#BLUEPRINT SERIES: ZEMGUS GIRGENSONS
All through training camp, the Buffalo Sabres coaching staff has said the younger players in the organization will have an opportunity to crack the NHL roster this season. Through two preseason games, it appears Zemgus Girgensons has heard the message loud and clear.
He scored two goals in his first exhibition in Montreal on Sunday, and added an assist on Tuesday in Columbus.
Could the Sabres’ second first-round pick in 2012 (14th overall) be in the lineup when Buffalo opens the season in Detroit on October 2? Girgensons isn’t looking that far ahead.
“I just think you have to take it day by day, so definitely everything I did before this summer, being in Buffalo and development camp and Traverse City, definitely everything helped to get me prepared for preseason,” he said.
And even if he was thinking that far into the future, he understands that the decision is ultimately out of his hands.
“It depends on how I keep performing. If I play like I did [on Sunday] then it’s on the coaches to decide,” he said this week. “I have no control about who decides. I don’t decide if I stay. I just play the game and the coaching staff will decide.”
He had a strong playoff series last season for the Rochester Americans, Buffalo’s American Hockey League affiliate and carried that into both the Sabres’ development camp in July and into the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich. earlier this month.
Girgensons said he believes that a boost in confidence has been the biggest difference for him.
“I think it’s a lot about confidence,” he said. “Especially that playoff run gave me a good boost to get my confidence up about what I can do with all those guys around. I think I just feel better about myself.”
Sabres coach Ron Rolston, who worked with Girgensons at the start of last season in Rochester, has seen a lot of growth in the 6-foot-2, 194-pound Latvian forward.
After two seasons with the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United State Hockey League, Girgensons played the 2012-13 season, the first of his professional career, with the Amerks. At 18, he was the second-youngest player in the AHL by 15 days, and it took him some time to adjust to that next level.
But by the time the playoffs rolled around, he had already made a noticeable leap.
“I thought all season he continued to make steps and for his age, I’d say he’s probably well beyond his years,” teammate Corey Tropp said. “He’s going to be a really good player. It’s just a matter of continuing every day to have that work ethic like he has. I think the sky’s the limit for him. It’s just a matter of him progressing every day like it is for every player.”
The offensive side of his game is one that is continually developing and his showing so far in the preseason is a good indication that the work he put in during the offseason is paying off.
On his second goal against the Canadiens, Girgensons accepted a pass from center Kevin Porter off the right wing boards – his off wing – and skated in hard over the Montreal line. When he reached the faceoff dot, he wristed a shot high over Canadiens rookie goaltender Zachary Fucale and into the top of the net, beating Fucale on the short side.
“I’ve been working on my shooting this summer. It’s just about me burying my chances because I’ve had some problems in the past with that. I think I just need to put that behind and just be better offensively,” he said. “…I was pretty happy with myself on those because probably at the start of last season, [on] that second goal I probably would’ve hit the netting up there – given a souvenir to a fan.”
At development camp in July, Rolston remarked that he had seen more purpose to Girgensons’ offensive game. Moving forward, it’s a matter of finding consistency.
“Now can he continue to do that as we move through the preseason and as these teams get better lineups?” Rolston said. “He’s going to be able to handle the physical part of things. He’s got good details. But can he continue that offensive confidence? I think that’ll be important for him.”
Girgensons’ bullish style reminds Rolston of a current Sabre that plays a physical, agitating style but is able to contribute on the score sheet as well.
“He’s just an abrasive player, I think overall. He plays the game hard and he’s always attacking, rubbing people, bumping people. So I think it’s just the way he plays. [It’s] a lot like [how] Steve Ott plays in terms of he gives you the same thing every shift,” Rolston said. “So you have to be prepared for that if you’re the other team.”
Girgensons is also notorious for his strenuous off-ice workout regimen to the point where the training staff has actually told him to take it a little easier.
“I think that’s one of the things I have to improve too. Just to be more responsible about my rest and not focusing on that hard work too much because too much sometimes can hurt,” he said during development camp.
However, he certainly doesn’t mind having that reputation.
“I definitely take pride in that and I love when people talk about that,” he said.
Part of Girgensons’ development also hinges on what position he will play. While drafted as a center, the coaching staff in Rochester used him exclusively on the left wing. He played some center in the Traverse City tournament before moving back to the wing alongside center Johan Larsson and right wing Joel Armia on the team’s top line.
Girgensons has said on numerous occasions that he’s comfortable at both center and on the wing and that he’ll try to be productive no matter where the coaching staff puts him. For now, Rolston believes that Girgensons is best served on the left wing.
“The versatility is good, but I think overall if he’s eventually down the road going to be in our top six, it’s probably more likely that’s going to be at the left wing than the center position,” Rolston said. “But I think there’s still time to determine that, too. We’re finding out a lot of where his game’s going to go and just how high the ceiling is.”