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Gionta thrilled to be back home with Sabres

by Brian Hunter continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

Brian Gionta is eight years removed from scoring a career-high 48 goals, setting a single-season franchise record for the New Jersey Devils.

More recently, Gionta captained the Montreal Canadiens, leading the storied franchise within two wins of an appearance in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

The offseason saw Gionta become an unrestricted free agent for the second time, and now the 35-year-old native of Rochester, N.Y., has come home to write the next chapter in his career with the Buffalo Sabres.

"We're excited to be there," Gionta, who signed a three-year, $12.75 million contract July 1, said earlier this month. "It's been a while since I've been that close to home, and I think it's a great fit for myself on the team but also for my family in the community."

With the NHL introducing a courting period in which teams could speak to prospective free agents in the days leading up to the formal start of free agency, Gionta was able to gauge the Sabres' interest prior to the start of the annual signing frenzy. That, along with the familiarity of his destination, eased some of the trepidation in making a decision that also affected his wife and their three children.

"Free agency, it's tough," he said. "As a family guy you're uprooting your family, you're uprooting your kids, so everything plays into it. It's a stressful … week now with the courting period … but it's a stressful day for sure because you're changing the course of your career and your family. This time around it was much easier. You know what to expect, you knew how things were going to play out. It was definitely easier the second time around."

That doesn't mean the move came without questions, specifically about how close Buffalo is to contending after finishing 30th in the NHL standings last season.

Gionta has missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs once in 12 seasons. He was on the Devils' Cup-winning team in 2003, his second season with New Jersey, and went to the Eastern Conference Final twice with the Canadiens. Although many pundits might look at the Sabres as being several years away from cracking the top eight in the conference, Gionta refuses to view his new team as a reclamation project.

"The expectation is to make the playoffs," he said. "I think that's where you need to start. And from there you continue to grow and build, but by no means do you come to a team and just say hey, we're not going to make the playoffs or we're not there. The expectation is to make the playoffs."

Brian Gionta will try to help the Sabres make the playoffs in 2014-15. (Photo: Getty Images)

Getting in, Gionta pointed out, is half the battle. The Canadiens beat the Presidents' Trophy-winning Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Second Round on their way to the conference final, winning Game 7 on the road at TD Garden. Proving even further anything can happen, the Los Angeles Kings trailed the San Jose Sharks 3-0 in their Western Conference First Round series before going on to win the Cup.

"I think a lot of the teams could be … you look at L.A., they're on the brink of elimination first round. It just goes to show how close things are, how close the teams are," Gionta said. "They lose [another] game and it's a different story. It's amazing; you can be on the brink of elimination and go on and go through four rounds and win a Stanley Cup. I think every team at that level has a legitimate chance, and we felt that way in Montreal as well."

The Sabres knocking on the door of the playoffs could be more plausible than Gionta approaching the 50-goal plateau again. In fact, since he set his record, only 10 players have scored at least 48 goals in a season (names like Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby dot the list), which suggests Gionta's place in the Devils' record book might be safely marked in permanent ink.

"It was a pretty special year, obviously, but you don't look back on it," said Gionta, who also has six seasons of at least 20 goals and scored 18 in 81 games last season. "You're always playing and you're always preparing for the next thing. Maybe when you're done you'll look back on things that happened in your career."

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