BUFFALO – In naming wingers Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo alternate captains, coach Don Granato did more than choose the Sabres’ longest-tenured players.
Granato wanted two veterans who possess the ability to make everyone around them better.
“They’re confident within their role in the NHL,” Granato said following Tuesday’s practice inside KeyBank Center. “I mean, what’s coming at them, they have a great sense of objective, and because of that, their confidence. And they have a great sense of vision, how they can move teammates and a team to become better each day, each moment.”
He added: “Two of our veteran guys that have a passion and love for not only the Sabres but Buffalo.”
The Sabres, a rebuilding team filled with 20-somethings, will use two alternates this season instead of having a captain. Jack Eichel, who refuses to undergo a neck surgery team doctors recommend, was stripped of the captaincy last month.
Okposo, an alternate captain last season and earlier in his career, expects some of the Sabres’ young players to grow into leadership roles this year.
“We have a lot of young guys that are in the core of this team that are going to take a lot of steps in that direction, too,” he said. “We’re going to see kind of who comes out of that group and the different voices and how they are able to step in that direction this year.”
Girgensons, 27, is beginning his ninth season. He missed all of last season after undergoing hamstring surgery during training camp.
“We missed him so bad last year,” Sabres winger Victor Olofsson said. “He takes so much responsibility, both five-on-five and on the penalty kill. Yeah, I think he’s probably one of the tougher guys to play against in this league.”
Okposo believes the Latvian’s tenacious style sets a strong example for the Sabres’ young talent.
“Go watch him play on the ice,” he said. “Any time that he puts his skates on, you go watch what he does and how he works and how he battles and what he does for the team. That guy is … a tremendously gifted player in how he plays the game and how mature he is playing the game, and how he works and he doesn’t cheat the game.”
Girgensons has never worn a letter in the NHL. He said he recently wore one representing Latvia at an Olympic-qualifying tournament.
The affable Okposo, 33, is Sabres’ second-oldest player behind goalie Craig Anderson. The American is starting his 15th season.
Olofsson said Okposo is “probably the most professional guy I’ve ever played with.”
“He’s super humble,” he said. “He’s been in the league for a very long time. He just takes good care of everyone, especially the young guys coming in. He talks to everyone to make sure everyone feels good. He’s just a really good guy to have on our team and, yeah, I just appreciate playing with him.”
Girgensons said he has watched the way Okposo, who joined the Sabres in 2016, carries himself.
“He’s a pro on and off the ice,” Girgensons said. “I mean, everything about him, his leadership and just being around him for the years. It definitely has brushed off on me.”
Okposo said he tries to take a vested interest in his teammates and get to know them as people.
“If I’m going to have a relationship with somebody, it’s not going to be a superficial relationship, it’s not going to be a surface-level thing,” he said. “I’m going to get to know you and what makes you tick. That’s what I like to do. …
“If somebody’s down or whatever, I’m going to go say something. I’m not just going to avoid the conversation. And if I feel like something needs to be said, if I’ve got to give a guy a push, I will, too, or if I’ve got to comfort somebody, I will. I just try to have genuine, authentic relationships with everybody I interact with.”
Sabres winger Drake Caggiula hobbled off the ice during Tuesday’s practice after winger Jeff Skinner slid into him, knocking his feet out.
Granato did not have an update on Caggiula. John Hayden finished the session in Caggiula’s spot at right wing beside center Dylan Cozens and Anders Bjork.
How intense was Tuesday’s session? Center Cody Eakin hit Caggiula earlier in the session. Center Tage Thompson also thumped Skinner.
“We need intense practices right now,” Granato said. “We’re preparing for a game, obviously, but we hope that the game feels easier because of the intensity of practice. So we’re trying to deal, put these guys in situations with very limited time and space to make plays and challenge them in that regard.
“I like it. I like the competitive level of it. It’s what we want.”
Based on Tuesday’s defense pairings and line combinations, defenseman Will Butcher and forward Arttu Ruotsalainen could be scratched for Thursday’s season opener against the Montreal Canadiens.