Someone in the Buffalo Sabres’ dressing room will be named team captain one year after the title was stripped from Jack Eichel ahead of his final training camp as a member of the organization.
Sabers General Manager Kevyn Adams told reporters before the opening of training camp practices Thursday that a leadership group, including the team captain, will be announced closer to the regular-season opener on Oct. thirteen.
Kyle Okposo is expected to be the next captain following a season in which he, along with Zemgus Girgensons, shepherded the Sabers through a culture change that fostered camaraderie, inclusiveness and fellowship on and off the ice. Okposo, 34, a 15-year veteran of the NHL, served as an alternate captain in each of the past five seasons in Buffalo. And despite the added responsibility last season, Okposo had his best performance as a Saber with 21 goals.
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Girgensons, Rasmus Dahlin, Tage Thompson and Alex Tuch are obvious candidates to be in the leadership group as alternate captains alongside Okposo. But the Sabers don’t want a hierarchy where only a few voices are heard. Coach Don Granato and his staff, along with Okposo and Girgensons, created an environment that allows others to assume leadership roles, no matter their experience.
“We have great leadership,” said Granato. “I’ll just point out our three older, I think our three oldest guys, are Girgensons, Okposo and Craig Anderson. And they do a tremendous job. They have that presence. And they are in it, obviously, as competitors, but they really have a deep care for helping some other guys achieve more. They don’t fear that this guy might replace me. Which is very uncommon. Whether that is an unconscious thought, or a subconscious thought. Sometimes it’s hard for the older players to really, really help a guy who might replace them or take some ice time away from them. And those three guys there, they love it.”
Adams and Granato revealed the pair spoke “extensively” about the captaincy in recent months. Okposo and Girgensons are seen as the unquestioned leaders of the team. But there’s a large group behind them who help teammates through words and actions.
Dahlin, 22, became an alternate captain during his fourth NHL season and thrived with the responsibility, posting career highs in goals (13), points (53) and average time on ice (24:01) as the club’s top defenseman.
Tuch, 26, endeared himself to the fan base at the time of his arrival last November by expressing his passion for the franchise dating back to his childhood in Baldwinsville, and quickly won over his teammates with his play on the ice and how quickly he acclimated to the group. Thompson, 24, was rewarded with a $50 million contract extension following his breakout 38-goal season and emerged as a calming influence with his voice on the bench and in the dressing room.
Behind that group, the Sabers have several young players with leadership qualities, most notably Dylan Cozens, Casey Mittelstadt, Peyton Krebs and Mattias Samuelsson.
Dahlin’s poise off the ice has progressed at the same rapid pace as his play on the Sabres’ blue line.
Thompson was pushed by his teammates to the middle of the post-practice stretch as another subtle celebration of the center’s contract extension. Thompson was rewarded with the largest contract given by Adams following his standout season after switching to a new position in training camp last fall.
“It’s awesome,” Thompson said. “Obviously, that’s a huge leap of faith from the organization and management. I’ve said multiple times this is a place I want to be for a long time, so I’m excited. Obviously, I’ve got a lot of work to do and just trying to get better every day.”
The NHL recently ruled that Ben Bishop cannot work for the Dallas Stars’ development staff while under contract with the Buffalo Sabres, forcing the injured goaltender to wait until next season to join the Stars in a coaching role.
Adams, however, told reporters Thursday that he had no issue with the arrangement. At the time of the trade, which the Sabers completed to move closer to the salary-cap floor, Adams spoke to Stars General Manager Jim Nill about Bishop’s health and plans for the season. Bishop counts $4.9 million against the Sabres’ cap, but most of his salary is paid by insurance because of the knee injury that ended his career after 11 NHL seasons.
“It’s something I talked to Jim about right off the bat in terms of where this was and where (Bishop) was in his own health,” Adams said. “And you guys know why we made that decision this summer but no, not at all.”
“Kevyn’s leadership and vision over the past two seasons have proven to be invaluable, and I am confident in his ability to continue to move us forward as an organization,” Sabers owner Terry Pegula said in a news release.
Sabers center Sean Malone, a West Seneca native, is out with an undisclosed injury at the start of camp and faces an undetermined timeline to return. Malone, 27, set career highs in goals (20) and points (37) in Rochester last season.
The Sabers are also still without injured prospects Matej Pekar, Olivier Nadeau, Josh Bloom and Zach Berzolla. Otherwise, the rest of the roster arrived healthy and participated in practices.
Defenseman Spencer Sova was the lone invitee from Prospects Challenge to earn a spot on the Sabres’ training camp roster and Adams confirmed there’s an opportunity for the 18-year-old to earn a contract. Sova, who spent last season with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, impressed at the prospects showcase with his skating, athleticism and playmaking from the blue line.