Friday, March 11, 2016

Zemgus Girgensons is on the minds of many in Sabreland

Reprinted with permission from

For a player that has all of five goals and 14 points, there's a lot of attention being paid to Buffalo forward Zemgus Girgensons.

The 2012 first round draft pick (14th overall) had a strong season last year before being felled by a season-ending injury and expectations were high coming out of camp. Some even had him in the 25-goal area after scoring 15 goals in 61 games last season, but Girgensons' production has been way below said expectations. There are a myriad of reasons for his decline in production, everything from his "real" potential being on display to the quality of ice-time doled out by head coach Dan Bylsma, and there's mild concern as to where he's headed both statistically as well as professionally. Yet his foundation is such that his effectiveness on the ice stretches beyond the scorsheet and helps keep genuine concern from moving towards full-blown panic.

After former Sabres GM Darcy Regier traded up at to get Girgensons at the 2012 NHL Draft, the 18 yr. old would find himself with a tough decision to make. Prior to Sabres Development Camp that year, he had committed to go to the University of Vermont, but after seeing how he stacked up against other young players like Marcus Foligno and Cody Hodgson at camp, Girgensons decided that he had the wherewithal to make the jump to the pro ranks immediately.

"We think that he's a prototype NHL player, and will be able to make that transition from the USHL to professional hockey," said Regier to the media at the time. To his credit, the mature young forward put the jump squarely on his shoulders. "It was a really tough decision for a kid to make," he said. "No one was pushing me anywhere. I was the only one who made this decision."

And with that Girgensons joined the Rochester Americans of the AHL and would be the youngest player in the league for the 2012-13 season.

As mentioned earlier, Girgensons has a hockey foundation that can carry him through periods of adjustment. Via an article from the Dubuque Fighting Saints, his former coach described what Girgensons brings to the table game-in, game-out. "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," said coach Jim Montgomery. "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. His skill and will have been elite since day one.

It was that foundation that helped him get through a statistically tough rookie season in Rochester which saw him score 17 points (6+11) in 61 regular season games. Yet stats won't tell the whole story of his season as every shift represented an opportunity to soak up his surroundings. Eventually he got  a foothold on the pro game and in three playoff games against the Toronto Marlies that season, Girgensons had three goals.

With the rebuild on in Buffalo, Girgensons was part of a large group of youngins who made the roster for what would end up being a tumultuous 2013-14 season. After Regier was fired, along with his coaching staff, changes in attitudes concerning player development sent every rookie to their respective developmental leagues save for the 19 yr. old Girgensons. On a ship headed to the bottom of the ocean he would finish eight goals and 14 assists in 70 games while going minus-6 on a Buffalo team that had a minus-91 goal differential.

Interim head coach Ted Nolan was retained as head coach for the following season after signing a long-term extension. In addition to the previous Sabres' season, Nolan had coached Girgensons internationally and it wasn't surprising that a coach like Nolan who values hard work above anything else would put Girgensons, and his tireless work ethic, in a positon to succeed offensively and he would up his production to 15 goals and 15 assists in 61 games.

It was at the expense of his defense, however, as Girgensons registered a minus-16 on the season. Although it might look real bad, the entire team and their minus-113 goal differential, had players down in the depths of  the minus column with shocking numbers. There were three players at minus-30 or worse, four players between minus-22 and minus-28 and three more in the upper teens who were slightly worse than Girgensons in that category.

If the tumult of those two seasons weren't enough, once again, upheaval would engulf the team as Nolan and his staff were not retained and Bylsma took the reigns. Bylsma brought with him a new coaching staff and a new system this season and the 21 yr. old Girgensons would find himself adapting once again.

Bylsma has used on him on the wing and at center but he's stated before that he likes Girgensons on the wing. He's also had him on all three lines in the top-nine and right now has him on the third line in a checking role. Do the coaches like his overall game right now? "Overall game is there," he told the Sabres Brian Duff after practice yesterday. "The offense" he continued, "pretty much has been really down this season. It's frustrating but that's the way it is sometimes."

Almost invariably as of late, whenever Bylsma or GM Tim Murray are speaking with the media,  Girgensons come up in the conversation and neither Bylsma or Murray seem to have any real concern about his lack of production. Last week on WGR while discussing players and where they fit, especially in relation to Jack Eichel, Murray was unsure as to who could run with the burgeoning superstar. He brought up injured top-six forward Tyler Ennis and how Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart seemingly are a good fit with Ryan O'Reilly then asked the question, "Can Girgensons play second-line left wing."

During Bylsma's weekly Tuesday radio appearance on WGR, he was asked point-blank where he saw Girgensons fitting in the future and if he's decided what type of player he's going to be long-term. Bylsma said that he thinks Girgensons has played his best on the wing and that his best was on the second-line with Eichel. "I think that's where we see Zemgus at his best for our team," he told co-hosts Jeremy White and Sal Capaccio. "No question I see that going forward for [him].

"[With] the injury situation to our team right now, and the [team] make-up, Zemgus is not playing with [Eichel] on the wing where he was earlier on, but I see him in the top-six on that wing and doing his best there."

Somewhat vague, but telling.

It's interesting to see that with all the firepower up-front between Eichel, Kane, Reinhart and the injured O'Reilly, Bylsma still considers Girgensons top-six material despite his low offensive production this season while Murray still puts him into that top-six equation, albeit in the form of a question.

Girgensons is one of those character guys like Jamie McGinn whom Murray traded away at the deadline. The GM bemoaned the McGinn trade saying that character players like him and Mike Weber, who was also traded, are usually the types he likes to bring in. It was something done from purely business perspective as both were pending unrestricted free agents who's future probably wasn't in Buffalo.

Perhaps Bylsma and Murray see what Montgomery saw when the latter said of Girgensons that his will has always proceeded his will. Montgomery even likened him to Rod Brind'Amour saying, "It's mostly his work ethic and competitiveness. It's just the intangibles they both bring."

Whether it's Brind'Amour or a Mike Grier-type who can score on a breakaway or even a Ryan O'Reilly comparable with a slightly less scoring touch, Girgensons is the type of player that teams like to have because of his work-ethic, mental makeup, intestinal fortitude and versatility in addition to his two-way play and ability to score. And that, it's assumed, would include the Buffalo Sabres.

The 2016 NHL Draft will offer plenty of insight at to Girgensons' standing in the eyes of the franchise. They're in need of a top-pairing defenseman and many think that he would be a part of a move like that. However, the team could see him as a part of the future as well and re-sign him to a reasonable contract. The 22 yr. old Girgensons will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season and from the Sabres' standpoint, his less than optimal production will probably lead to a less than optimal contract.

There are only 15 games to go there will probably be more attention paid to Girgensons and a whole lot of speculation as to his future. Methinks he'll block out the attention surrounding him and his season and just play hockey through the adversity. Just like he's always done.

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