Slotting two-way forward Zemgus Girgensons at third line center may be just what the doctor ordered for the 22 yr. old. Girgensons is coming off of a 2015-16 campaign where there was a definite disconnect between himself and the new coaching staff that took the reigns last season. Head coach Dan Bylsma seemed to have trouble finding a home for him last season while Girgensons never seemed to be comfortable in the multitude of positions he was placed and it showed.
After scoring 30 points (15g + 15a) in 61 games the previous season, Girgensons had a significant drop-off to only seven goals and 11 assists in 71 games last season. On the good side, however, his even plus/minus rating was tops amongst forwards who averaged 15 minutes or more of ice time per game and was one of only three Sabres who weren't in the negative.
But the disconnect thing is what stuck in everyone's craw last year.
A few games into last season it was mentioned by WGR's Paul Hamilton that Girgensons and Bylsma had what was described as a lengthy conversation during practice. After the session Bylsma was asked by the gathered media who initiated the conversation and he said that it was Girgensons with Hamilton following that up by implying that Girgensons wasn't happy with his play, to which Bylsma replied, "Yeah...I...that's definitely the sentiment."
Girgensons would match Bylsma's diplomacy post-practice when he told the Sabres Brian Duff of the conversation that he and Bylsma "just talked about stuff, about playing different positions and just all kinds of stuff.
"It's always nice to get to know coach better."
Regardless of the soap-opera element that was bantered around for a while, the fact that the two had an atypically long conversation initiated by a player who had zero points while playing nearly every forward position in the top-nine speaks volumes of the difficulties the two had. The final stat-line for Girgensons pretty much showed that the Sabres could never really find a home for him and/or that he was never comfortable in what seemed to be a constantly changing role.
Girgensons was drafted as a gritty, hard-working two-way center in 2012. He made the jump to the AHL as an 18 yr. old and spent the entire season acclimating himself to the pro game. His regular season stats weren't anything to write home about but he did manage three goals in three games for Rochester in the 2013 Calder Cup playoffs. From there he jumped to the NHL amidst the chaos of mid-season changes throughout the organization and after an erratic start gained his footing under new head coach Ted Nolan.
Nolan, who known more for his work-hard approach than X's and O's had Girgensons centering the top line on a team destined for the bottom of the league. Girgensons responded with a 30-point season while one linemate, Tyler Ennis, lead the team in goals and the other, Matt Moulson, finished second in points.
Girgensons has the size, the skating, the skills and the drive to be a top-nine/possible top-six forward. He also proved that he can contribute on offense and has the smarts and stickwork to handle the center positon. Although his faceoff percentage needs a lot of work, he's a hard-driving puck-hound who's strong around the net and relentless along the wall. He can play in all situations but may be best used in a two-way role with ample time on the penalty kill. Girgensons had one short handed goal his rookie year and three in 2014-15 which shouldn't be overlooked.
The Sabres and Girgensons just agreed on a 1 yr./ $1.6M contract extension which may be a "show-me" contract for both team and player. For Buffalo, they'll be looking to see how, or even if, he fits into their long-term plans. For Girgensons another year of incertitude as to his role may widen the disconnect .
Stability may be the key here as Girgensons has shown a propensity to adapt to a change, albeit not as quick as some may like. While watching him as an 18 yr. old in Rochester as well as a rookie the following year, you could see the wheels churning as he absorbed his surroundings. He wasn't hitting the scoresheet as much as most thought he should but he wasn't just floating either and it showed with his playoff scoring in the AHL and his half-a-point/game 2014-15 season.
He may just need a place to call home and third-line center just may be that spot.
Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster:
LW, Evander Kane / C, Ryan O'Reilly / RW, Kyle Okposo
LW, Tyler Ennis / C, Jack Eichel / RW, Sam Reinhart
C, Zemgus Girgensons
D, Rasmus Ristolainen/ Dmitry Kulikov
D, Zach Bogosian / D, Jake McCabe
G, Robin Lehner