As of this moment, Brian Gionta is the captain of the Buffalo Sabres. The 14 yr. veteran with a Stanley Cup to his resume' was signed by the Sabres as a free agent in 2014 to help guide this team through the dire straights of a bottoming out period. Gionta had spent five seasons in Montreal, wht last four as captain of the Canadiens and although he wasn't the first American-born player to hold that distinction, he's the only American-born player to wear the lone 'C' for the legendary Habitants.
While the Canadiens were coming off a an Eastern Conference Finals appearance with Gionta as their captain, the Sabres were hitting the off season in 2014 with a purged roster that netted them second-overall pick, Sam Reinhart. With all the salary GM Tim Murray unloaded that season there were questions as to whether the team would even make it to the salary cap floor. Murray was the voice of reason in the matter saying that it's rather easy to add salary, but he didn't want to add just any salary, he wanted quality players to help stabilize the club during a tough period of transition.
Here's how Murray put it after landing Gionta and defensemen Josh Gorges, among others, for his last place team back in July, 2014: "We've got a lot of character now. 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."
At the heart of that group was Gionta who was signed to a three-year, $12.75M free agent contract.
Gionta grew up in Rochester, NY so there's no shortage of locals who've watched and followed his hockey career. Long-time Rochester Americans broadcaster Don Stevens watched Gionta play youth hockey with his son and followed Gionta's career. He said of the signing, "The situation that the Sabres organization is in right now, trying to build that winning attitude, I don't know if you can do much better than Gionta." And Amerks beat reporter for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Kevin Oklobzija, said to me at the time that Gionta "is exactly what the team needs. They needed a guy who was upbeat, all-team and who cares about the community and the team he's playing for." And with what the team went through in 2014-15, they needed all of that.
However, the struggles of the rebuild are in the rearview mirror and have given way to the build portion of the program. At 37 yrs. old heading into this season, Gionta is getting a little long in the tooth, but last year he showed that he's still pretty quick on his skates while his 12 goals and 21 assists proved that he can still contribute.
Gionta missed the first three games of last season and when he came back he was miscast by head coach Dan Bylsma. "Dancin'" Dan had Gionta in a top-six role because of his speed but the skill-level just wasn't there. After playing him up and down the lineup Bylsma finally found a spot for Gionta on a third line that had Johan Larsson at center and Marcus Foligno on the other wing and for the final 20-25 games they were the most consistent line for the Sabres.
Heading into this season Murray shored up the right side of his roster when he signed Kyle Okposo to a long-term deal. Okposo is projected to be on the top line with Reinhart looking to build off of a very strong rookie campaign as the team's No. 2 right-winger. That puts Gionta firmly in the bottom six heading into camp. With 21 yr. old Justin Bailey showing all the signs that he's ready to make the jump to the NHL, whether or not Gionta returns to his role as a No. 3 winger in Buffalo will be worked out during camp and it might very well depend upon how Bailey's camp and preseason go.
Regardless of where he is in the lineup one can bet on Gionta being the consummate professional because that's at his core. It goes for the captaincy as well. Buffalo's top center, Ryan O'Reilly, will be joining the club after he finishes his stint with Team Canada at the World Cup of Hockey and looks to be a strong candidate to take the reigns of the club this year.
As of now, Gionta is still the captain and he was out front with the media at the opening of camp last Thursday fielding questions while setting the tone for the team moving forward. Like he did during locker cleanout in April when he said he wasn't happy with a participation trophy of last season, Gionta laid out the parameters for this season. With one year under Bylsma's system there are no excuses and he told the gathered media, "That's on us. There's no new system. There's no new style of play. Everybody knows what's expected them."
What can we expect of Gionta? The same thing the 5'7" 178 lb. winger has always done--play fast, play hard and lead by example. He may not have the wheels or the finish he once had, but what he will have is years of experience punctuated by a Cup ring. Whether he's wearing the 'C' or not, you can bet that he'll have an impact in the room and more than likely on the ice in a reduced role.
Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster:
LW, Evander Kane / C, Ryan O'Reilly / RW, Kyle Okposo
LW, Tyler Ennis / C, Jack Eichel / RW, Sam Reinhart
LW, Matt Moulson / C, Zemgus Girgensons/ RW, Justin Bailey
LW, Marcus Foligno / C, Johan Larsson / RW, Brian Gionta
D, Rasmus Ristolainen/ Dmitry Kulikov
D, Zach Bogosian/ D, Jake McCabe
G, Robin Lehner