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Gionta joins list of players who could turn NHL decision into one last shot at Olympics

After a 15-goal, 35-point season in 2016-17, Brian Gionta remains without an NHL contract. He could take this opportunity to suit up for Team USA at the Olympics, though.

As training camp approached, the word from Brian Gionta’s agent was that the veteran pivot was still considering his options. A free agent after spending the past three seasons in Buffalo, Gionta reportedly had a few offers on the table and he was preparing as though he was going to suit up this season, but hadn’t yet made a final decision.

And while that’s still the case and Gionta could very well find himself a home in the NHL before the 2017-18 regular season starts in little more than one week, it appears there may be another avenue for the 38-year-old to continue his playing days: the Olympics. In fact, according to Paul Hamilton of Buffalo’s WGR 550, Gionta said that the chances of him suiting up for Team USA in Pyeongchang are “looking good,” and Hamilton added Gionta said that suiting up in the Olympics in February is his best bet.

Gionta would seem to fit the bill for participation, too. In early August, Jim Johansson, the GM of the men’s national team, stated in an interview with NBC’s Nick Zaccardi that there were “some guys that have a rich history in the NHL and with USA Hockey that we think could potentially really help this roster.” And when it comes to rich history, few players available to USA Hockey will have quite the depth of experience that Gionta boasts, what with the NHL refusing to send contracted players to the tournament.

Across his career, Gionta, 38, has skated in 1,006 NHL games, scoring 289 goals and 588 points. Even as a veteran of 15 NHL seasons, Gionta was still effective for the Sabres last year, finishing seventh in team scoring with 15 goals and 35 points in 82 games. He also averaged nearly 17 minutes of ice time per night.

Gionta has ample experience with the U.S. national team. During his younger days, he suited up for the American squad at the World Junior Championship in consecutive years, later playing on the World Championship team in 2000, 2001 and 2005. Gionta also earned himself a spot on Team USA at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy. He led the team in scoring with one goal and six points, but the American side had a disappointing eighth-place finish with their lone win coming over Kazakhstan.

Don’t take this to mean Gionta is going to be sitting on his hands until the Olympics roll around, however. He still seems to be exploring his playing options, and, while nothing is set in stone, there’s a possibility the Rochester, N.Y., native could be suiting up for his hometown AHL club while tuning up for the tournament. He was present at the opening day of the Rochester Americans’ training camp and had a brief meeting with GM Randy Sexton.

"We just wanted to get together and say, 'Look, is there anything we can do to prepare you for this?' ” Sexton said, per WROC’s Dan Fetes. “Let’s talk about it and I don't know or can't say where it will go but we'll see how it unfolds in the coming weeks.”

Gionta isn’t the only veteran interested in playing for Team USA, however. Earlier this summer, Ryan Malone, two years removed from his last appearance in the NHL, signed a professional tryout with the Minnesota Wild. He said he’s not going to turn down an NHL contract if it comes his way, but the soon-to-be 38-year-old told The Athletic’s Michael Russo that the PTO is a “win-win.” Earn an NHL deal? Great. Wind up in the AHL and have a shot at the Olympics? Great. And Malone, like Gionta, has similar experience. Altogether, he’s played 647 NHL games, scoring 179 goals and 370 points, and has suited up for the national team three times. Twice, in 2004 and 2006, he appeared at the World Championship, but he also suited up at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, finishing tied for third in team scoring with three goals and five points on the silver medal-winning squad.

USA Hockey isn’t the only team eying up veterans to help bolster the squad come the Olympics, though. As it turns out, their northern neighbors could be doing the same.

While Hockey Canada has iced some lineups at two pre-season tournaments, the Sochi Hockey Open and Tournament of Nikolai Puchkov, talk has persisted about the possibility for Jarome Iginla and Shane Doan to make their way onto the Canadian roster in February. 

Iginla, 40, hasn’t yet declared his status for the upcoming season and could still have an offer or two on the table from an NHL club depending on how camp shakes out for some teams, while Doan, 40, officially announced his retirement from the league. In mid-September, though, Team Canada assistant coach Dave King told CBC that if veterans of the likes of Iginla and Doan want to play at the Olympics, “they have to have a plan to play.” Likely, that would mean a spot with an AHL or European club that would allow them to stay in game shape and make them available for the tournament.

Meanwhile, after going nearly the entire off-season without a contract, Jaromir Jagr publicly stated that if he can’t find an NHL home, he’ll take a look at suiting up in the KHL so as to prepare for the Olympics. Jagr, 45, would be a no-doubter for the Czech squad, especially coming off of a productive 16-goal, 46-point campaign with the Florida Panthers. Jagr’s not expected to make a decision on his future until the NHL campaign begins, though.

With Gionta, Iginla, Doan and Jagr all planning for or contemplating Olympic participation, it appears the NHL’s decision not to send players to the Pyeongchang will give some stars of yesteryear at least one more shot at gold medal glory on international hockey’s biggest stage.

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