Playing for the Buffalo Sabres has been a lifelong dream for Brian Gionta. Two days before the season opener, he’s been named team captain, making the experience all that sweeter.
A native of Rochester, N.Y., Gionta signed a three-year contract with Buffalo on July 1. He served as the captain of the Montreal Canadiens for the past four seasons.
“It’s always an honor. You’re playing in the best League in the world and to be recognized by your peers, management staff as a guy to look to for knowledge is always an honor,” he said after practice at First Niagara Center. “To have it happen here, close to home, it makes that honor even better.”
Before practice Tuesday morning, Sabres coach Ted Nolan gathered the players in the dressing room and announced the captains. Gionta will wear the C while Matt Moulson and Josh Gorges will serve as alternate captains.
“I bet you didn’t see that one coming,” Nolan joked after the news was made public.
The coaching staff has been watching how players interact with each other both in practice and outside of the rink. Gionta, Gorges and Moulson really stood out to them.
“Going in a new direction, I thought new leadership, a new approach, new everything would have a nice fresh start for everything,” Nolan said. “These three guys, you watch them in practice, you watch them in the room, we watched them from the first day we met on how they interact with other people. To me, that really shows the type of people they are and the type of people they will be.”
With many players on the team in only their first few seasons in the League, having veteran leadership will provide some stability.
Gionta’s workman-like approach to the game has been revered by his teammates and coaches.
“You don’t stray from what you are, the person you are, the character you are. It’s not for show,” Gionta said. “You come in and you go about your business how you would. It evolves from there. There’s no big secret to it. There’s nothing that you can do to make yourself more comfortable with the guys except spend more time and get to know each other.”
Gorges had the opportunity to play with Gionta for five seasons in Montreal. He’s been able to learn from the example Gionta has set and looks forward to helping pass some of that experience on to the younger Sabres in the dressing room.
“When you look at Brian, he’s a guy that comes to the rink prepared. He does what he has to do to be a professional, to be successful,” Gorges said.
“I’ve said this all along, when you’re a young guy coming into a team or into the League for the first time, who do you look to in the room and say, ‘This is who I have to follow to have success?’ He’s the epitome of that. He’s won a Stanley Cup.
“That’s all of our ultimate goals and he knows what it takes to get there. He knows the preparation it takes, the sacrifice it takes. Five years ago, when I first met him, those are the things I learned from him. I think he’ll be able to pass that on to a lot of the young guys as well.”
THE OTHER NEW GUY
Gorges said he’s already noticed the members of the defensive corps coming to him for advice and he welcomes those conversations. Like Gionta, he came to Buffalo looking to be accepted by his teammates first and foremost. He wasn’t focused on earning a letter.
“I think the biggest thing is you stay true to yourself. You don’t try to do something that’s out of character,” he said. “I’m a guy that says it like I see it. I’ve got no problem talking with guys in situations, sometimes things need to be said and I don’t have a problem being that guy. I know that these other guys that are here with me are the same way.”
He served as an alternate captain under Gionta during their time in Montreal. Buffalo acquired him in a trade with the Canadiens on July 1, a few hours before they signed Gionta.
BACK IN A LEADERSHIP ROLE
Nolan said that who should receive the second “A” was a very tough decision. The coaching staff considered many players including Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis, Chris Stewart and Drew Stafford. Ultimately, they chose Moulson, who signed a five-year deal with Buffalo as a free agent.
“He had a choice to go anywhere this past summer and he chose here. To me, that demonstrated great leadership qualities right there that he really wants to be here. The leadership group that has the C and two As, I couldn’t ask for any more. But the support staff behind them is going to be just as important.”
Moulson started the 2013-14 season with the New York Islanders, where he was a three-time 30-goal scorer. He was acquired by Buffalo in late October and played 44 games before being traded to the Stanley Cup Playoffs-bound Minnesota Wild at the NHL Trade Deadline.
“It’s good to know that hopefully I won’t be on three teams again this year,” Moulson said. “It’s good to have that comfort and have a home to live in for your family. This is another thing that brings another responsibility to my game.”
He served as a Sabres alternate captain for a handful of games last season.
TUESDAY’S PRACTICE ROSTER
26 Matt Moulson – 63 Tyler Ennis – 21 Drew Stafford
82 Marcus Foligno – 28 Zemgus Girgensons – 80 Chris Stewart
19 Cody Hodgson – 23 Sam Reinhart – 12 Brian Gionta
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 8 Cody McCormick – 65 Brian Flynn – 17 Torrey Mitchell
22 Johan Larsson (Non-Contact)
4 Josh Gorges – 57 Tyler Myers
61 Andre Benoit – 41 Andrej Meszaros
6 Mike Weber – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
51 Nikita Zadorov – 24 Tyson Strachan
1 Jhonas Enroth
34 Michal Neuvirth
Did Not Skate: 3 Mark Pysyk, 29 Jake McCabe, 36 Patrick Kaleta
McCabe has missed the past two practices with an undisclosed injury. Pysyk has been out since Sept. 23 with an upper-body injury and Nolan said he could return to practice this week. Kaleta is expected to miss about a month with an upper-body injury sustained on Sept. 28.
YOUR OPENING NIGHT STARTER…
As for news on the ice, Nolan said he feels good about Enroth has his opening night starter heading into the season opener Thursday night. The Sabres take on the Columbus Blue Jackets at First Niagara Center at 7 p.m.
Enroth stopped 57 of 58 shots through two preseason games.
“All No. 1s, they want that net. Enroth came in with that attitude,” Nolan said. “That look he had in his eye when he first got here, he didn’t have all smiles and ‘Welcome back.’ He had that determined look of ‘You’re going to give me this job.’ The way he performed and the he played, he certainly earned it.”
Enroth entered training camp in a position battle with Michal Neuvirth. Now Neuvirth will have to continue working in practice wait for his next opportunity.
GETTING THE REPS IN
After spending much of training camp on new systems and strategies, the Sabres special teams units got some on-ice reps in for the first time.
“We’ve been talking about it for quite some time in preseason games and practices, but this is the first time we’ve really put the units together,” Nolan said. “Like everything else, you just want to get the players familiar with each other and have that opportunity to move it and jump around.
“As [assistant coach Bryan Trottier] said, it’s kind of like those chicken-hawks, just wait for the opportunity, jump on that puck and hopefully put it in.”
Power Play Units
Moulson – Ennis – Stafford
Ristolainen – Myers
Stewart – Hodgson – Gionta
Benoit – Meszaros