Buffalo Sabres captain Brian Gionta is entering the final year of his contract. The 37-year-old is likely playing in his last season with the Sabres and possibly of his career. The hot debate in Buffalo these days is who’ll take over the “C” after Gionta departs. Some people believe the answer is obvious, but other factors may influence the decision.
Captain in Waiting
The simple answer to this question is center Ryan O’Reilly. The 24-year-old, two-way center appears to be waiting in the wings to take over as leader of the club. Since being acquired from the Colorado Avalanche last summer, O’Reilly has embraced the role of leader. He was an assistant captain in his first year with the team and some believe he was the voice of the team last season.
O’Reilly is one of the hardest working players in the game on and off the ice. He dedicates himself to the game and in return expects the same from the rest of the team. During last season, he would run “mini practices” with a handful of teammates after practice. O’Reilly would design drills that would allow players to work on different skills like stickhandling, shooting and reaction time.
— Jourdon LaBarber (@JourdonLaBarber) March 14, 2016
The 2016 All-Star is one of the core players of the Sabres moving into the future. After he was acquired at the 2015 NHL Draft, the Sabres quickly signed him to a long-term 7-year, $52.5 Million contract. All of the attributes O’Reilly brings to the ice builds the case for him to be the ideal captain, but it may not be a lock.
Although O’Reilly is one of the key pieces of the Sabres moving forward, we all know who the face of the franchise is. That honor falls on the shoulders of 19-year-old Jack Eichel. The 2015 second overall pick may be handed the keys to the organization quicker than some anticipate. Other organizations didn’t waste time handing the captaincy to their superstars at a young age. The Chicago Blackhawks made the move with Jonathan Toews at 20 years old. The Pittsburgh Penguins handed the team to Sidney Crosby at the age of 19 and the Colorado Avalanche gave the captaincy to Gabriel Landeskog at the same age. The Edmonton Oilers are discussing whether Connor McDavid is ready to be the team leader at 19 years old.
Moving forward, the Sabres will only go as far as Eichel takes them. He’ll be the first player anyone around the league thinks of when it comes to the Sabres. It may be unfair to add pressure to such a young player, but it could also go a long way in his development. Putting the “C” on Eichel’s sweater will make it clear that the team is his moving forward. He’ll have a good leadership core around him like Kyle Okposo, Zach Bogosian, and O’Reilly to lean on.
Not only is Eichel arguably the most talented player on the roster, he also devotes himself to the game. He puts winning ahead of his individual stats, works extremely hard to be the best player he can be and understands nothing in the NHL is handed to you. Putting him in this role now could help give him, even more, confidence. If Eichel can start to show more signs of leadership in this upcoming season it’ll go a long way in solidifying his case for the captaincy in 2017.
O’Reilly and Eichel appear to be the two candidates that’ll be vying for Sabres team captain after Gionta departs at the end of the upcoming season. Other players like Rasmus Ristolainen or Sam Reinhart may get some consideration, but one of the top two centers in the organization will likely be the choice.