In the final weeks of Training Camp heading into the season, Buffalo Sabres coach Dan Bylsma commended Brian Gionta
’s work as the right wing on a line opposite Evander Kane
and with Jack Eichel
That praise was reaffirmed when Gionta returned to the Sabres lineup on Thursday in Florida after missing the first three games of the season with a lower-body injury. Bylsma returned Gionta to the wing alongside Eichel and Kane for each of the Sabres’ two road games over the weekend.
So when Gionta was moved to the right wing alongside Matt Moulson and Zemgus Girgensons at Monday’s practice and again on Tuesday, it was not an indictment of the captain’s play. Rather, it was in an attempt to use his services to provide a spark for his other teammates.
“More [about] the rounding out of another line,” Bylsma said of the switch. “[They’re] guys that have played together, had some success together last year.”
Eichel and Kane, he said, require little assistance moving the puck up the ice. So on that line, the team is looking for a net-front presence. Gionta was able to serve in that role, but so can Jamie McGinn, as evidenced by the two tip-in goals he scored in Buffalo’s preseason finale on Oct. 2.
“Jack, really, from the top of the circles doesn’t need a lot of help,” Bylsma said. “He’s a guy who can carry the load and can carry the mail. We’re looking at more guys [for] getting on the inside and being at the net front for that line.
“Jamie’s hopefully going to be a guy who’s going to get on the inside. The two goals he scored here in Buffalo were examples of what he can bring for that line.”
Gionta, meanwhile, will be called upon to bring his intangibles to the line with Moulson and Girgensons. All three players were on last year’s team and spent varying amounts of time as linemates.
Girgensons, who is still searching for his first point of the season, believes that the familiarity will help them on the ice.
“Always when you play with guys you know for a longer time, it’s easier,” Girgensons said. “You know what type of style they play, where they’re going to be in most situations, so it’s a little bit easier than getting adjusted to the newer guys.”
As for the Eichel and Kane line, it may only be a matter of time before they start showing up on the score sheet more often. Kane has not yet scored a goal in the regular season, but Bylsma pointed to three specific instances where matters of circumstance prevented him from hitting an open net.
Kane also had a game-tying goal overturned by a coach’s challenge in the team’s home opener on Oct. 8 and Eichel was stoned on a scoring chance in front of the net on Saturday in Tampa Bay.
“We’ve thought about breaking it up, but when you look at some of the opportunities they have had to score … you go back to Florida and Jack gave Evander an empty cage and, you know, by chance, luck, circumstance, it hits the defenseman’s stick. That’s the only thing that would prevent it from going in,” Bylsma said, recounting one of Kane’s missed opportunities.
“If you look at three goals in those games you’d be feeling a lot different about them as a pair. I think the opportunities have been there.”
FRANSON OK TO PLAY AGAINST FORMER TEAM
Cody Franson returned to the ice for the Sabres on Tuesday after being absent from Monday’s practice for a maintenance day. He’ll be ready to play on Wednesday night at First Niagara Center against his former team.
The defenseman said that he’s set to be on the opposite side of the Sabres-Maple Leafs rivalry.
“Obviously when you play in a place for a long time like that you develop those relationships and I really enjoyed my time in Toronto,” Franson sad. “But this is the next chapter for me and I’m having a lot of fun here and I want to take two points from those guys.”
Franson spent three years playing for Toronto prior to being traded to Nashville in February. He amassed 119 points in 236 games for the Maple Leafs. On Sept. 10, he signed a two-year contract with the Sabres.
A lot has changed in Toronto since Franson’s departure. The Leafs hired Mike Babcock to be their coach in May and team president Brendan Shanahan brought on Lou Lamoriello as general manager in July among other moves like trading Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh.
One thing that Franson doesn’t expect to change, however, is the nature of the rivalry between Buffalo and Toronto.
“For us in Toronto, every time we came into Buffalo we knew it was going to be a tough game,” he said. “It didn’t matter where each team was in the standings, at the end of the day that was a hard-fought game and it was a game that was tough to come out of with two points.”
23 Sam Reinhart – 90 Ryan O'Reilly – 63 Tyler Ennis
9 Evander Kane – 15 Jack Eichel – 88 Jamie McGinn
26 Matt Moulson – 28 Zemgus Girgensons – 12 Brian Gionta
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 17 David Legwand/22 Johan Larsson – 82 Marcus Foligno
4 Josh Gorges – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe – 3 Mark Pysyk
6 Mike Weber – 46 Cody Franson
25 Carlo Colaiacovo
31 Chad Johnson
50 Nathan Lieuwen