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Taking Up the Mantle

Two years ago Craig Rivet arrived in Buffalo and was given as daunting of a task as there could be for a professional hockey player; Captaining a timid, lost Sabres club that was still reeling from the loss of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury.

It didn’t help Rivet any that he spent the last couple of seasons beforehand on the back lines of the San Jose Sharks, and was years apart from his only leadership role- a stint as an alternate captain in Montreal that was filled with controversy after he criticized Habs fans.

Rivet gave it his all in Buffalo, playing his gritty style of hockey and getting into more than enough scraps to show that he wanted to stick up for his teammates. But nobody should be very surprised that his Captaincy of the Sabres hasn’t taken the team anywhere special.

At 36 years old, Rivet is likely on his way towards the end of his NHL career. For two consecutive seasons fans have watched his impact in the game diminish, between his drop in points, his sinking +/- rating, and his plummeting Time on Ice. Things have really hit rock bottom this season for Rivet with him being benched for multiple games.

“I think any time you’re not in the lineup you’re disappointed,” Rivet said. “I don’t disagree with what [Lindy Ruff]’s doing.”

That’s a clear-cut sign that the Sabres need to start pondering about appointing a new Captain. So long as he’s not injured, no leader of a hockey club should ever be in the Press Box while the rest of his team is on the ice; you’ll never see Sidney Crosby, Henrik Sedin or Nicklas Lidstrom being listed as a “Healthy Scratch.”

Thankfully, unlike a few years ago, there are a lot of potential candidates in the Sabres system to fill that role. And if a front-runner does exist, it should be Derek Roy. Roy’s by far been the team’s most consistent player since the departure of Briere and Drury, putting up 69 or more points three seasons in a row, and he looks primed to stretch that streak to four seasons.

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“He’s taken more responsibility for all aspects of his game,” Lindy Ruff said of Roy, “When we’ve needed our go-to centerman, he’s been able to step up.”

It’s not so much that he leads the Sabres in points (26; 9 goals, 17 assists), but when his points have gone on the board that have made him a stud this season. Roy has been the definition of a clutch performer, putting up two goals and eight assists all on the power play. An even nicer note is that the Sabres are 6-2-0 in a game where Roy notches a power play point.

Even if he doesn’t possess the typical leadership capabilities seen in a strong NHL captain, Roy could just as easily be an effective leader simply by example.

“I want to be an elite player in this league,” Roy said, “Whatever you do in life, you want to be skilled at it. You want to be the best. I’m trying to approach it that way every day.”

Jordan Leopold might be capable of the same if he continues the offensive surge he’s delivered in late 2010. After playing over seven NHL seasons with five different teams (Buffalo included), Leopold is a true veteran of the sport. Seeing as how he’s only in the first of a three-year contract, which may very well be renewed before it expires, Leopold stands out as another brilliant choice for the Captaincy.

Because unlike most of the other veterans on the Sabres roster, Leopold is likely here to stay. Rivet and Rob Niedermayer are rapidly nearing the end of their careers, Grier is only signed to a single year contract, and Jochen Hecht looks as if he’s lost of a lot of his relevancy this season.

The Sabres have a number of promising young prospects in their system, so it only makes sense that they’ll proceed with a youth movement for the team, where an NHL journeyman like Leopold could be ideal to bear the “C”.

If not, that same youth movement offers the organization its own myriad of potential leaders. As more and more of the kids from Portland transition to the NHL, younger players already on the Sabres roster with experience in the big leagues, like Tyler Myers and Tyler Ennis, become possible candidates.

Both of the Tylers have demonstrated that they belong on a top line in the NHL, and so long as they only improve in the coming years, they’ll be the type of star players that the eventual Sabres youngsters will want to emulate.

Perhaps it’s not much of a coincidence, either, that Myers can easily be compared to Leopold, and Ennis to Roy, in what they do on the ice.

“He’s a creative player, he finds those little spots,” Thomas Vanek said of Ennis, “He’s fitting in well. We’re trying to find chemistry, and it’s working good.”

While the current Sabres roster that fans have watched since October still appears to be in the playoff mix, this year definitely has a rebuilding vibe to it; it’s becoming apparent week by week which guys have the best chance at forming a core group that will lead this team to greater success.

So although the Sabres have some time to figure out just who will be their next fearless leader, it would be a giant leap for the entire franchise to pin that Captaincy on someone within the next year or two.

And it can’t be Ryan Miller, no matter how big of a star he may be. Just ask the Vancouver Canucks how effective it is to make a goaltender the Captain of an NHL team.

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