Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Of the captaincy--Jack Eichel or Ryan O'Reilly

Published by, 4-17-2017

There’s an amount of respect that should be given beat writers and media members who follow sports teams. Although this shouldn’t be confused with journalists covering human suffering in all it’s ghastly shapes and forms or those who are on the beat covering political processes that affect the vast constituency woven into our American fabric, sports journalists have a job to do and their sole focus upon the team(s) they cover is their livelihood.

Being a sports journalist in Buffalo has been particularly difficult, relatively speaking, when you consider that the Bills have been the laughingstock of the NFL for nearly the entirety of their 17-year playoff drought and the Sabres are beginning to enter snicker-territory as they just finished their six consecutive season outside of the playoffs. The Bills cast a particular pall over the Buffalo sports scene with their run of mediocrity while the Sabres took the dive away from middle of the road and were left to spin their wheels while supposedly climbing their way out of the basement of the league. A 25th place finish tells us that their not quite there yet.

So when a beat reporter or columnist opines about anything Bills or Sabres related, it's easy for us as fans to look at a piece and immediately have our emotions run the gamut anywhere from shrugging it off to ripping it to shreds.

In particular, the latest news hitting the Sabres, other than a "very disappointing season," in the words of GM Tim Murray, is the future of the captaincy for the team. There are many who say that being named captain is more of an honor and has very little to do with leading the team as all are expected to be professionals and play the game to their capabilities on a nightly basis. That may be true in the other major professional sports but I think of the captain of an NHL team directly contributes to successes and failures as they tend to embrace and/or define a franchise

The first thing I think of when it comes to wearing the 'C' is Mark Messier, "The Captain's Captain," and how he carried the weight of a 54-year NY Ranger Stanley Cup drought on his shoulders. I also think of players like Steve Yzerman in Detroit who defined what it meant to be a Red Wing and Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche whose poise in the face of the knock-down-drag-'em-out rivalry with the Wings in the late 90's and early 2000's guided them to two Cups. You can add in Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux and the NY Islanders Denis Potvin who's style of play, high-end skill and uber-competitive nature lead their team to multiple Cups.

More recently we can look at the Penguins Sidney Crosby, Chicago's "Captain Serious," Jonathan Toews and a player like Zdeno Chara in Boston. All three, like those mentioned prior defined what it meant to be a player for their particular team and all of them were the first to take Lord Stanley's Cup for a waltz around the rink for their team.

Captains define their team in the NHL moreso than any other league.

When we look at the list of captains in Buffalo going back 25 years, Pat LaFontaine a highly-skilled, professional lead the team from 1992-97 but it wasn't until Michael "Captain Crunch" Peca wore the 'C' that the team ended up in the Stanley Cup Finals. Of course there was a guy nicknamed "The Dominator" who was the prime reason that 1999 team made it to Game-6 of the SCF, but no one defined "The hardest working team in hockey" more so than Peca.

From thence the team went with a quiet professional in Stu Barnes, a talented enigma in Miroslav Satan, and a quiet, genteel true professional in defenseman James Patrick. It wasn't until the Sabres sewed the 'C' on Chris "Captain Clutch" Drury and a player who always played with a chip on his shoulder in Daniel Briere, that the Sabres became significant again with back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances.

Take Peca, Drury and Briere out of the equation and we have the Sabres as a team that seemed to play hockey for every reason other than paying the ultimate price to win. Where did the leadership of Jochen Hecht and the revolving captaincy of 2007-08 lead the team? Or that of Craig Rivet, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek and Steve Ott? It lead to mediocrity and an ill-defined team that could never get over the hump in pressure situations. Since Drury and Briere left in 2007, Buffalo has appeared in the playoffs twice and were ousted in the first round both times.

It was a soft era for Sabres hockey and one that the Sabres are seemingly unable to shake.

Columnist Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News says he's been watching the same old Sabres teams since 1989 when he first joined the paper and recently penned a piece entitled, Tim Murray needs to answer for same old soft Sabres. With the post-Drury/Briere Sabres in mind Sullivan has the GM in his crosshairs for putting together an "underachieving bunch of overpaid veterans and entitled kids" very similar to the teams we saw from 2007-12 under long-time former GM Darcy Regier.

"Murray has put together a team that's suspiciously like the ones Regier created in his day," he wrote. "It's built around finesse forwards who look great when things are going their way but tend to fall apart when they encounter a tough and determined opponent. You know, soft.

"It's a squad that doesn't exude much personality or inspire any discernible passion in its long-suffering public. I can't blame the fans. Ever since I arrived in Buffalo in 1989, I've heard their lament about the Sabres, how they lacked grit and were too easy to play against. Why couldn't they be more like the big, bad Bruins?"

The Bruins, like many other franchises have a well-defined style of play that hasn't changed. Take a look at the Bruins captaincy dating back to Buffalo's expansion season:  Johnny Bucyk, Wayne Cashman, Terry O'Reilly, Raymond Bourque and Chara, all of them tough customers who embodied the Bruins style of play. It's interesting to note that "Jumbo" Joe Thornton was captain for a few seasons but he was traded away for pennies on the dollar. The Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011 while Thornton and his San Jose' Sharks are noted for failing in the playoffs.

The Sabres right now are ill-defined as a franchise and what it means to be a Buffalo Sabres comes directly from ownership. The Bruins have always been defined by Jeremy Jacobs as the Flyers were always defined by the late Ed Snider. Buffalo right now is owned by Terry (and Kim) Pegula and in the six years the Pegulas have owned the team, about the only constant is "easy to play against."

When the team decided to tear it all down and rebuild with high draft picks, it looked as if his GM wanted to build a Western Conference style team in the mold of the Los Angeles Kings, who'd won their first two Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014. "Bigger, stronger, faster" was the theme carried over from the previous regime, to which Murray added "heavy." But as the league changed, the goal is to be faster and more aggressive.

You can define ideals all you want, but the biggest factor which stretches through every Stanley Cup winner is hunger. How bad do you want it?

In defining the Sabres, Sullivan writes, "They're comfortable when they have a distinct advantage, when their wondrous skills can manifest themselves. But they don't do the gritty work that produces goals at even strength in today's NHL, the battling down low in what Lindy Ruff liked to call the "dirty areas."

One constant that runs through the last 10 seasons are captains that exude professionalism, but do not seem to have an ultra competitive desire, a pure hatred of losing and the willingness to lead their team into those dirty areas.

Brian Gionta is a consummate professional, a leader who will teach players how to navigate their seasons and careers and one who will always be there to answer questions post-game no matter what the score. Murray brought him and defenseman Josh Gorges in to help transition his team from the tank years to respectability through professionalism. Gionta has been captain of the Sabers the last two season with Dan Byslma as head coach and with Ryan O'Reilly and Jack Eichel as the principles on the ice.

Gionta deserves the utmost respect for a long, dignified career highlighted by a 2003 Stanley Cup win with the New Jersey Devils. He's an unrestricted free agent with Murray saying he'd welcome the 38 yr. old back under the right circumstances. But from the way he approached it at the year-end presser, Murray is looking to replace Gionta as captain.

The choices, it would seem, come down to two players--O'Reilly and Eichel.

The case for 26 yr. old O'Reilly is that he has natural leadership abilities and that he's in that professional vein. Sure he had an off-ice issue a couple years ago that showed misjudgment, but no one will dispute his professionalism on the ice and/or in the locker room. He's held in high regard amongst his teammates and holds after-practice sessions for those interested in working on the finer points of the game.

It would almost seem as a natural progression from Gionta to O'Reilly as they both exude many of the same qualities. But does O'Reilly have the fire to wrestle this team away from the "country club" ways it's exhibited for the last 10 years?

For his part, the 20 yr. old Eichel has a competitive fire and a pure hatred of losing but he's also raw and immature at this point in his career.

Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News roasted Eichel in a recent piece basically calling him a petulant adolescent without the backbone to stand up in times of adversity.

Harrington was harsh in his assessment concerning the face of the franchise writing, "Eichel has some growing up to do if he wants to be taken seriously as a leader. Leaders don't undercut the coach as many times as Eichel has this season. Or make veiled comments about teammates," continued Harrington as he referenced Bylsma, Gorges and Sam Reinhart.

"Leaders don't brood and pout in front of the media either like Eichel did to absurd levels Monday on locker cleanout day."

While all of this is true, I would pose the question, where have the previous leaders lead this team in the past 10 years? Those who are true professionals but lacked the competitive grit to get this franchise past mediocrity.

Therein lies the rub.

Again, Harrington is a Sabres beat writer who's livelihood depends upon his coverage of the team. He's around them constantly, chats with those in the organization and has a pretty solid foundation with which to base his articles upon. He, like other journalists, need comments to compile a story and Eichel hasn't really been the most talkative on many occasions. The local and national media are very much interested in what Eichel has to say, more so than any other Sabres player because of his phenom status and to have him give short/tort answers indicating that he'd rather not be in the locker room doing this is cause for consternation amongst the media.

And I get that.

After a loss in Columbus near the end of the season, Eichel sat in the locker room red-faced and sweaty peeling away his gear when I approached him with a couple questions. His answers were short and somewhat canned and less than a minute I was done. For me it was what it was, but for those on the daily beat, having that kind of post-game interview probably gets annoying, especially when people want to hear the thoughts of the face of the franchise.

However, for a team that's been unable to rise above mediocrity, perhaps it's time to alter the definition of the franchise, and it may begin by sewing a 'C' on the type of player who may not exude the professionalism of previous captains in Buffalo, but who's passion for the game and hatred of losing far outweighs a post-game interview and/or a seeming look of detachment at an end of season presser.

It may be a shock to the system with short-term negative affects, but everyone knows the old adage about insanity, which would be doing the same thing but expecting different results. I know of a restaurant some eight years ago that was a declining steak house but under new ownership completely changed the way they did business starting with the menu. Instead of the filets and porterhouses found in a special occasion restaurant, they featured smaller, local and more economical entrees of things like Pig's Feet Tamales, Sweet Breads and a Fried Bologna and Beef Tongue Sandwich. After going through some hard times, the changeover worked and they rose to be a go-to, foodie place in the area.

If Buffalo wants to get out of the doldrums and become relevant again, they'll likely need a different direction and it may start with Eichel as captain. The Sabres and their fanbase spent two years of suffering and a 2016-17 season of indignation as the rebuild faltered. There were many reasons why this past season was a failure and they've been rehashed and argued over for months. What fans want most is a competitive spirit not seen since the days of Peca and Drury/Briere and Eichel has tons of that.

Sullivan is right, the latest incarnation of this team looked like one of Regier's "Core" efforts. Harrington is also right, Eichel is still immature and on the surface doesn't look like the ideal candidate, leaving the question, would the team follow him?

Fact is, this team went through a scorched-earth rebuild to land one of two franchise players at the 2015 NHL Draft. They've been wandering in the wilderness for 10 season whilst being guided by stand-up professionals as captains and it hasn't gotten them far. Although it might be construed as catering to an extremely talented yet immature 20 yr. old who may come of as entitled, I'll pose this.

In a race/battle for the puck with their lives on the line, who would end up with it, Eichel or O'Reilly?

There's your captain.

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