There was a time, not-so-long ago, that the Buffalo Sabres acquired a guy in his mid-30s, at the tail end of his career, who had some leadership experience with the Montreal Canadiens. The Sabres were a young team who needed someone with a little grit, a lot of work ethic, and who could help to bridge the gap between terrible and mediocre.
That man was Craig Rivet. You thought I was going to say Brian Gionta, right? Well, I am. But not yet.
Rivet had a couple of decent seasons with the Sabres, and his leadership showed as the team started to develop. He was the face of the team in hard losses, and he’d let the stars get the press for the good wins. Rivet was 37 in his last year in Buffalo. He was old. He was tired. He spent some time in the press box. He didn’t complain about it. He kept doing what he was brought here to do. If that meant sitting down for a game or two, so be it.
Fast forward to, well, now. Brian Gionta is 37 and at the tail end of his career. He was brought to Buffalo prior to the 2014-15 season to be a leader, bring a little grit, demonstrate a lot of work ethic, and bridge the gap between terrible and mediocre. And he’s done exactly what he was brought here to do.
A lot of criticism has been piled on Gionta. Some of it is deserved, but most of it comes from unreasonable expectations. At 37 years old, there is no way he should be playing top-six minutes, and to start the season, he was. The 14-year veteran of the league has seen his best ice time, and those long, grueling years have taken their toll. Some of you may be thinking, “But…Jagr,” and to you, I have no words. It’s like comparing Star Wars to..well…any other movie ever. There is no comparison. One is in a league of its own, and the rest are just the rest.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that Gionta just needed to play fewer minutes, and I stand by that. We’ve seen his ice time reduced, and in that time, we’ve seen Gionta return to form. He has three points in the last three games, and he was on the ice for the six-on-five to end the game in Montreal last night. Scoring is definitely a plus, but being trusted when down a man means even more, and fans should take notice. His physical play has picked up since his ice-time diminished. He seems sharper – especially in the defensive zone. He seems less fatigued, and because of that, he’s a better player.
I want to be the first writer in Buffalo to thank Brian Gionta. Since the start of the season, he’s been through the wringer – especially now that O’Reilly has taken a leadership role with the team. Gionta hasn’t made a big deal of it, he’s stepped back and let O’Reilly shine, and the team has benefitted greatly. Humility is a characteristic rarely seen in sports, but Gionta’s humility and wisdom prove that he’s exactly the kind of leader that Buffalo has needed.
This may be Gionta’s last season in Buffalo – maybe even in the NHL, but the city owes him a huge debt of gratitude. He graciously bridged the gap between terrible and mediocre, and when the time came, he quietly passed the torch on to the next team leader. It is perhaps unfair that when the Sabres finally do hoist the Cup, Gionta’s name will not be on it, but it is his leadership that has helped to right this ship and get it sailing toward its destination. Thank you, Brian Gionta.