NEW YORK -- Brian Gionta last attended an NHL draft in 1998, when he was selected in the third round (No. 82) by the New Jersey Devils at Marine Midland Arena in Buffalo.
The Buffalo Sabres captain said he's looking forward to attending as a fan when the 2016 NHL Draft is held in Buffalo at First Niagara Center on June 24-25.
Gionta recalled being warned by his agent not to bring too big of a contingent to Buffalo for the draft since he was No. 163 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters. A freshman at Boston College at the time, Gionta didn't have the heart to tell his family they shouldn't attend.
The decision turned out to be a good one.
"Being from Rochester (N.Y.), I drove up and did some team interviews in the hotels a couple of nights before the draft and everyone in my family was there," Gionta said. "So I think that was the loudest cheer for a third-round pick, ever, at a draft. I had the whole section and they all went nuts for a third-round pick.
"It was a dream come true to not only be drafted, but to have everyone there to experience it."
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He knows the community is excited for the first NHL draft in Buffalo in nearly 20 years.
"I think the way we played this year helped changed a lot of minds and provided optimism for our fans," he said. "Hopefully it will carry over to the draft; I would hope it does for the area."
Gionta said the draft plays a much more vital role in building competitive teams than in the past.
"When I first broke in with the Devils [in 2001-02], it was me and just one other rookie," Gionta said. "Now you have half of most teams made up of younger players. So you see them playing a lot quicker and decisions are made on draft picks and when they will play a lot earlier."
An example are three of Gionta's teammates. Center Jack Eichel (No. 2, 2015 draft), forward Sam Reinhart (No. 2, 2014) and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (No. 8, 2013) were drafted within the past three years and are playing major roles for the Sabres, who improved from 23 wins in 2014-15 to 35 wins this season.
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"I hope I'm around long enough to benefit from this; that's what I'm trying to do right now," Gionta said. "Obviously you want to be the guy to help bridge the gap. But you want to stick around after it happens too."
Gionta, 37, has one season remaining on a three-year contract he signed with the Sabres on July 1, 2014 but said he isn't thinking of retirement. He likes what Sabres management has done in building the organization through the draft and a few free-agent acquisitions and sees a promising future.
"Things change but you evolve," he said. "I feel good. The body feels good. I intend to play as long as I can. I'm a guy who leads by example so I like being that guy that can come in and do it the right way. I hope that people see that too."
Gionta said he wasn't surprised that Eichel wasn't in the top three in voting for the 2016 Calder Memorial Trophy, awarded to the League's top rookie. Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid and Chicago Blackhawks forward Artemi Panarin were named finalists for the award Monday.
Eichel was second among rookies in goals (24) and points (56) in 81 games. His points per game average of 0.69 was fourth among rookies to play at least 40 games.
"You think he should be a part of it but you can't argue with the three that are there," Gionta said.
Gionta said Eichel was the most impactful rookie he has played with in his 14 NHL seasons.
"His explosiveness is unreal, his poise with the puck and the way he can separate himself from guys," Gionta said of Eichel. "When he starts to play that give-and-go game is when he's going to be really hard to stop. Sometimes as a young guy you try and do too much, and when he figures that out he's going to be at the top of our League."