Free agent Brian Gionta: Sabres return ‘very unlikely’

Watch as Brian Gionta scores his 15th goal of the season in his 1,000th game.

OAKVILLE, ONT. – The Buffalo Sabres will open their 2017-18 campaign with a brand-new GM, a brand-new head coach, and, in all likelihood, a new captain as well.

Brian Gionta, an unrestricted free agent, told Sportsnet Wednesday that although he’s eager to continue his 15-year, 1,006-game, 588-point NHL career next season, the chances of returning to Buffalo are slim.

“The door is not completely shut but very unlikely,” Gionta, 38, said before teeing off at the NHLPA’s 25th annual charity golf tournament.

“I’m still trying to figure things out. At this point in my career, it’s got to be a good situation for the family, so I’m just working through some things.”

Gionta said he recently met with new Sabres GM Jason Botterill to discuss his future.

“It was good conversation. We have a lot of respect for each other and understand the situation in Buffalo. I understand what can happen there,” says Gionta, who names a number of candidates who could inherit his ‘C.’

“Obviously, you’ve got [Ryan] O’Reilly, [Kyle] Okposo. [Jack] Eichel is pretty young, but he can handle the load. He’s the face of the franchise, so it should be interesting to see what direction they go to find it.”

Botterill has let several free agents walk — including defencemen Dmitry Kulikov (Winnipeg) and Cody Franson (unsigned) — in a summer flush with change. Though the team may look to add another defenceman, priority No. 1 is inking Eichel to a long-term contract, the way Edmonton did with Connor McDavid.

“He’s a very explosive player,” Gionta says. “He can open up the game at the drop of a hat. It just takes him a chance or two to get in the open. It’s his skating that sets him apart from everything. The way he’s able to come through the neutral zone with control of it at full speed, he’s tough to defend.”

As for Gionta, the right winger is a decade removed from his 48-goal, 89-point apex as a star in New Jersey, but he didn’t miss a single game this past season and can still be relied upon for leadership and 35 points’ worth of depth scoring.

We asked him to describe his ideal landing spot.

“A team that has a chance is important, or someplace the family would be comfortable. That’s the main focus,” Gionta said.

“If things work out, that would be great. At the same time, with the amount of years I’ve been in the league, it’s got to be the right fit.”

Gionta is following his same off-season training regime, while taking time to enjoy his three young children, Adam, Leah and James.

“They’re at the ages where they’re into everything, so you run around nonstop with them,” he says.

“I feel great with where my body’s at and how I can compete in the league, but it’s a matter of the family at this point.”