When Brian Gionta started playing his freshman year at Boston College, Jack Eichel was hardly a year old. When Eichel began his brief college career at Boston University in 2014, Gionta was entering his 13th NHL season.
They’re 18 years apart in age—the youngest Sabre on the roster, and the oldest.
And while fans continue to herald the likes of Eichel, Sam Reinhart, and other youthful members of the team as the keys to success going forward, 37-year-old Gionta is almost just as important in taking steps toward that prized Cup.
Since donning blue and gold, Gionta has had plenty of surprises up his sleeve. He’s found the back of the net 25 times in two seasons as a Sabre, adding 43 assists to his stats. Although his point total dipped just slightly this past season, his contributions felt more pivotal. His 12 goals this year were sixth most for the team, ahead of such teammates as Marcus Foligno, Matt Moulson, and Zemgus Girgensons. He also finished at sixth for the team in overall points.
Gionta deserves credit for a lot more points than what showed up in his row on the stat sheets—namely, many of the points that came on the sticks of Foligno and Johan Larsson. The three came together late in the season as a line that nobody saw coming, and now everyone wants to see more of.
The trio amassed 15 goals and a total of 27 points in the month of March and the Sabres’ handful of April games. Seven of those were Larsson’s, alone, and he attributed his late-season surge in part to Gionta’s sagely hockey knowledge.
“You learn every day with him,” said Larsson. “He has a lot of experience. He tries to teach you a lot of things. He’s done that, been there. It’s nice to have him there on the wing, and to be able to talk to him about anything.”
Gionta taught more of his younger teammates a thing or two earlier this year during the Sabres Showdown, all while catching more than a few fans off guard. In the contest testing accuracy, slap shot strength, and shootout talents, he topped teammates Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart to reach the finals, where he fell just a hair short of beating Tyler Ennis. Gionta went 12 for 14 on his accuracy challenges and regularly surpassed ninety miles per hour on his slap shots.
Those two skills came in handy during the Sabres’ season finale against the New York Islanders, where Gionta scored with both a brutal slapshot and a precise wrister into the top shelf—the latter serving as the game winner—in a game that felt symbolic of the progress that the team made in the latter half of the season.
“The last half of the year is how we want to start next year,” said Gionta following the last game of the year. “We’re a team that’s grown a bit, matured a bit. When you sit back and look at it, you’ve got to build off the second half of the year. That’s where we want to be as a team. That’s what we need to strive for is to be a team that makes the playoffs next year. There’s no reason why we can’t.”
There will come a day where one of the Sabres up and coming superstars takes on the role of Captain, probably once this team has matured into a regular playoff participant and a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Until then, they’re already in fine hands with Gionta wearing the “C,” who is just 76 games away from playing in his 1000th NHL contest, and will be entering his final year of a three-year, $12.75 million contract as the 2016-2017 season commences.
But don’t expect Gionta to call it career after he hits that 1000-game plateau, or even when he hits 40 years of age.
When asked if he’ll fulfill the final year of his contract with Buffalo, Gionta answered – “For sure. And hopefully for a few more. I feel great. I still feel good out there, I feel like I can contribute to the team and want to keep playing. You always want to play and I would love to play beyond next year. I’m going to prepare the same way. I have no end sight in mind… I feel great.”