Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Let's play--Name the Captains

Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com

On Thursday, the Buffalo Sabres start their 2014-15 season with a home opener vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets and despite head coach Ted Nolan's proclamations that he'd name a captain earlier, it hasn't happened yet.

That will probably happen today as the team took the weekend off an will begin preparations for Thursday's game with a practice today. It should be a busy day as the team needs to make some moves to get to the final 23-man roster tomorrow.

One of the decisions will involve 18 yr. old Sam Reinhart, their 2014 2nd-round pick and whether or not they'll give him a look of up to nine games before he heads back to junior. Personally, others deserve the spot more than him, most notably, Mikhail Grigorenko.

"Grigo" is a 2012 first-rounder who came into camp ready to prove he wasn't a prima donna. Mission accomplished. Although he really needs to spend the entire year in Rochester, Grigorenko should be rewarded for his work with a few games while the Sabres get healthier upfront.

Another tough decision is who will land a spot on defense while Mark Pysyk recovers from his upper-body injury. Rookie Jake McCabe is going to be a stud and really looks as if he's ready to make the jump to the NHL as a soon to be 21-yr. old.

It's either McCabe or Tyson Strachan, a journeyman 29 yr. old defenseman with 138 games of NHL experience including 18 games last season with Washington. Originally when Strachan was signed on July 3 to a one-year contract, it was thought to be a depth-move. But he really impressed at camp and in preseason games. He's also someone who should get rewarded for his work. He'll be down in Rochester soon enough, should he clear waivers.

McCabe has a long career in front of him and sending him down to Rochester to get him ready for his first 82-game professional season would not be detrimental to his career. Plus it will help the Amerks set their defense for their season opener on Saturday vs. the Adirondack Flames.

Before we get to the "Name the Captains" game, a brief history of the Sabres captaincy over the past 10 years:

• 2005-07--Daniel Briere/Chris Drury, co-captains. Briere and Drury emerged from the 2003-04 rotating captaincy. In probably the best thing that Larry Quinn ever did for the team on the ice, he forced GM Darcy Regier to trade for Cup-winning Drury, despite having to give up one of his draft picks, Keith Ballard (2002, 11th-overall.) To bad both Briere and Drury were allowed to walk in 2007.

• 2007-08--The rotating captaincy returns as Jochen Hecht, Tony Lydman, Brian Campbell, Jaroslav Spacek, and Jason Pominville all get their shot to be a leader.

• 2008-Feb., 2011--Apparently none of the aforementioned rotating captains were deemed worthy enough by their teammates. Not only was defenseman Craig Rivet brought in via trade to protect Regier's "vaunted" core, he was also voted on by the players to lead them. Wimps. It would prove to be too much for Rivet and his quickly aging body to handle as he was waived on Feb. 23, 2011.

• Oct., 2011-April, 2013--Pominville is a consummate professional and a noted producer who plays an all around game and was named captain. It's also a great story as he was exposed to waivers in 2005, but was not claimed by anyone. Of the group to choose from at the time, Pominville was the best choice. He never was captain material but, if needed, he could wear an "A" wherever he goes. Fortunately for him and Minnesota, the team he was traded to, they have their leaders in place.

• 2013-14--No captain. Rightfully so.

When it comes to this year, simply put, you don't bring in a Cup-winning veteran and sign him to a multi year contract for him to wear an "A." Especially when that player just finished captaining the storied Montreal Canadiens to a birth in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals.

If you're going to begin building, veteran leaders are crucial and Brian Gionta is crucial to the development and future of this team.

Two quick notes. Gionta was the first American-born captain of the Canadiens in their century-plus of existence. (Chris Chelios was co-captain.) And the last time the Sabres had a captain with a Cup-ring (Drury) the Sabres were a team to be reckoned with.

As with Gionta, 30-yr. old defenseman Josh Gorges was on last year's Canadiens team that lost in six games to the NY Rangers.

Gorges will be key to the Sabres defense in a shutdown role. He plays the game hard, and as was mentioned, thanks to the input of fellow blogger, Eric Engels, he'll "set an example both on and off the ice and will hold everyone in the room accountable."

Get ready to cringe, Sabres fans, but favorite whipping boy Drew Stafford is more than likely in line to get one of the "A's."

Nolan likes Stafford, and Stafford responded extremely well when given the opportunity to play top-six minutes after Nolan took over. And he'll be there again.

As mentioned in the "Building the 2014-15 Sabres roster series," Stafford looked like he had leadership written all over him when he came up and played on the Briere/Drury-captained teams. And he learned from them, “I’ve gotten to the point now in my career," he said to Chris Ryndak of sabres.com in May, "[where] I remember seeing some guys that were my age [now] and I was seeing what they were doing on and off the ice, just little things. It might be the smallest thing but it’s something that sticks with you for a long time.

“So I have that responsibility and I’m going to cherish that whatever happens, regardless if you’re wearing a letter or not. That is your responsibility – to be your best."

And finally, it's a toss-up for the third alternate captain, but I'm going to go with F, Zemgus Girgensons.

Girgensons has been playing under Nolan for a couple of years now, first with the Latvian National Team and with Buffalo last season. The 20 yr. old is mature way beyond his years, is always in great shape and has been rising to every challenge thrown his way.

In the AHL for 2012-13 he was the youngest player in the league and as the season went on, he became better. And with the Buffalo Sabres in total disarray for the first 20 games last season, he was the only rookie to stick with the team during their plummet to historic depths. It's a tribute to the character of Girgensons that he was allowed to stick with the team during that period.

He's a future leader, might as well get it started now.

Projected captains for the 2014-15 season:

Captain--Brian Gionta
Alternates--Josh Gorges, Drew Stafford, Zemgus Girgensons

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