Waiting on a Leader

Another year, another debate over who will be the Buffalo Sabres’ next captain.

After dealing away Jason Pominville in the spring, the Sabres were—once again—without anyone to proudly wear the “C” on their jersey, and months later, it seems like the wait will continue a little longer until a new leader is chosen. Head coach Ron Rolston recently revealed that he intends to rotate the captaincy throughout the preseason, which begins on Sunday and includes seven games for the Sabres.

“Getting our new staff in here, we’ve got a couple new members that need to really get a good feel for the players too,” Rolston said before training camp commenced this week.  “So we’re going to let things play out early in camp and then see how it pans out.”

While Rolston clearly has questions he needs answered, the fanbase made up their mind a long time ago as to who they want leading the team—Steve Ott.

It’s no secret that Ott has become somewhat of a celebrity since arriving in Buffalo. He’s easily the most vocal player that the organization has seen in years, never showingott any hesitation to speak his mind to the media. He’s also been very interactive with the fans, laying claim to the most Twitter followers of any Sabre (63000k+), and managing an active Instagram account, as well.

Couple that charisma with his edgy, spirited style of play, and it’s no surprise that Ott is the leading candidate among the Sabres faithful to be captain.

But thank goodness the fans have no say in it.

A captain needs to accomplish two jobs in conjunction with his work on the ice; he needs to inspire his teammates, and he needs to represent the organization well.

Ott merely does the former, and not even always. His loyalty to his fellow boys in blue and gold may be unmatched, but it’s occasionally been proven to be in the wrong place. The most egregious example[s] comes from his infamous tirade earlier this year when he made a number of not-so-subtle jabs at Sabres fans for continually booing the team inside First Niagara Center during the shortened 2013 season—

“I think it’s completely ridiculous […] We go into other buildings, we’ve won a lot of games and teams should have the same amount of frustration, sold-out buildings […] it’s funny because they’re continuing to cheer on their team. They stand behind their team. They respect the work ethic.”

“I guess you can say it was more the mocking of my teammates and everything else that probably pissed a lot of guys off, including myself. I mean, you’re a fan of the Buffalo Sabres and hopefully you come to cheer us on and motivate us to be good.”

It was hardly the reaction you would expect from a ten-season veteran of the NHL, and all over something as trivial as booing; it wasn’t as if the fans did something truly heinous like throw debris on the ice or make a targeted attack on a player. What kind of messages would it send to a young, rebuilding hockey club if their captain was someone so easily agitated?

That’s off the ice, where a captain does his least amount of work. On the ice, Ott has shown to be just as much of a loose cannon as he is in interviews. He led the team in penalty minutes last season with 93, a total that becomes even more unsettling when you take into account that only 20 of those came from fights. That means that Ott accrued a whopping 73 penalty minutes—still more than any other player—from simple, undisciplined play. Some were more extreme than that, namely the 20 that came in the form of game misconducts called against him.

Whether it’s because of fights, accidents, mistakes, outbursts, tantrums, or, in Ott’s case especially, a flair for chirping, no captain should ever spend a game and half in the penalty box over the course of a season.

So, if not Ott, then who should be captain? Even though the Sabres aren’t exactly loaded with star power, and are even more lacking in the experience department given the youthful direction they’re headed in, they have a worthy option or two.

Buffalo Sabres v Carolina HurricanesThomas Vanek may not motivate his teammates with a pre-game inspirational speech like something out of the Lord of the Rings, but he’s exactly the type of player who could lead simply by example. Until young hopefuls like Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson fully come into their own, Vanek is the prime offensive threat on the team, and he proved it in 2013 by recording 41 points in 38 contests.

Rolston has also expressed that he’s fine with electing a captain who has only one year left on his contract.

“Anyone that’s a part of this team will have the possibility of wearing [the C] and leading us this year,” Rolston said.

And if the organization would rather go with a player guaranteed to be around for while—such as eight more years, in particular—they have a fantastic candidate hailing from the blue line—Christian Ehrhoff.

You could argue that he’s the single most experienced member on the roster. Ehrhoff has 613 NHL games under his belt, just one shy of team leaders Ott and Henrik Tallinder. He’s played in 73 playoff games, far more than anyone else on the roster, and was a big contributor for the Vancouver Canucks during their 2011 run to the Stanley Cup Finals. That high-pressure experience would be invaluable as the leader of a young, up-and-coming squad that is bound to eventually morph into a Cup contender.

Ehrhoff is the type of player who would lead by example across all positions. He’s proven to have an offensive bite despite being a defenseman, putting up 10 goals in his two seasons with Buffalo and 54 points total. He’s established himself as a key component on the power play, amassing 11 points in the 2012-2013 season, and 9 during the shortened 2013 season. His 20 total power play points as a Sabre are good for second on the current roster since his arrival.

He accomplishes this without forgetting that he’s a defenseman first and foremost. Last season he was just one of two defenseman on the team with a positive +/- when he finished at +6, the other being Mike Weber with a +3. Since becoming a Sabre, Ehrhoff has been the decided time on ice leader, last season averaging over 25 minutes a game, nearly four more minutes than the next highest, Andrej Sekera.

And those are minutes spent on the ice itself, not sitting in the penalty box because of meaningless roughing or barking at the referees.

“My goal is to win the Stanley Cup […] I believe this is the best place to make it happen,” Ehrhoff said in the summer of 2011 after signing with the Sabres.

The best way to make that happen might just be for Roston to let Ehrhoff lead the charge himself.


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