 games before their season was ended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The team ended up finishing just two points behind the Montreal Canadiens for the 12th and final spot in the Eastern Conference qualifying round in the NHL's Return To Play format this summer.
While reflecting on the season that was and looking back on the vote of confidence given to Botterill going into the 2020-21 season, Kim Pegula says that she does not regret what she said because it was their intent to keep him on at the time.
"That was the direction that Terry and I had both talked about when I talked to John [Wawrow> three weeks ago," she said. "There has been a lot of things going on in this world right now. We are not the only club having to take some deep looks in how we move forward, and I think that's really what this was all about.
"As we all know, part of sports is the results. It's a results-driven industry. If you look at our past, we haven't been happy with the results, and so I think this was an opportunity to say, 'Okay, how can we do things differently? What is really not working instead of just repeating past mistakes or repeating different processes?' That's what we were really trying to look for is find some new insights, some new thoughts on how to go forward and what the future looks like. Without getting into real details, just some of the philosophical discussions that we had, we just felt that Kevyn was better equipped to actually get us down those roads."
What probably came as a surprise to many is not only the timing of the decision, but also why the Pegulas decided to go with Adams and not look elsewhere to find a replacement for Botterill. In the minds of both Terry and Kim Pegula, it was the familiarity and trust with Adams that got him the promotion to the general manager position.
"We had Kevyn in mind very recently, only because we know him over nine years," Terry Pegula said. "He has handled very admirably any job we've given him. [He's> loyal, communicative, and we just feel that it's a better place for us to be with Kevyn as our GM.
"There's a difference between interviewing an individual for the first time and never having met that individual and putting that individual in a position of trusting your organization. I don't care if it's a sports team, a bank, a newspaper, whatever. We have known Kevyn for nine years and keep jamming him with responsibilities and he kept rising up the ladder. He's a very knowledgeable and passionate person. He's a great communicator, and this isn't some scattershot decision that we made. That's the way it came down."
One of the major issues that has been a problem with the Sabres organization for several years has been the lack of communication from top-to-bottom and everywhere in-between. It goes back to the disconnect between the players and coaches like Ron Rolston, Dan Bylsma and Phil Housley, to the way that Tim Murray conducted himself when he was the general manager of the Sabres from 2014 to 2017, and so on and so forth.
"I'm going to label communication as one of the biggest issues with the Sabres," Terry Pegula said. "We believe in open communication between all powers to be in the organization, and sometimes that breaks down. Sometimes it could be anybody's fault, but there's only one Stanley Cup winner every year, and again, our goal is to enthusiastically face the future with our new regime here and try to win a championship."
That lack of communication even came down to the Pegulas' vision for the future of the team with Botterill's vision. Terry said was both sides were not on the same wavelength when looking ahead to next season and beyond.
"We felt like we weren't being heard," he said. "I'm not going to sit here and dish on Jason Botterill, but we have a vision and we want to see our vision succeed."
This past season saw some promising signs of change with head coach Ralph Krueger, who has earned the trust and respect of not only the Pegulas, but also a number of the players in the Sabres locker room. He was engaging and constantly in contact with his players, which has seen some positive results in the play of the team. That communication has not wavered at all since the shutdown of the season due to the coronavirus as Krueger and his staff has remained in constant contact with all the players by using Zoom.
Moving forward, the Pegulas are hoping to change the way that communication happens at all levels of the organization. Another factor that was an influence on the hire of Adams as general manager was his level of communication with Krueger, just one season into their relationship with the Sabres.
"With the three pieces we have in place now, our ownership, Kevyn and Ralph, we've got this 100% open line of communication that we, as owners, have always felt as necessary for any sports team to be successful," Terry said. "Across town (Orchard Park), we have the same relationship and it seems to be going okay over there.
"I'm enthusiastic about that with the gentlemen we're working with in the organization right now."
It is very unorthodox for an organization to make an in-house hire of this magnitude of a person like Adams that has not had any experience, to this point, as a front office executive at any level of hockey. Let alone, someone that has only had less than a year of experience as the Senior Vice President of Business Administration.
The Pegulas are aware of this abnormality in this process, but they remain confident that they are in good hands with someone they trust and are, again, familiar with in the organization for several years.
"This is a change for maybe how we normally, or how a lot of other clubs normally hire GMs," Kim Pegula said. "This was somebody that has been part of our organizations in multiple roles, and that we've come to know and respect. I think that makes a difference this time around.
"I don't know if there's ever a right way. Winning and building a successful organization happens in all different shapes and forms. It's what's right for us, what's right for the Buffalo Sabres, who's the right people in those places. I don't think we're going to get hung up as much as what's the pedigree of this person or that person and who are we going to add. I think it's going to be more organic about who's the right person for the Buffalo Sabres and making sure that they're adding value, that they're getting us to a better place, and we're always improving."
There has been plenty of talk during these times of struggle for the organization where fans, media and others bring up the idea of a potential President of Hockey Operations to oversee the hockey side of things, while the Pegulas may focus on the business side of the game. However, when asked about this idea on Tuesday, Terry Pegula immediately shot it down, saying, "To be honest with you, I don't believe in that philosophy anyway."
While the Sabres parted ways with Botterill and his management staff, the team has also made some other significant changes throughout the front office and scouting staff.
With the Buffalo Bills, general manager Brandon Beane has said consistently that it is key to be able to draft, develop and re-sign your own players in order to build a roster that will have sustained success for years to come.
Terry Pegula sounded very much like his general manager at the NFL level on Tuesday, saying that the NHL Draft has to be a way for the Sabres to better build their team going forward.
"That is the cornerstone of the growth of any sports franchise is to draft well and develop your young players. We're still 100% on that track."
This decision made by the Pegulas on Tuesday, at first glance, seems like an extreme risk to trust someone with no front office experience to be able to build a sustainable roster going forward, especially with a plethora of big decisions to come heading into this summer. The team will now need to re-build the front office, the scouting staff, as well as hire new coaches in the AHL. That's not to mention having to prepare for the 2020 NHL Draft in the fall, as well as getting players on the roster re-signed to new contracts and adding other players through trade and free agency.
However, Kim Pegula feels that some good progress has been made, and that they don't think this move should be any indication of a rebuild in Buffalo. While the team may look at some things differently going forward, the Pegulas feel that they will keep trying to make the right decisions and build on, what they feel, is a great foundation already in place.
"We feel like Kevyn is the right person," Kim said. "We felt like at the time that we made those other decisions, whether it was leadership, whether it was coaches or GMs, we felt at that time that they were the right person for the organization. That doesn't always pan out the way it's supposed to, but I will tell you and the community that we're going to continue to try and get us to where we need to be.
"Although I am the President, Terry and I are a tag team in this. We're going to keep trying. This is something that the Sabres have been a love of ours for a long time, Terry even more so, and this is something that we're very passionate about. We are not going to sit there and keep saying, 'Well, we tried it this way and it didn't work, so let's not try anymore.' I think that this is what it's about.
You can listen to the entire conference call below: