Monday, September 8, 2014

Building the Buffalo Sabres 2014-15 roster--C, Zemgus Girgensons

Reprinted with permission from

One should fully expect 2014 2nd overall pick Sam Reinhart to get a nine-game look from the Buffalo Sabres to start the season. He has all the tools, including hockey smarts, to be able to hold his own at the NHL-level. But despite Reinhart being a little too talented to gain much from another year in junior, he is still in a 19 yr. old body, and one more year to allow it to mature is something both player and team can afford.

Reinhart will need to get physically stronger to play in a man's league and to be able to absorb punishing NHL hits like the one laid on him by Zemgus Girgensons at the Sabres Development Camp this July. It was a thundering, board-rattling hit that was a "welcome to the NHL" moment from a player who had the physical makeup to make the jump to the pros as an 18 yr. old.

Girgensons is built well. He's not some lightweight looking like he just got through a muscle toning session with an aerobic instructor . He packs some solid muscle onto a 6'2" frame and looks like he's ready to step into the ring at any moment.

His decision to turn pro at the age of 18 was made after skating with the likes of Marcus Foligno, Cody Hodgson and Brayden McNabb at the 2012 Sabres Development Camp. Foligno and McNabb represented pro physiques while Hodgson displayed a pro skill-level. All of them had played in the NHL.

Kevin Oklobzija who covers the Rochester Americans, considered Girgensons turning pro a "foregone conclusion" at the time, "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 made it seem pretty clear he wanted to be a professional hockey player now."

The normally cautious Sabres' brass bucked their usual trend of slow minor league development and signed him to his three-year entry-level deal. After watching him for four days former GM Darcy Regier said, "We think that he's a prototype NHL player and will be able to make that transition from the USHL to professional hockey."

Girgensons started the 2012-13 season in the AHL as the youngest player in the league. He started very slowly as he acclimated himself to playing against men. He would finish the season with a line of six goals and 11 assists in 61 games for the Amerks. In the playoffs, he would kick that up big-time with three goals in three games.

Stats-geeks will scoff at his numbers, but with Girgensons it may be best to look at him from a perspective that can't be gauged through "Sports Vu" goggles--his will and his skill, with the former being the driving force and the precursor to the latter.

Despite his poor statistics from that first pro season, when watching him in person you could see that the wheels were constantly turning in his head as he soaked up his surroundings. His approach was methodical and his game was pretty simple--keep the head up, the feet moving and jump on any opportunity on any part of the ice.

It's an approach that doesn't lend itself to immediate Steve Bernier-like one-hit-wonder gratification, rather it's more like the Bardarbunga, Icelandic volcano, a slow build of little eruptions that predicate a larger, more impactful one.

The Aristotelian, fantasy approach to players these days shrieks in dismay when the word "intangibles" is predominant in a player profile. But Girgensons has that as his foundation right now and as a 20 yr. old entering his second NHL season, success is a matter of building upon that.

"I think he will be extremely successful [in the NHL,]" said his USHL coach, Jim Montgomery, at the time of Girgensons signing. "His skill and will have been elite since day one. That’s why he was an NHL first round pick. 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."

"There just aren't that many guys that are driven like he is," said Oklobzija in a recent phone interview. "He wants to be the best. He's not that highly skilled with the puck where he'll go around four guys. He might go through them, though."

Girgensons all-around maturity and character is what kept him with the Sabres all last season. He was the only one of six rookies who stuck in Buffalo as they plummeted to the depths of an historically bad NHL team. It would seem as if the Sabres brass believed that he had a strong enough constitution to be able to block out a heavy dose of losing while continuing to develop his game.

Continued Oklobzija, "He works. He doesn't give up and he's a very smart player. [Girgensons has]the desire and the drive to be the best, whatever it takes--the workout room, fitness, whatever it may be. He's captain material, really."

Probably most important, though, is how the Sabres allowed Girgensons develop, which is something that should be taken into consideration when considering what to do with Reinhart.
In an August interview with Don Stevens, "The Voice of the Rochester Americans" pointed out how the team allowed Girgensons to "develop at his own pace."

"[Girgensons] was not pushed into a negative situation," said Stevens. "He was put into a situation where he was allowed time to grow as he needed to, which was so huge."

As was true in Rochester, so it was true for Girgensons last year in Buffalo. At no point was he put into situations he was unable to handle. They worked him into a little over 15 minutes ATOI and he responded with a decent eight goal, 22 point stat line through 70 games (seven goals, 18 assists in 50 games under Nolan.) His minus-6 rating was the tied for tops on the team for a player playing 50 games or more (Matt Ellis.)

Girgensons is a top-nine, two-way player at this stage of his career who looks to be a fixture at center for the Sabres. With the roster constructed as it is now, and with Reinhart probably headed back to junior, the second-line center duty would seem to be a position he could handle heading into his sophomore season. Eventually as the Sabres add more skill down the middle, he may end up on the third line.

But for now, "Gus" looks to further his development and continue honing his skills at the NHL-level this season.

Building the 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres roster:

LW, Matt Moulson/C, Tyler Ennis/RW, Drew Stafford
--/C, Zemgus Girgensons/--

RHD, Tyler Myers/LHD, Josh Gorges

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