Steve Ott is the Sabres’ competitive face and dressing-room voice, the guy who best represents what Buffalo wants to be as an organization.
“He just goes out there and gets his nose dirty,” teammate John Scott said. “That’s what you want to see out of a captain, a guy who’s first into the battle and leading the charge and trying to drag everybody with him.”
Coach Ted Nolan routinely praises Ott’s leadership, and management is also fond of Ott. The captain enjoys Buffalo.
Despite the mutual admiration, a breakup borders on inevitable.
The NHL’s Olympic trade freeze is over, which means Ott is back on the block. The pending unrestricted free agent could be a highly coveted player because of his leadership skills and playoff experience. The last-place Sabres are in the midst of a major rebuild, and it would be folly to turn down asset-laden offers.
Ott said Sunday he and the Sabres have not discussed a contract extension, so he could be entering his last 10-day stretch in Buffalo.
“I told them I want to be here,” Ott said after practice at the rink in Riverside Park. “I am professional enough to know the business side of things and what the situation is here as well. We’ll see how it all plays out in the next two weeks.
“I’ve been in this same situation before in my career, and it’s control what you can control. That’s going out there and playing as hard as you can. Obviously, it’s great to be wanted, and the rumor stuff always continues to float around when anybody’s a UFA. I think it’s just continue to be a professional, go out there and do what you’ve done and everything else always takes care of itself.”
Ott came to Buffalo in July 2012 in a trade that featured Derek Roy going to Dallas. The Sabres wanted to get grittier, and the 31-year-old has fulfilled the team’s wishes during his two seasons.
Ott became captain this season, and the role suits him. Younger players have increasingly stopped by his locker after games to go over specific plays or get tips.
“He helped me out on certain little things that you learn from experience,” right wing Brian Flynn said. “He’s helped me out a lot on the faceoff dot since I started playing a little center. It’s tough when you come into this league not used to taking faceoffs. Guys are strong, so he taught me a couple little tricks there.
“You know what you’re going to get from him. He shows up and plays the same way every night. He sets a pretty good example of the way we’re trying to play in this organization.”
Ott, who was an alternate captain in Dallas, has enjoyed wearing the “C” in Buffalo. He tries to make sure his teammates work during games and practices, but he brings levity when opportunities arise.
At the end of practice Friday, with the players gathered at center ice, Ott yelled at the top of his lungs, “We’ve got a birthday! We’ve got a birthday!” His teammates took the cue, stood between the blue lines and gave center Cody Hodgson celebratory whacks on the back of his pants as he skated through the line.
The next day, as the team concluded practice by skating laps, Ott acted as an Olympic speedskating announcer and screamed, “Finland gets the gold!” when Ville Leino finished first in his group.
“It’s been a big honor to be the captain here,” Ott said. “I’ve really enjoyed that. I’m obviously not proud of being in 30th place by any means, but when you’re in transition, you don’t know how good the good times are unless you have the bad ones. It’s something over the next few years here, it’s going to start turning around in a hurry.”
Ott would like to be part of the turnaround, but it’s very rare for players to go back to the team that just traded them. It’s happened before – Keith Tkachuk with St. Louis and Mark Recchi with Pittsburgh are two examples – but free agency is unpredictable.
What’s predictable is the movement of pending free agents from bad teams.
“Anytime you don’t have success as a team, there’s going to be changes,” said Ott, who would give Buffalo another look this summer. “I would have to look at all possibilities. I can tell you myself, my wife and family, we all love it here. We’ve liked it. It would definitely be one of my top spots if I got to that position in the summertime.
“It definitely holds a big piece of my heart.”