Often times hockey is a very scripted sport. If you’ve followed the sport for a few years you start to pick up on the patterns of things, both on ice and in the transactional machinations. To call it predictable is probably a bridge too far but you can venture educated guesses about many things and come out correct a shade over half the time.
Hockey is also a very tradition-oriented sport. In a lot of ways, old world thinking holds back the game when GMs and other front office staff are often composed of the same handful of North American white men. Obvious rule changes take years, and the National Hockey League’s Player Safety Department is literally run by a retired enforcer.
Perhaps one area where these two realities of the NHL, scripted outcomes, and traditionalism, overlap in a way fans don’t mind is the team captain. Popular nowadays are the stories of Marian Hossa helping a young, frustrated Jonathan Toews in his early days as captain or Sidney Crosby’s brief tutelage under Mario Lemieux. These are instances where we see the truth that there is rarely one guy doing all the work of leadership. The demands of hockey will require a mix of experience, skill, patience, and persistence out of those wearing letters. Those combinations rarely come from one single person.
With the Buffalo Sabres, the story of the C has few golden eras. For the first sixteen years of franchise history there were temporary captains season to season. The captains of those years were either the original Sabre Gilbert Perreault or someone imparting wisdom on Gilbert Perreault. After his retirement, the C went down a succession of fan favorites like Lindy Ruff, Mike Foligno, Pat Lafontaine, Michael Peca, Stu Barnes and even a beloved Russian in Alexander Mogilny. The last time the Sabres were good enough to be Cup contenders, Danny Briere and Chris Drury shared the title. After both of them were lost to free agency on that horrific day in 2007, the role has seen the whole range of characters.
I loved Brian Gionta, and who didn’t love Jason Pominville, but with the team in rough financial and ownership straits for a while who possessed the jersey letters similarly lacked much direction. Craig Rivet was acquired to be a captain in 2008 and different fans have different opinions on that. You can’t deny that 2009-2010 squad won the Northeast division. Ten years later the merry-go-round seemed to finally stop. When Jack Eichel was made full-time captain in 2018 after having an A the season prior, it felt like a coronation: here was the man who was going to finally take us to the Stanley Cup.
We all know how that ended. Now Kyle Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons wear A’s as we transition from one era to another yet again. What does the future hold for the royal blue and gold C?
The Field of Candidates
In a way, it’s played out right? The Craig Rivet sequel might already be underway with Alex Tuch. If Tuch plays to anywhere near the caliber he did in Vegas, then the front office at KeyBank Center will have little trouble inaugurating him captain. It makes too much sense: He’s a local boy (from just outside Syracuse, which I suppose is local enough) who speaks of being a Sabres fan as a kid with photos of street hockey games with Tim Connolly in toe. He has four more seasons left on his current deal after this season. He has Stanley Cup Final experience. If nothing else, the marketing angles are immaculate. Pegula Sports & Entertainment headquarters heard the dollar signs on jersey sales as soon as that trade was consummated. To not be cynical about it for a minute: It would be somewhat healing to go from losing your high-expectations captain from New England to having a low-expectations captain from down the Thruway. Even that felt cynical as I wrote it.
The other names in the captaincy race all have to compete with the instantaneous bump in jersey sales a Tuch captaincy would bring on. The first of these candidates are naturally the two current alternate captains: Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo. Incumbency probably helps a little with the front office but even less with fans. Kyle Okposo getting the C would feel like a weird swan song for a heart and soul player beset by injuries who has just never lived up to the expectations he was saddled with upon getting traded here five years ago. Girgensons, on the other hand, would be the drought captain for the ages. Depending on how you talk about Mark Pysyk, Girgensons is now the longest tenured Sabre. His entire time here has been miserable, but he’s just too darn likable. If he got the C the front office could make it about experience and fans could reminisce about that legendary 2015 All Star appearance as the Latvian Locomotive mentors(?) the many young talents arriving in Buffalo.
If Tuch is the front office layup, and Girgensons or Okposo would be the experience picks, this next category might be called the Young Guns lane. The two guys in this group are the youngest options and have demonstrated strong contributions on the ice enough to lead by example. Both play with a style that is red meat to both the fans and front office.
Tage Thompson is the dark horse since he was the ‘disappointing’ prospect return in the Ryan O’Reilly trade. This season has changed his fortunes in a hurry after getting moved to center. Thompson leads the team in goals and is getting them the rough and tumble way Buffalo hockey fans traditionally love: real hard working lunch pail type stuff. In a Black Friday tilt with Montreal, Thompson bounced right up after getting leveled by a hard hit at center ice before scoring a decisive goal. He even mad-dogged the offending opponent after rifling it home:
Dylan Cozens, our other candidate in the Young Guns lane, is similarly fighting fights and putting his body on the line. The Workhorse from Whitehorse will likely develop a more consistent scoring touch as well. Few will forget that fight in Philadelphia last season that looked like something out of gladiatorial combat. He has been saying the right things off the ice to the point where I wonder if he’s playing the long game campaign for the C.
The question about both these guys is they’re so young still we can’t exactly be sure of what they’ll become, though we have plenty of reason to believe they’ll be league average or better. Out of these two candidates fans would probably give the edge to Cozens while the front office probably thinks Thompson would be the pick.
There are plenty of players not yet on the NHL squad who may do the trick a la Jack Quinn, Owen Power or even Peyton Krebs but we’re already dealing with too many variables here. We haven’t even talked about the dynamics implied when we talk about the interests of fans versus those of the front office.
So whose it going to be?
This kind of guesswork is so very dependent on the makeup of the coaching staff and vision of the general manager. It looks like neither Head Coach Don Granato nor GM Kevyn Adams are on the hot seat right now and it’d be a surprise if either of them are canned in the near future. On the other hand it feels like we’ve said that numerous times in the last decade and seen things fall apart fast. The firing of Ralph Krueger might have been Kevyn Adams’ one bullet. That is to say, GMs in this league very rarely get to fire more than one coach, particularly among the American-based franchises. As much as we love Don “Donny Meatballs” Granato right now, it’s not hard to imagine this crop of players and prospects outgrowing his leadership in the mid-distant future. Adams has done well for the hand he’s been dealt since his start in 2020. He is a loyal Pegula henchman if nothing else and is therefore probably the most secure GM in that role since Darcy Regier.
The external expectations on this team are low enough this season that nothing definitive on the captaincy front is likely until training camp in September 2022 anyway. Even then you could probably get by with a couple alternates for another year if need be. Certainly a lot can change in that time and if the last decade of Sabres hockey has taught us anything, it’s don’t count your eggs before they hatch.
For us fans the captaincy is a point of pride or it’s nothing. The energy is just not there for anything in between. That is, if you’re going to go with a heart-warming our-guy you need to commit to that narrative. If we’re just putting the C on anyone I think fans are at the point where they couldn’t care less. One needs only look at the average attendance numbers this season for that reality check.
This captaincy race is so hard to handicap because we have very little evidence beyond the typical motivational ra-ra stuff to figure out what the Coach and GM are thinking about this. That one piece of evidence is the two current alternates. Both the current A’s have one season left on their contracts after this season. That probably makes either option unlikely if one isn’t named Captain in 2022 along with a new contract. I’d contend the three remaining aforementioned candidates are all not ready for various reasons. While Cozens and Thompson aren’t ready for youth and experience reasons, Alex Tuch is simply not healthy yet. When Tuch comes back from injury he’s got the inside track to a letter.
That conclusion feels weird given he was only traded here last month but he seems like the most likely candidate if we get another captain sooner rather than later. If he’s the Craig Rivet redux, it won’t be hard for him to outdo the former captain’s goals and assists marks. That’s not to mention Rivet was 34 when he came to Buffalo and Alex Tuch is currently 25. If Tuch gets the C it will likely be his for a while, barring more drastic changes to the roster. Could he be named a temporary captain? Is anyone even ready for that kind of commitment with a team that has estranged at least one star and not so much as sniffed the playoffs in a decade? Someone has to be captain, right?
That’s just the thing about this whole exercise though, isn’t it? It’s traditional and scripted but still remarkably difficult to handicap. If we don’t know who the new captain is this time next year, I’d venture to guess we’re turning the page to another young phenom knocking at the door. Let’s just hope this time around whoever gets the honor of the C brings some pride and prestige back to the blue and gold.