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Time To Lead The New Core
October 2, 2013 - Matt Spielman
The Buffalo Sabres and their fans feel like they've seen this dual captaincy situation before. They have, way back in the glory days of 2005-07, two of the greatest years in Sabres' history.
Following the lockout, and the rotating captaincy of the 2003-04 season, Daniel Briere and Chris Drury were named full-time dual captains for the 2005-06 season. Briere and Drury were tasked with leading a relatively young "core" of Sabres into the uncharted waters of the post-lockout NHL. And lead they did. Drury was the heart and soul of the squad, giving up his body on a nightly basis, but generally staying out of the limelight pre- and post-game. He learned many of his leadership qualities from Joe Sakic in Colorado. Briere was the more productive of the two captains over the two-season stretch and also the more vocal captain in public, but by all accounts both were equally respected in the locker room.
The two served as role models for the organization's previous core group of players including 25-year-old Maxim Afinogenov, 24-year-old Tim Connolly, 21-year-old Thomas Vanek, 22-year-old Derek Roy, 22-year-old Jason Pominville and 23-year-old Paul Gaustad. All of the youngsters had their faults, but with Drury and Briere leading them, they were able to put together two solid years of hockey, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals both years before falling to the Carolina Hurricanes and Ottawa Senators. Both of those Sabres teams were also backstopped by a young Ryan Miller, who was finding his own way to becoming a star in the NHL.
But the offseason was unkind to Buffalo and its fans. Drury and Briere left for more money and the bigger lights of New York and Philadelphia, respectively. The young core was left searching for somebody to lead them. Head coach Lindy Ruff went back to a rotating captaincy for the 2007-08 season, looking for that next captain to lead on the ice and in the locker room. Jochen Hecht wore the "C" first, then Toni Lydman, Brian Campbell, Jaroslav Spacek, Hecht again and finally Jason Pominville. Roy and Pominville each finished with 80 points, but there was not much production to be found after them. By the trade deadline, Campbell also bid a tearful goodbye to the city, his teammates and Sabres fans.
The core had lost its way and eventually management began to go in a different direction. First Afinogenov and Connolly left as free agents, next Gaustad went for a first-round pick. Roy was shipped away for Steve Ott and Pominville for an AHL goalie, Johan Larsson and another first-round pick. General manager Darcy Regier decided it was time for a new core.
Management and ownership asked fans to be patient as the team traveled through "the rebuild." But that doesn't sit well with Sabres fans. Patience is hard to find in a city where neither pro sports team has a championship. So big things will be expected of this new core.
Ott and Vanek were tasked with being this core's leaders on Tuesday. Cody Hodgson and his new six-year contract will be expected to reach the top-center status that Connolly strived for but never reached. Fans will hope that Mikhail Grigorenko can add more production to the flash that Afinogenov, the team's previous Russian phenom, provided. Management will want Tyler Ennis to develop into more of a team player than Derek Roy came off as at times. Zemgus Girgensons and Joel Armia will be asked to replace the point production of Pominville, and eventually Johan Larsson will be asked to provide more offensively than Gaustad did during his years. Miller will need to return to his Vancouver-Olympics form of 2010.
What this team believes it has that the 2005-07 teams did not is young depth on the back end. With Christian Ehrhoff firmly anchored in as the team's No. 1 defenseman for several years, the future looks bright in front of Miller. Tyler Myers' return to his Calder Trophy form is key, but the good recent draft picks of Mark Pysyk, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov should form a formidable unit for years to come.
The 2005-06 team surprised everybody out of the lockout and took the league by storm with a cast of relative newcomers. Fans and members of the Sabres organization alike hope this year's team can do the same out of the most recent lockout.
The question remains, if this core group does exceed expectations, will management do what is necessary to keep its two captains in the fold when their contracts expire at the end of the season?
That's something it didn't do in 2007.
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Buffalo's Zemgus Girgensons carries the puck up the ice during a preseason game against Columbus on Sept. 17. AP photo