Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
Buffalo Sabres RW, Brian Gionta is a veteran of 13 NHL seasons. The former 3rd round pick (82nd overall,) who was drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 1998, won a Stanley Cup with the Devils in 2003, just his second season in the NHL. He also captained the most storied franchise in the league--the Montreal Canadiens--to a birth in the eastern conference finals the season before he came to Buffalo as a free agent in 2014. Gionta has the distinction of being the only full-fledged American-born team captain in the Canadiens 106-year history.
Gionta headlined a trio that included Matt Moulson and Josh Gorges coming to Buffalo that off season making the Sabres of the 2014 off season. With Buffalo intent upon fully bottoming out most had thought that the Sabres would have very little opportunity to land players of significance. But GM Tim Murray pulled a bit of a coup landing what turned out to be his three captains for the 2014-15 season. Although many had visions of the team improving greatly with those additions, the team once again sank to the bottom of the league. And for a player like Gionta who had known plenty of success throughout his NHL career, it was tough.
"Last year was one of the most frustrating years if not the most frustrating year of my professional career," said Gionta at training camp last week. "It was hard to get through." But being the true professional that he is, he spent the season controlling what he could control, his play. "At the same time you find things to grow off of and you find ways to improve yourself. You take that experience from last year and try to make it what it is."
"When teams are winning, things are easy," Gionta said to long-time Rochester Americans broadcaster Don Stevens while speaking at a youth camp this summer. "But when you're losing, you have to try and find answers and solutions and stay positive. You lose all the time, you don't want that feeling to set in and become the new normal. So that was the hardest thing, showing up at the rink and being positive each day and finding something to draw on to help the situation.''
The Greece, NY native (a suburb just outside of Rochester) knew what he was signing up for when he signed a 3 yr./$12.75M contract with the Sabres. With he days of seven consecutive 20-goal seasons behind him, including a 48-goal season in 2005-06, Gionta was brought in mainly to provide leadership for a large group of prospects that will be making their way to Buffalo over the course of the next few years.
"We've got a lot of character now," added Murray when talking of that group at the time. "We have leadership now. That's important to me when you're adding young players every year. There's a short term and a long term. The long-term is that your young players get better. Your young players become pros. They're not just good players, they're good NHL players, and I think that this group of people that we've added today can help in that regard."
Murray brought in more vets, albeit younger ones, in Evander Kane and Ryan O'Reilly who will also add another layer of leadership for the youngins while also helping to take some of pressure off of the likes of Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. Kane, O'Reilly and 25 yr. old Tyler Ennis, who's one of the few Sabres left from the "core-era," will draw the tough assignments up-front allowing the youngins to develop at a slower pace.
But at the top of that leadership group is the 36 yr. old Gionta who will be integral in trying to build a winning attitude off of the disaster that was last season. The vets all have their roles in that regard, it's to pass on their experiences to the youngins. While on the ice they'll be taking the pressure off of the kids off the ice Gionta says they'll be "showing them how to be professionals, showing them what it's like to be in the NHL day-in, day-out."
With Gionta at right wing on the third line, the player that will benefit directly from his 957 NHL games is his center Reinhart. Gionta has already seen year-over-year improvement in the 19 yr. old who was sent back to junior after nine games last season. “Just that extra year alone in development and confidence, you saw what he could do at the world juniors,” said Gionta. “He’s matured. That one year has made a big difference for him.”
Reinhart already has the hockey smarts and is a true professional off the ice, but he'll need plenty of time to figure out how he can "beat [the opposition] up with his mind" at the NHL-level and there's no better teacher in Buffalo right now than Gionta.
Building the Buffalo Sabres 2015-16 roster:
LW, Evander Kane C, Ryan O'Reilly RW, Tyler Ennis
LW, Zemgus Girgensons, C, Jack Eichel RW, Jamie McGinn
LW, Matt Moulson C, Sam Reinhart RW, Brian Gionta
D, Rasmus Ristolainen D, Zach Bogosian
D, Josh Gorges RHD, Cody Franson
G, Robin Lehner