Lost In The Shuffle
by Kevin Sylvester
Lost in the “When will Jack Eichel Sign an extension?” discussion, was the signing of Zemgus Girgensons to a two year extension ($3.2 million). Sabres fans were too busy doing the math on Leon Draisaitl contract in Edmonton (8 years $68 million) that seemed to raise the price tag on an Eichel extension. I don’t think that’s the case by the way. I believe Eichel was, and is due to get his money with an extension on his based on his production and stardom. Eichel should get close to 10 million per season on a long term deal, maybe more. He knows it, the Sabres know it, and the fans know it. Don’t panic, it will get done when Eichel wants it done, he holds all of the chips. The Draisaitl contract impacts Sam Reinhart’s extension more, but I think a bridge deal works better for both sides.
The Start of Z’s Career
Zemgus Girgensons held very few chips. His career started with a great deal of promise, drafted 14th overall by the Sabres in the 2012 NHL entry draft. The Latvian star was a stud USHL player that decided to turn pro rather than enter his freshman year of college. It proved to be the right move, as he was a regular with the Rochester Americans in 2012-13, and made the Sabres roster in 2013. Of course that roster wasn’t the hardest to make with the not so secret goal of improving draft lottery odds was starting it’s two year run. Girgensons was one of the few bright spots on that team. A promising young center that played both ends of the ice, wasn’t afraid to hit, and was able to chip in a few goals (8 his rookie season). He also played in the Olympics for Latvia, with his Sabres coach Ted Nolan on the bench. He was fun to watch.
Girgensons was even better in 2014-15, having his best offensive season to date, 15 goals with 15 assists in just 61 games. A year in which he was best known for his selection to the NHL All Star Game, a result of massive fan voting in his native country of Latvia. He knew he didn’t belong there, but handled it with respect. That’s how he handles the game of hockey, with respect.
The seasons that followed his first two campaigns (some of the worst in franchise history), saw his time and production diminish (14 goals combined). The reasons aren’t that hard to figure out. Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Ryan O’Reily, and Evander Kane are more talented players that moved him down the lineup. He also didn’t really fit Dan Bylsma’s style, a structured system. Girgensons thrived in Ted Nolan’s straight ahead, crash and bang game. He was a worker bee for a coach known to get players to work, structure be damned.
The contract extension for Girgensons reflects exactly what type of player his is, and will likely remain. He’s a 3rd line checker, and maybe a 4th liner player on a Stanley Cup Contender. He can move up and down the lineup as needed. He’s not a playmaker. Zemgus is good around the net, because he’s willing to battle, and he won’t be outworked. I think 15 goals would be a great season for him, and All Star Weekend will continue to be vacation. There is nothing wrong with this. For comparison purposes, If Zemgus Girgensons can have a career similar to Dan Paille, then everybody wins. Paille was a former first round pick of the Sabres who was traded to Boston, and became a mainstay on the Bruins 4th line. Paille had one big season in Buffalo (19 goals in 2007-08), but was unable to build on that. Does that sound like someone else?
The good news is Zemgus is only 23 years old and willing to work. Fans like him too, and he seems to like it here. It’s up to Phil Housley to put him in a position for success, and define what that is for Girgensons. It will be an interesting mix at forward this season, and you can read more about it here from Joe Yerdon