Sunday, July 15, 2012

A matter of "skill and will," Zemgus Girgensons turns pro.

Zemgus Girgensons was signed to an entry-level contract on Friday. The team thought that the kid had shown pro-potential during their development camp, so they sat down with him about turning pro.

Girgensons was in the midst of a choice that was weighing upon him--whether to turn pro or or follow his college commitment and head to the University of Vermont for the season.

Girgensons was selected with the
14th pick in the 2012 NHL Draft
after the Sabres traded up
from the #21 spot with Calgary.
At the draft in Pittsburgh last month, Vermont's hockey coach, Kevin Sneddon, was pretty sure that Girgensons would be a Catamount in September saying, “Zemgus has been committed to the NCAA route for quite some time now; he values college hockey and education as the best pathway to develop."

Couple that with the way Buffalo traditionally takes the slower path to player development prefering not to rush a prospect, and it's pretty easy to see why he would think that way.

But, sometimes there's nothing you really can do.

After Monday's first day of development camp, Girgensons clearly was giving it some hard thought, having been on the ice next to younger pros like Marcus Foligno, Cody Hodgson and Brayden McNabb, all of whom had a good taste of the NHL.

While fellow first-round draft pick Mikhail Grigorenko, taken at #12 two spots before him, clearly stated his desire to be in the NHL this season, Girgensons remained in limbo, “Nothing’s been clarified yet," he said. "We’ll see what happens after camp. That’s something I’ve got to talk through this week. I think it will be my own decision. No one’s pushing me, but it’s something I have to decide. … It’s something in me, what my heart’s going to say.”

Head Coach Lindy Ruff said Girgensons
"already had a man-body. He likes to hit.
He likes to play physical."
Kevin Oklobzija who covers the Rochester Americans, considered Girgensons turning pro a "foregone conclusion" saying, "Once he learned where he stood physically against other young pros, I think he knew this is where he should be. The vibes I sensed in speaking with him on Monday and again on Thursday made it seem pretty clear he wanted to be a professional hockey player now."

After watching him for four days, the Sabres brass certainly thought that he was ready. "We think that he's a prototype NHL player," said GM Darcy Regier, "and will be able to make that transition from the USHL to professional hockey."

For Girgensons, it wasn't that easy, "It was laying on my mind heavy because I was close to Vermont and it was a really tough decision for a kid to make. No one was pushing me anywhere. I was the only one who made this decision. I gave them a call and he understood everything. We're so close that he didn't have problems with me going [pro]. He knew this might happen and he was prepared."

Sneddon didn't "have problems," but the Catamount program sustained an "enormous loss."

The team was coming off a dismal season prior and was looking at Girgensons, as well as the rest of the incoming freshmen class, to help the Catamounts "turn the corner on respectability." One can hear the heaviness in Sneddon's statement, “It is with mixed emotions that I announce that Zemgus Girgensons will not enroll at UVM in September and instead sign an NHL contract with the Buffalo Sabres,”

Obviously they'll miss Girgensons' talent and drive, but there was also a sense of loyalty towards Sneddon and Vermont that was only eclipsed by an NHL team that happened to be the Buffalo Sabres.

“Throughout the recruiting process, Zemgus has been very loyal to UVM, turning down offers to play Major Junior Hockey as well as Russia’s premier professional league, the KHL, in order to maintain his goal of playing for the Catamounts,” Sneddon said.

“We have stated often that if we are going to lose Zemgus, we hope it’s to the NHL team that selects him in the draft."

Jim Montgomery, the Dubuque Fighting Saints (USHL) Head Coach and General Manager who had coached Girgensons the last two years, gleaned at the signing, “I am really happy for Zemgus,” he said. “This is a challenge he’s wanted. This has been his dream probably since he was 12 years old. He deserves and earned this."

After the Sabres drafted him, Montgomery talked about "The Legend of Zemgus" and had an inkling that Girgensons might turn pro, "If Zemgus has the belief that he can accomplish something, and there’s a challenge in front of him, then he’s going to attack it.”

When asked about the Navy SEALS, who
were a part of the Sabres 2012 development
camp, Girgensons replied, "I don't think
it was that hard; the hardest part
is getting up at 4:30am."
And Montgomery thinks Girgensons has the pro make-up, "I think he will be extremely successful. His skill and will have been elite since day one. That’s why he was an NHL first round pick and that’s why he is signing an NHL contract today. Whatever situation he is put in the coach is going to love him and his teammates are going to love him. He is the ultimate team player that helps you win every night.”

He even likened him to Rod Brind'Amour, "It's mostly his work ethic and competitiveness. It's just the intangibles they both bring."

For Girgensons, that decision is out of the way, and he'll either be playing with the Rochester Americans or the Buffalo Sabres. And that decision will be up to the coaching staff.

Oklobzija sees a strong developmental course from Montgomery and now on to Amerks coach Ron Rolston, "He’ll be in perfect hands. Before he became the Sabres development coach in the summer of 2011, Rolston made a living coaching collegians for 13 years and then 17- and 18-year-olds for seven years with the National Team Development Program."

It's confidence, not cockiness,
and it would seem as if
Girgensons has the proper frame of mind
to take on any challenge
thrown at him.
 Girgensons seems ticketed for Rochester this season. Oklobzija thinks that "[he] will not be rushed, and he will not be put in situations where failure is certain. He definitely won’t be coddled, either."

Girgensons got his ticket to training camp in the fall and seems like the type of kid who derives confidence--a "matter-of-fact" type confidence--from simply playing the game of hockey the only way he knows how to play it--"skill and will." And that "skill and will" mentality may take him farther than the AHL this season.

Other links:

Video of Girgensons goal and post-scrimmage interview via Dubuque Fighting Saints

Video press conference via Dubuque Fighting Saints

Video--Coverage of Buffalo selecting Girgensons at the draft

Kris Baker of has complete scrimmage highlights with video of Girgensons goal via NHL Network

USHL background story on "The Latvian Locomotive"  courtesy of the Dubuque Telegraph Herald

HFboards prospect thread via Woodhead, 6-22-12

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