With the news that the NHL was expanding to Las Vegas starting in 2017-2018, many NHL teams started making moves. Players who they didn’t want to lose for nothing were targeted in trade talks. Others they didn’t want to keep on the books or have to protect in an expansion draft were bought out. But there is another aspect to a team in Vegas that needs addressed — the front office staff.
When it comes to the new team in Vegas, they’re surely going to be looking for someone who will ease the transition of starting a team from the ground up. They will be targeting a mind that has both contacts and rapport with teams around the league. The ownership group, if it is serious about contending quickly with the other 30 NHL franchises, will need to pick a smart and talented mind to fill the post of GM in the desert.
Enter the Pittsburgh Penguins Associate General Manager, Jason Botterill. Botterill, 40, has worked with the Penguins since 2007-2008 and in that time ascended the team’s ranks from director of hockey administration to assistant GM to his current role as associate GM and GM of the Penguins’ top minor league affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. He has been part of the Penguins brain trust that led them to two Stanley Cups as well as one additional Cup Final in his time with the squad.
He’s been known for years as the cap guru of the team, finding ways to make acquisitions and additions to the team work money-wise so that the roster is maximized effectiveness-wise. When you’re playing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin every night the expectation is you’re going to be a top-tier team. Botterill has been tasked with making the money work so that truly is the case.
Additionally, he’s been huge in the development side for the Penguins. Working heavily with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, he’s overseen the development of home grown talent like Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary. His watchful gaze is never too far from any one Penguins prospect whether that be in the junior leagues or the minor leagues.
Botterill has been a big key to the Penguins success in the last eight years in every single way. It is because of this that he is more than prepared to run his own franchise.
He knows how to navigate the cap. He has helped to draft and develop players. He’s been part of the process to sign free agents out of other leagues (Sergei Plotnikov wasn’t a roaring success, but early returns on Lukas Bengtsson are good). The associate GM was even featured in a recent issue of “The Hockey News” as part of a panel to discuss what thoughts go into drafting and how decisions are made or how players are scouted. He was part of the push to bring a truly three-tiered development program, like those often seen in baseball, and utilized the Penguins’ ECHL and AHL teams to develop players like Tom Kuhnhackl into confident Stanley Cup Champions, while guiding those like Carter Rowney from ECHL-only contracts to those with NHL options.
Botterill also has something a lot of the other applicants might not. He’s seen how easy it is for everything to slip away. He had a front row seat to the hubris and pride that were the eventual downfall of former Penguins’ GM Ray Shero. He’s also seen players and staff alike rebuild careers, watched guys like Matt Cullen on the ice and Jim Rutherford in the boardroom prove they have more in the tank. And don’t forget how instrumental his faith in untouted prospects has been. When people said “Who is Bryan Rust?” Jason Botterill had already known for years. When those outside the organization cast doubt on Brian Dumoulin, Botterill was able to assure those around him that the kid was ready. There simply is no better candidate for the Las Vegas opening than Botterill. For the ownership group in Las Vegas to say anything else would be a lie, but that truly is only half the battle.
Because the issue here isn’t whether or not Botterill could run the Vegas team, it’s whether or not he’d want to. Over the past eight years Botterill has seen the team he works for play in three Stanley Cup Finals and win two of them. Any team he’s building in Vegas will almost surely, despite the league’s promise to the contrary, be objectively terrible for a season or two. Think of the San Jose Sharks in 1990-1991 and 1991-1992.
In addition, is an ownership group in the middle of the desert going to be willing to spend to the cap? Will they have the full staff and scouts that a team like the Penguins attracts? Because if players want to play with Crosby and Malkin, front office staff and scouts want to work with them and those who will play with them just as much.
Sure, the idea of starting a new team is fun and sexy, especially after the Penguins signed Jim Rutherford to an extension on July 1, 2016. And to some people it might seem the most obvious decision in the world for someone who has seemingly been waiting for this job. But it’s also a lot of work with a lot more on the line. Botterill might not run the Pittsburgh Penguins right now, but make no mistake he will be their next general manager whenever that time comes. Is it worth leaving the team who took a chance on you and literally created a position for you to run off to Vegas and try to build a sandcastle in the desert? Or would it be more prudent to stay where he knows what is coming to him? It’s a tough choice and one that Botterill will have to ultimately make, but at this point could he be blamed for picking either way? Probably not.