Here are three qualities in Brian Gionta’s hockey bag that will have an immediate impact on the Sabres and help them over the next three years and beyond:
1. Leadership. Gionta wasn’t the best player on the roster when he was in Montreal but was named captain. History shows it’s an honor bestowed upon Canadians, often someone from Quebec and specifically from Montreal. Saku Koivu of Finland was the first foreign captain. Gionta was the first American to wear the “C,” which showed how much the Habs respected his professionalism and ability to communicate.
2. Intelligence. The right winger is known for his speed and heavy shot, but his high hockey IQ may have played a larger role in him playing 12 seasons and counting in the NHL. At 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds, his lack of size forced him to think through the NHL game. He learned the importance of playing defense in New Jersey, experience that was invaluable.
3. Ability. The only season in which he played at least 60 games and failed to score at least 20 goals was last season in Montreal. He still had 18 and played a key role in the Canadiens’ success. He may have lost a step, but he’s still capable of scoring 20 goals and 50 points with a playmaking center, specifically No. 2 pick overall Samson Reinhart, anchoring his line.
In other words, GM Tim Murray was able to check all the boxes with Gionta when he began scouring free agent lists for players who can help turn around this mess. Gionta is a veteran leader with talent who wouldn’t demand ridiculous money and was down on the lists of serious Stanley Cup contenders.
Was he the best player available Tuesday? Not even close. But he was the right player for the Sabres, who needed a few selfless veterans who would be willing to help them teach prospects how to carry themselves like professionals and accelerate the maturation process of a young team.
Western New York is familiar with Gionta, of course. He grew up in Rochester, played youth hockey in all the local rinks, ended up with the Niagara Scenics and turned into a star at Boston College. For the past dozen years, Buffalo fans watched him from afar without realizing just how much he could help the Sabres.
Sure, his connection to the region made for an easier sales pitch. He lives down the street during the offseason. He understands the city’s passion for hockey and knows Buffalo isn’t NHL prison, as some believe. But he’s not here because the Sabres felt like giving him some warm and fuzzy homecoming.
They need him.
GMs weren’t lining up for Gionta. Any team in contention has enough leadership and doesn’t need undersized 35-year-olds. They’re shopping for top-end forwards or big-time defensemen or elite goaltenders. They want players who can make a difference on the ice. Lesser teams are looking for younger guys with more upside.
Murray wasn’t targeting marquee players. He wanted marquee mentors, and he isn’t going to find many that would be A) better than Gionta and B) willing to play in Buffalo. Gionta gives them what they need and adds another $12.75 million to his 401k. It was a good fit for all involved.
Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick will be around to help him look after the kiddie corps. They returned for numerous reasons, none greater than their deep respect for Ted Nolan. Murray made a trade for Josh Gorges, an honest defenseman who should thrive under Nolan. He signed Andrej Meszaros to a one-year deal with minimal risk.
Murray was busy adding players on the first day of free agency rather than explaining why they left, which made for a refreshing change at the foot of Jim Kelley Way. He even found time to lock up Marcus Foligno, scratching another item from his to-do list. I’m guessing the Sabres aren’t finished, either.
What does it all mean?
Sabres fans must have been excited Tuesday, but they would be wise to temper their optimism about the short term. The organization is marginally better. They still look like a last-place team, but perhaps they narrowed the gap between them and second-last. The Islanders’ inactivity, or inability, helps their cause.
For all the players who climbed aboard, none is more important to the Sabres’ long-term success than Gionta. It doesn’t matter if he scores 20 goals next season or two. The impact he could have on Reinhart & Co., will be immeasurable if they saddle up next to him and take notes.
Gionta played in only one Stanley Cup, winning with the Devils back in 2003, but he played on terrific teams with great players throughout his career. He learned early in his career from consummate professionals like Scott Stevens, Joe Nieuwendyk, Scott Niedermayer, Ken Danyko and Martin Brodeur.
He kept his mouth shut and his eyes open. He evolved into a tireless worker with an even temper, someone who understood the team concept in New Jersey. He never took a day for granted in the NHL and was unaffected by money. And he learned early in his career what it took to win. You see teams such as Edmonton that have an abundance of high draft picks year after year because the Oilers failed to get players who could teach young guys how to win. The Blackhawks surrounded young Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews with experience and taught them to win. Now, they’re teaching guys after them.
That’s how it can work.
Reinhart, assuming he’s ready now, will realize someday that he had the right player holding his hand. He’ll grow up faster and understand the game better. His chances for success are exponentially higher with Gionta than they would have been with Paul Gaustad or Derek Roy, for example, poisoning the dressing room.
Now, the Sabres have enough players who can help develop NHL infants into established stars. They can look after them and protect them and lean on them when necessary. Young guys usually have plenty of ability, but it’s useless unless they have a strong work ethic and play with intelligence.
The players who figure it out will eventually become leaders, too. Gionta will make look as easy as 1-2-3.