Who Should Be the Next Sabres Captain?
The Sabres have been without a full-time captain since the organization stripped Jack Eichel of the capital “C” on his sweater back in September of 2021 before sending him off to the land of buffets, dry heat and smoke-filled casinos. During the 2021-22 campaign, Kevin Adam’s squad relied instead on alternate* captains, with Kyle Okposo, Zemgus Girgensons, Mark Pysyk, Rasmus Dahlin and others all wearing “A” patches on their jerseys at different points throughout the season.
That captain-less situation figures to change based on what coach Don Granato said in mid-July when he appeared on WGR to give an update on the state of the franchise as he sees it.
“We do (have a plan for a captain),” Granato said. “Obviously it’s something we’ve looked at. It’s not something I felt we should have done early last year. We just had a captain, and it’s the middle of the season, and we just needed to take care of hockey. We knew we had great leadership in (Kyle) Okposo and (Zemgus) Girgensons so it was easy to appoint those guys (as alternates).”
With that transitional year in the rearview mirror, Granato now seems like he’s ready to make a commitment to a new leader.
“We’ve had time to reflect more and think on it, and that’s all we wanted,” Granato said. “So, as we approach training camp, we’ll move on that.”
So, with the knowledge that Granato is poised to name a captain, the question becomes: who will he name? There are quite a few good candidates, and we'll start by discussing the team's budding young leaders, although they may still be too wet behind the ears to fully embrace the role.
Rasmus Dahlin is entering his fifth year and Sabres fans are expecting him to make the huge jump from a young, promising defenseman who put up 53 points in 80 games to a game-changing offensive defenseman in the mold of prime Erik Karlsson. With that in mind, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to further burden Dahlin with the captaincy when the performance-based expectations are already sky high. There’s also the matter of temperament, and in a lot of ways, he’s similar to another high draft pick of the Sabres who gave himself a hard time when things weren’t going well. Thomas Vanek was often chided by the Sabres fanbase for his hangdog, aggravated demeanor when a play went badly.
Dahlin has a bit of that in him too, although not in the same outward way that Vanek would curse at himself on the bench when he missed a shot. Following a bad shift, Dahlin can sometimes be seen sitting silently on the bench – eyes forward – with a shaken, thousand-yard stare, and ideally a captain should shake off a previous moment in the game and move on. That’s not to say he can’t develop into a leader. He can. Now is not the time for that though; now is the time to let Dahlin focus on his game without the added responsibilities given to a team leader.
Like Dahlin, many are ready for Dylan Cozens to ascend to the highest point on the team and take what many perceive to be his rightful place as the captain of the Sabres.
That, too, seems premature.
The blue and gold faithful see all the hallmarks of a future captain: strong indications of two-way play, a physical element to his game, an undoubted passion for the game and above all, a desire to win. There is no doubt that he will wear a letter at some point during his career, and that time may be very soon, but for now it’s enough to let him focus on his game.
Cozens will need to provide second-line offensive production for this team to succeed, whether that’s at center or wing, and like Dahlin, focusing on his game should be the goal for now. The rest will come in time. As Cat Stevens said: “It's not time to make a change, just relax, take it easy. You're still young, that's your fault. There's so much you have to know.”
He’ll be a captain someday.
Alex Tuch, meanwhile, is ready to be captain today. He checks every box you could ask him to. He is certifiably an Adams-Brand #personwhowantstobehere who grew up a Sabres fan watching Danny Briere and Chris Drury (although there are no pictures of him in team-colored jammies unlike John Tavares which brings his score down a touch). All kidding aside, Tuch is the kind of proven, mid-20s player the Sabres have been dying to get their hands on due to his genuine passion for the community, and more importantly, his ability to play hockey at a high level.
Now, elite-point-producer Jack Eichel he is not.
Tuch will probably get you 65 points in a very good year if he’s able to stay healthy, but when coupled with all of his intangibles, he’s a terrific candidate to wear the “C.” The biggest problem with naming him captain – if it can be called a problem – is that his ascendancy to that role would prohibit Cozens from reaching the same mark.
If the team is still unsure whether Cozens or Tuch will be the captain long-term, then the answer for captain this season is completely obvious: Kyle Okposo. The resume writes itself: he’s entering his 7th season with the franchise, he lives in Buffalo all year round, he’s overcome monumental health challenges and he somehow just put up his best offensive season as Sabre despite being 34-years-old.
Okposo allows the team a buffer year or two (depending on whether they re-sign him), to decide on a long-term captain while assuring that the club will be represented by a high-integrity figure who actively cares about the community in the interim. Just like NFL teams seek out high-character serviceable veterans to be bridge quarterbacks for the promising, young draft picks behind them, Okposo is a perfect bridge captain for this team.
The Minnesota native can still play meaningful offensively minded minutes in a middle-six role if asked, or he can transition to a defensive shutdown role that he previously occupied under former head coaches Phil Housley and Ralph Krueger. No matter the role, he will gladly accept it, and there’s still plenty that Okposo as the “dad” of the team can teach the young guys who are still finding their roles in the show.
No matter who the Sabres pick, for the first time in a long time, there are several good options here, and that’s good news for a team that is desperately trying to turn the corner into relevance.
*Pedantic side note – misrepresenting the meaning of the “A” really gets under my skin, especially when commentators on NHL broadcasts get this wrong – the “A” on the jersey denotes “alternate” not “assistant.” That is, if the captain is unavailable (or in the Sabres case, unnamed), the alternate captains run the show. They are not assistants to the regional manager.