BUFFALO – The Cup. The Sabres always mention it. Brian Gionta won the Stanley Cup. Their captain knows how to win hockey’s biggest prize.
“The most important part,” Sabres winger Tyler Ennis said Tuesday inside the First Niagara Center.
Naturally, the ring Gionta, 36, won 12 years ago with the New Jersey Devils gives him instant credibility in a dressing room filled with youngsters. But the Greece native has earned his teammates’ respect and trust in other ways.
That’s why Sabres coach Dan Bylsma kept Gionta as his captain.
“I can’t say this unequivocally because I haven’t had him as a captain,” Bylsma said, “(but) in looking at him, in terms of the leadership, both in how you play and how you act and what you’re able to say, Brian is … one of the best choices for a captaincy.”
The NHL has become a young man’s league. At an age when most players are either retired, graying or trying to hang on, Gionta is thriving.
When the 5-foot-7 Gionta begins his 14th season on Thursday, he will likely be skating on the right wing beside rookie center Jack Eichel, 18, and Evander Kane, 24, a plum assignment Bylsma recently awarded the veteran in the midst of a strong training camp.
“It’s something different, taking a young guy (Eichel) and trying to help him develop into the player he can be and as quick as possible, so it’ll be fun,” Gionta said.
To Bylsma, Gionta is “the guy driving the bus so far on that line.”
“He’s the guy who’s first on pucks,” he said. “He’s the guy who’s working. I don’t care how old he is, I only care how old he acts. He doesn’t act like an old guy. He looks like he’s the fresh legs on the line.”
Teammates have noticed those fresh legs. Some days, Ennis said, Gionta is “the fastest guy on the ice.”
“A lot of guys when they get that age kind of lose the desire a little bit,” Ennis said. “They’ve won a Stanley Cup so they might just slow down a little bit, just human nature. But he works just as hard as anyone, maybe harder.”
Gionta will likely never endure a harder season than the Sabres’ wretched 30th-place finish last year. Months after signing a three-year, $12.75 million contract to leave the Montreal Canadiens, the team he captained for four seasons, the Sabres imploded, losing 15 of their first 18 games.
Meanwhile, Gionta didn’t score until the 20th game. Everything, he said, snowballed. The Sabres’ new captain couldn’t get a grip on the dressing room or his own game.
“At some point, you got to sit back and just control what you can control,” Gionta said. “At times last year, especially early on, you’re trying to do too much … whether it’s on the ice, off the ice. The team’s struggling, you’re taking a lot of that responsibility trying to do too much.”
Gionta and the Sabres eventually settled down, winning 10 of 13 games. But they fell apart when Matt Bartkowski’s high hit Dec. 21 in Boston knocked Gionta out of the lineup for more than a month. The Sabres began an epic 14-game losing streak days later.
Still, Gionta, who scored 48 goals in 2005-06, finished the season strongly, compiling six goals and 16 points in the final 14 games.
“You look at on-ice stuff, I felt good about my game,” he said.
Gionta also feels good about the Sabres’ future. Like some of the other veterans the Sabres acquired a year ago, he believed in the Sabres’ rebuild and vision of the future. He understood there would be some early pains.
“With what happened in the offseason, the anticipation coming into this year, this is the reason we made a move, and so we’re excited to make that next step and move forward,” Gionta said.
To his teammates, Gionta’s the right guy to lead the Sabres into a new phase.
“He’s a guy that’s had everything you can think of,” Sabres defenseman Mike Weber said. “He’s had to overcome a height disadvantage his whole career. He’s battled through it and made a career a player like me can only dream about, how long he’s been able to play and do his job, so that in itself is leadership. He just shows a tremendous work ethic every day. Every guy in here has a ton of respect for him, whatever he says.”