If the Buffalo Sabres’ 2016-17 campaign had to be described in one word, it would be “injuries.” The team that many felt had the potential to emerge as one of the strongest in the Atlantic Division has not yet had the opportunity because of injuries side lining a number of their strongest players.
An ankle injury to star center Jack Eichel kept him off of the ice for the first quarter of the season. Tyler Ennis, who missed the majority of the 2015-16 season with concussion complications, was forced to have groin surgery in mid-November after suffering an injury in the November 7th game against the Boston Bruins, an injury that will keep him out for the foreseeable future. Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov, two of the team’s better defensemen, have missed time with an MCL sprain and a back injury respectively.
These constant injuries have forced the Sabres to play with an ever-rotating roster, often sliding in call-ups from the Rochester Americans to fill out the team’s lines. Buffalo’s goal scoring has suffered due to the constant rotation, as the team is currently averaging just 2 goals per game, the worst in the NHL.
Despite changes made to the team’s lines on a semi-regular basis, one line has been able to emerge as one of Buffalo’s most consistent, and surprisingly, it doesn’t involve any of the team’s “star” players.
3rd on the Team Sheet, 1st in Our Hearts
The grouping of Marcus Foligno, Johan Larsson and Brian Gionta, on paper, is a strange one. Their styles differ from one another, they look like a bar graph standing next to each other, and Gionta was nearly a teenager by the time Foligno and Larsson were born. However, the three players have one thing in common – they are often the hardest working players on the ice.
Foligno, Larsson, and Gionta consistently leave everything they have out on the ice, something that has made them very popular with the Buffalo faithful. Being the hardest working players on the team isn’t anything new, as individually, the three have been praised for their diligence in the past.
Marcus Foligno cemented himself as one of Buffalo’s most resolute players during the final months of the 2011-12 season, scoring 13 points in 14 games at just 20 years old. The Buffalo-native hasn’t been able to match that type of production since, but he has consistently been in the Sabres’ line up due to his strong defensive play and offensive upside. The son of Sabres’ legend Mike Foligno has been one of the team’s most physical players over the past number of years, as he has been averaging around 200 hits per season over the past three years.
Foligno’s defensive ability has seemingly rubbed off on line mate Johan Larsson, who has emerged as one of the team’s strongest defensive forwards. The 24-year-old, who was acquired from the Minnesota Wild in April of 2013 along with other assets in exchange for Jason Pominville, hasn’t been able to prove himself as a consistent goalscorer for the Sabres but has established himself as a solid two-way player. One of the Swede’s best defensive performances this season was in the Sabres’ 6-2 win
One of the Swede’s best defensive performances this season was in the Sabres’ 6-2 win against the Edmonton Oilers on October 16th. Larsson played against 19-year-old sensation Connor McDavid for the majority of the game and limited him to zero points with just 1 shot on goal.
Brian Gionta seems to be the player that ties the line together. The Buffalo captain obviously serves as a leader for his two twenty-something linemates, and his 14 years of NHL experience benefits every player on his line.
Despite being listed as Buffalo’s third line, the grouping of Foligno, Larsson, and Gionta is one of the hardest working lines in all of hockey and they have earned a place in the hearts of Sabres’ fans everywhere.
The grouping’s hard work is paying off on the scoreboard, as Foligno, Larsson, and Gionta are among the Sabres’ leading point scorers.
Gionta is fifth in points, with five goals and five assists for ten points. The Rochester, New York-native is coming off of a 33 point season and is currently on pace to finish this season with a similar number.
Larsson and Foligno are seventh and eighth on the team in scoring, having 8 and 7 points respectively. The Lau, Sweden-native is on pace to finish with roughly 27 points, which would be a career high. If Foligno continues to produce at the pace he is currently producing at, he will finish with roughly 24 points, one point more than his career high, set last season.
While having roughly ten points in 24 games doesn’t jump off of the stat sheet, it is impressive considering they make up the team’s third line, with each player averaging around 17 minutes per game. Also, the three rarely see any time on the power-play, meaning that the majority of their points come at even strength.
Gionta’s production this year proves that he still has what it takes to play in the National Hockey League. The 37-year-old started playing in the league during the 2001-02 season and has been a consistent producer for every team he has played for.
He is obviously in the twilight of his career, and will likely be retiring in the coming years. When Buffalo signed the former New Jersey Devil and Montreal Canadien to a three-year deal in the summer of 2014, it was in a leadership role, to mentor the team’s young core.
Gionta has embraced his leadership role. He was named the team’s captain shortly after his arrival and has been a leader on the ice and in the locker room during the duration of his stint in Buffalo.
The Stanley Cup winner has had two 30 point seasons in Buffalo and is on pace for yet another 30 point year. The former Olympian has been able to mentor the Sabres’ younger players while still being a productive member of the team and has earned another contract after his current deal expires.
The successful grouping of Marcus Foligno, Johan Larsson, and Brian Gionta is perhaps one of the biggest surprises of Buffalo’s season. The line’s hard work continues to result in points on the board, something that has made them very popular with Buffalo fans. Gionta’s production and experience is doing nothing but improving Larsson and Foligno, which will hopefully help them develop into the solid top six forwards they have the potential to be.