The role of a team captain in the National Hockey League is important. Though he has few official duties, he’s more often than not the best and most respected player in the locker room and responsible for setting the example for his peers. As a result, teams without a designated captain might be viewed as dysfunctional and lacking leadership.
That might have been the perception of the Buffalo Sabres entering this season. The Sabres are spending the 2021-22 campaign without a captain after Jack Eichel was stripped of the honor this past September due to the injury that eventually resulted in his departure. Since there was no clear-cut replacement at the time, head coach Don Granato opted instead to name Kyle Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons as co-alternates for the year. Now that the Sabres are approaching the end of the season and have seen what players stand out the most, it’s safe to assume that the vacancy could be filled next season. But by whom?
Though one could make an argument for almost every player on the roster, here are the five players that are the most viable options to be named the 21st full-time captain in Sabres history.
5. Dylan Cozens
The argument of whether or not a young player should be the captain of his team has existed for ages and won’t be agreed upon any time soon. Despite his age, the case for Dylan Cozens is there, and it’s stronger than one may think at first. Though he turned 21 just last week, Cozens has impressed immensely since he debuted for the Sabres last season and displayed a maturity far beyond his years.
Though yet to hit his stride, The Workhorse from Whitehorse has won the respect of his peers through his work ethic and team-first attitude. He’s dropped his gloves on more than one occasion to defend a teammate, something that should make him a major fan favorite by itself. It’s unlikely that he’ll be given the responsibility due to his lack of experience. Still, Cozens has future captain written all over him and will undoubtedly be serving in a leadership role for the Sabres down the road.
4. Rasmus Dahlin
Whether Sabres fans like it or not, Rasmus Dahlin became the face of the franchise this past October when Eichel was dealt to the Golden Knights. Even if his defensive capabilities remain a point of contention, Dahlin has improved this season and was rewarded with his first-ever NHL All-Star appearance. He remains a consistent offensive contributor from the blue line (something the Sabres don’t get much of otherwise) and is on pace for a new career-high in goals, assists, and points. The first overall pick of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft has persevered through numerous struggles in his young career and has become a steadying force for a Buffalo team finding its identity.
Similarly to Cozens, it’s unlikely that Dahlin would be named due to his young age, but that doesn’t rule anything out for the future. He served as an alternate captain this season alongside Mark Pysyk while Girgensons and Okposo were injured, which shows that Granato already trusts Dahlin in the role. Unless he’s destined to leave the franchise like Eichel before him, Dahlin will be wearing a letter on the front of his Sabres jersey again, potentially soon.
3. Zemgus Girgensons
In recent memory, no player to wear the Buffalo blue and gold has personified loyalty more than The Latvian Locomotive. A Sabre since 2013, Zemgus Girgensons is the longest-tenured member of the team and has stuck it out through the lowest of the lows. Though far from the most talented or productive player on the ice, it would be difficult not to admire the dedication Girgensons has shown the fans of Buffalo.
He’s repeatedly re-signed with the team rather than seek pastures greener and has shown that he wants to be a part of the better days the Sabres hope are coming. Granato acknowledged such when he appointed him a co-alternate for this year. More talented marquee players could be on the list ahead of him, but Girgensons’ odds of being one of the first Latvian captains of an NHL franchise are higher than it may seem. If chosen for the “C,” it would be a well-deserved honor for the Sabres’ de facto cornerstone.
2. Kyle Okposo
This one largely hinges on Okposo’s future in Buffalo. The 2022-23 season is the final of the seven-year contract he signed in July 2016, and there have been rumors that he may be a target at the March 21 Trade Deadline. If general manager Kevyn Adams decides not to move the veteran winger, giving him the captaincy would make perfect sense. Though always a presence in the locker room, Okoposo emerged as the leader of the Sabres this season and pledged that the team would give its all every game regardless of the outcome.
He’s embraced his role as a mentor to his young teammates and has enjoyed a renaissance himself with 11 goals and 27 points on the year despite injuries and a fourth-line role. Okposo may not have become the player the Sabres thought they were getting when he signed that big deal, but his character is unquestioned, and the respect he gets from fans and players alike is evident. Whether he’ll remain in his current role as an alternate or get promoted to captain remains to be seen, but Okposo is the leader of this team right now, and the Sabres are better for it.
1. Alex Tuch
It’s ironic that when Buffalo traded captain Eichel to Vegas in November, part of the return package was the player that may very well succeed him in that role. Tuch has been a desperately needed breath of fresh air for the Sabres, and the impact he’s had in such a short amount of time is remarkable. A native of the Syracuse, NY suburb of Baldwinsville, Tuch was a Sabres fan as a kid and expressed his excitement to join his childhood team almost immediately upon being acquired. His arrival has energized the franchise and fans alike in a way that few other players have before.
He gelled instantly with the Sabres lineup upon his Dec. 29 debut and has recorded 19 points in 17 games since, a large reason for the optimism that’s been building over the past few games. Tuch has also endeared himself to the community and recently paid a visit to the Buffalo Thunder of the WNY Special Hockey Association. It’s hard to dislike a player that’s given of himself, and it’s already evident that the rest of the Sabres gravitate to him. The 25-year-old has gone from newcomer to a team leader in seemingly the blink of an eye. It’s unclear if the Sabres will have a captain next season, but Alex Tuch is the overwhelming favorite if they do.
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Of course, this is all hypothetical. Buffalo could as easily decide to stay with its current system and end any speculation. But the fact remains that the Sabres have multiple players who fit the role, and that bodes well for the team in the future.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read my content! I’m a Niagara University journalism graduate and a lifelong Buffalo Sabres and hockey fan. I’ll gladly discuss anything Sabres with you. Talk to me on Twitter too if you’d like!