Brian Gionta

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Brian Gionta on NHL future, representing USA Hockey again (PHT Q&A)

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The Olympic journey for Brian Gionta begins Monday night when he boards a flight to Germany to meet up with his USA Hockey teammates ahead of next week’s Deutschland Cup.

The Americans will play Slovakia, Russia and Germany in the tournament hosted by the German Ice Hockey Federation. It’s the first step for USA Hockey as they look to identify the players who will make up their roster at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Gionta is one of two players — Ryan Malone being the other — on the 29-man roster for the Deutschland Cup who has played in the Olympics. After the Buffalo Sabres declined to re-sign the veteran of 1,006 NHL games, he spent the summer searching for another NHL gig. While he and his agent had contract talks with a few teams, nothing came to fruition.

Earlier this month, once the Olympic option came on the radar, the 38-year-old Gionta began skating with the AHL’s Rochester Americans to stay in shape. His time is now spent skating during the mornings and hanging out with with his wife and three kids the rest of the day.

We spoke with Gionta on Friday, one day after he was in New York City for the Team USA WinterFest event.

Enjoy.

Q. What do you remember most about your Olympic experience in 2006?

GIONTA: “It was a dream come true. Just the whole enormity of it was so much fun. Obviously, disappointing how we finished [knocked out by Finland in quarterfinals] and that’s a driving force making that a better finish this year.”

Are surprised that you have this opportunity again given the NHL’s decision not to go to PyeongChang?

“Yes, for sure. Considering the past involvement and future sites coming up, I thought for sure they’d still be involved. Clearly, the decision was made on the NHL’s part to not allow those guys to go. How things shook out for myself late summer-ish, I didn’t really have it on the radar until things played out the way they did.”

When did your summer go from pursuing another NHL contract to heading in this direction where you could be part of the Olympic team again?

“Right up in through camp and during camp, still had a couple of teams that called with some interest. But with my three kids, the ages they’re at, it was a tough transition to make for them to be going someplace else. When we made the decision not to move the family or me move away from the family, USA Hockey had called and said they’d be interested if I was not playing in the NHL.”

Have you closed the door on playing again in the NHL?

“You never know. I would definitely not close the door. If the right situation came across, I’d have to think long and hard about it, for sure. But at the same time if nothing changes I’m completely excited about the prospect of playing in the Olympics and having a chance at a medal.”

As one of two guys with Olympic experience on the roster, what kind of advice could you pass along to your teammates who’ve never participated in one?

“The biggest thing is to enjoy it. It goes quick. On the ice, it’s not much you can say, it’s more trying to be a calming force in big games because you’ve been a part of bigger games throughout the career. It’s just trying to be a steady force to settle things at times.”

[VIDEO: Who will be on U.S., Canada Olympic men’s hockey rosters?]

How much of an advantage is it to have these tournament games as opposed to flying from your NHL city and thrown right into competition like in previous Olympics?

“It’s big. It’s an advantage to be together with some of the guys that will be on that team. But it’s also a big advantage because the whole coaching staff’s going to be over there. It’s the first case you get to implement the system that they want and playing within that. In year’s past, you haven’t had that luxury of being able to play for that coach or with those guys until you get over there and you have a couple of practices and you’re right into it.

“It’s definitely a unique situation. It’s a cool situation to have where you’re able to go over next week and get to know the guys, get to play with the guys and also get a feel for the coaches and their styles.”

Having been part of the Players’ Association, do you believe Olympic participation should be worked into the next Collective Bargaining Agreement?

“If the players want it, that’s a way to safeguard themselves away from the NHL being able to come in and out of certain Olympic Games. If it’s built into the CBA it’s a binding thing and you have a little more say in that. If the players and the PA want more control then having it in the CBA allows them to have a little more say when it comes time for those Games.”

From you experience internationally, when you have that many players coming together for a short tournament, what are some important things to do in order to start developing chemistry?

“Some of those little team bonding things you can do. But mostly it’s hanging out together, getting to know each other, getting a feel for where everyone’s come from and their backgrounds and creating that bond in a short period of time. It’s unique because we have that next week to be able to do some of that and even on your practice days before the games you have some time to build in stuff like that and try to build some chemistry and speed up that process a bit.”

Finally, whenever the time comes have you thought about what you want to do after your career is over?

“Over the last couple of year you start thinking about it. Still unsure with what direction that would be but I think in the current situation being able to practice with the Amerks in the AHL you’re kind of in-between. You’re in-between the players, you’re in-between coaches and management. So I can take this year to feel out the development side, feel out the management side, feel out the coaching side that when you’re immersed as a player and playing games and constantly grinding through the season, you don’t have that time to sit back and learn those things. I’m hoping to use this year to learn and maybe give some more direction to where the next few years will lead me.”

MORE: PyeongChang Olympic hockey schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Gionta: Sabres’ offseason ‘excites guys in the locker room’

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The biggest winners of the Buffalo Sabres’ summer of resounding improvements might just be the players who suffered through the 2014-15 season (not to mention the fans).

Veteran winger Brian Gionta probably isn’t very familiar with seasons like that, so it makes sense that he seemed excited about the additions of Dan Byslma, Ryan O’Reilly, Jack Eichel, Robin Lehner and so on. He praised Sabres GM Tim Murray’s work to USA Today on Friday.

“Look at the moves he’s been able to make,” Gionta said. “You can say you want a better team, you want to bring in better players, but for him to actually pull that off and make the moves he did, it shows that he means business. That excites guys in the locker room.”

Back when he was hired by the team in May, Bylsma said that he sees a bright future for the team, as the Buffalo News reported. Even so, one would guess that Bylsma, Gionta and possibly even Murray are all a little surprised by just how much progress the Sabres have made in mere months.

(They certainly don’t seem out of place on “most improved teams” lists like this one by NHL.com.)

Naturally, it’s not that tough to improve upon the disaster that has been the Sabres for the past two seasons – the phrase “historically bad” came up uncomfortably often – but it remains to be seen how much these moves will translate into results.

It might take some time, yet it’s also plausible that the rebuild will be more rapid than expected, a notion that isn’t lost on veterans such as Gionta.

(H/T to The Score.)

PHT Morning Skate: Guy Lafleur believes Gallagher should be the Habs’ next captain

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PHT’s Morning Skate takes a look around the world of hockey to see what’s happening and what we’ll be talking about around the NHL world and beyond.

The Montreal Canadiens played the 2014-15 season without a captain after Brian Gionta signed in Buffalo as a free agent. Habs legend Guy Lafleur believes when the club does appoint a new leader it should be forward Brendan Gallagher wearing the ‘C’.

“A captain shouldn’t be chosen on the amount of goals he’s going to score,” Lafleur told the Montreal Gazette. “That guy (Gallagher) really impressed me every night I saw him play. He’s aggressive, he wants to win. He gets some bad shots from opponents, he takes a lot of hits and there’s not too many guys on the team that work like he does.” (Montreal Gazette)

With salary cap issues looming, Mike Milbury discusses the potential roster turnover the Chicago Blackhawks face.

Red Wings’ prospect Tom McCollum proving his worth with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins in the Calder Cup playoffs. (Detroit Free Press)

Newly hired Flyers’ coach Dave Hakstol owes the University of North Dakota $100,000 for taking NHL gig. (Grand Forks Herald)

The Montreal Canadiens brass has been out at the Memorial Cup this week watching, among others, prospect goaltender Zach Fucale. The Habs front office won’t be happy with the performance they saw from Fucale on Wednesday night. The 20-year-old was pulled after allowing four goals on 25 shots and his Quebec Remparts fell 4-0 to the Rimouski Oceanic. (Sportsnet)

Here’s another look at the Blackhawks’ 5-2 win in Game 6 on Wednesday night:

With Matt Beleskey scoring 45 seconds into overtime in Game 5 on Monday night, The Hockey News takes a look at the fastest five playoff overtime winners. (The Hockey News)

Coyotes ‘win’ against Sabres in OT

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Thursday presented one of those classic “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29” situations: who do you really deem the “winners” of an Arizona Coyotes – Buffalo Sabres game?

OK, in a literal sense, the Coyotes beat the Sabres 4-3 in OT.

Considering the tanking scenario, Buffalo really “wins” by generating one fewer standings point. Really, though, the Edmonton Oilers might be the “winners” in that the Sabres forced this contest to go to overtime with a late Brian Gionta goal.

Either way, it was an odd scene in which beat reporters were passing along notes about fans cheering for both Sabres and Coyotes goals in Buffalo.

Observe the ovation for Sam Gagner’s winning goal:

Here is how the race to the bottom looks now:

30. Buffalo – 48 points, eight games left
29. Arizona – 54 points, seven games left
28. Edmonton – 55 points, eight games left

Realistically, it’s probably just a battle for second-to-last, as it’s hard to imagine Buffalo winning enough to sabotage getting the best odds in the draft lottery. The good news for the Oilers is that Arizona and Buffalo face off again in Arizona on Monday.

Like a midnight showing of “The Room,” one gets the feeling that hockey fans will enjoy watching that next contest in a very sardonic sort of way …

Sabres’ Nolan scoffs at notion his players have nothing to play for

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The Buffalo Sabres’ current winless skid hit five games with a shootout loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs Wednesday night.

Buffalo is now 3-17-3 in their last 23 road games and concluded its most recent road trip with just one of a possible 10 points (0-4-1).

The Sabres (19-42-6) have a have a three-point cushion on the Edmonton Oilers (18-38-11) for the last spot in the league.

Despite the aforementioned numbers, Sabres’ head coach Ted Nolan scoffed at the notion his club has nothing to play for with 15 games remaining on the 2014-15 schedule.

“I beg to differ, these guys have a lot to play for,” Nolan said following the Sabres’ 4-3 shootout loss. “These guys are playing for their livelihoods and they’re playing to get a job in the National Hockey League and sustain that.

“There’s all kinds of kids playing junior hockey and in Europe and all over North America trying to steal these jobs on you, so if you don’t stay on top of your game, you won’t keep them very long.”

Nolan has been particularly happy with the way his veterans have responded to the situation this season.

The line of Tyler Ennis and Matt Moulson and Johan Larsson accounted for three goals and nine points Wednesday.

“That’s why I have a lot of respect for Tyler Ennis and Matty Moulson and [Brian] Gionta,” said Nolan. “They have kids from the American Hockey League coming up here and they’re not complaining. They’re playing as hard as they can and those young kids are benefitting from it.”

Buffalo returns to action Saturday night when they play host to the New York Rangers.