Unless something weird happens, the Buffalo Sabres will be headed into the 2015-16 sesaon with four of their top-six forwards in place—Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Tyler Ennis and Jack Eichel. Were they end up to start the season is still up in the air, however. Kane will be at left wing on the top line and that’s about all we can count on right now.
Eichel is slated for second-line center duties as of now (which is something that might change) and there are a myriad of options to fill the wings with. Despite the fact that veteran Matt Moulson had played with, and excelled, on the top line with John Tavares when he was with the NY Islanders, Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons may end up being a better fit for Eichel.
And there’s one overriding reason for this: Speed.
As witnessed on two occasions during the Prospects Challenge, Eichel’s well-documented speed was on display during the tournament. During the opening goal of the tourney he blazed past the NJ Devils defense and fed a hard-charging Nicholas Baptiste, who was doing everything he could to get into the play, for a tap-in just :25 seconds into the game. In overtime versus the Boston Bruins a tired Eichel still was able to flip the nitrous switch and burn past the Bruins defense to score the winner. As much as I like Moulson, I find it very hard to believe he’d be able to keep up with Eichel.
Girgensons on the other hand, can.
Various hockey forecasters will invariably mention Girgensons’ two-way game, his tenacious back check and solid defense and his strong work in the dirty areas which leads many to believe that he’s more of a defensive-oriented, two-way forward. There’s plenty of truth to that as he focused upon that while adjusting to the NHL. Put him on the Chicago Blackhawks, for instance, and he’d fit right into a third-line center role playing a strong defensive game whilst also contributing offensively. But he’s also shown offensive prowess and finish:
Girgensons spent the last six weeks of the 2014-15 season on injured reserve after taking a slapshot to the right foot in a game at Columbus on February 25th (he had a goal and an assist in that game.) Up to that point he played in 61 games recording career high's in goals (15) and assists (15) and was on pace to score 20 goals his sophomore season.
Those are just the numbers, but here's what new head coach Dan Bylsma had to say about Girgensons just after he was hired, "[Zemgus] Girgensons, a heart and soul, workin', gritty guy that kinda makes them go. Is he a No.1 center in the league? I don't think anyone's gonna put him there but he's a guy I think can offer some protection to some of the younger players that are coming to the team in Sam Reinhart and the second pick overall (Eichel.)"
With plenty of offensive upside still to be revealed Girgensons could end up surprising many. Stats don't come close to defining him as his will has always proceeded his skill. Kevin Snow of Sabres.com did a wonderful piece on Girgensons back in 2012 called, The Legend of Zemgus which gave me the impetus to further profile him, as found here. There's much more to the "Latvian Locomotive" than meets the eye, although Sabres fans are starting to really like what's met the eye so far as he's becoming a fan favorite.
Former Sabres GM Darcy Regier did well when he traded up in the 2012 draft to land Girgensons and we can thank former Calgary GM Jay Feaster for trading the 14th overall pick to Buffalo for the 21st and 42nd picks that year. With Mikhail Girgorenko (12th overall) shipped to Colorado as a part of the O'Reilly deal, the team still ended up with an impact first-rounder from that draft.
In trying to find a wingman for Eichel to start the season, it was kind of difficult as I went back and forth between Moulson and Girgensons. But speed kills and I just can't see Moulson being able to keep up with Eichel like the younger Girgensons can.
And besides, Eichel will be on a line with one who's name in Latvian means, "one who eats lions." Not one who "is like a lion" or "king of the beasts." It's "one who eats lions."
How cool is that?
(Thx, Ryan Sykes)