The Buffalo Sabres signed their final restricted free agent Zemgus Girgensons on Thursday evening to a two-year $3.2 million contract. Now that the forward put ink to paper the task of trying to figure out the proper role for Girgensons begins.
In his four NHL seasons, he’s played up and down the line up for the Sabres. We’ve seen him play as a top-six center, top-six winger, bottom-six winger and bottom-six center. He’s been used as a shut down forward and a scoring line forward. We’ve seen him playing on the top power play unit and not on the power play at all. The role uncertainty for the 23-year-old has contributed to the struggles over the last few years.
Finding the Sweet Spot
Girgensons has expressed his desire on multiple occasions that he prefers to play at the pivot but doesn’t mind being on the wing, including an interview on Friday with The Instigators on WGR 550 Sports Radio in Buffalo. Although Girgensons covets the opportunity to play in the middle it doesn’t look like that makes a lot of sense when you look at the Sabres roster today.
Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly are hands down the top two centers on the club. Johan Larsson then slots into one of the bottom-six center roles and if Sam Reinhart is moved to his natural center position the middle becomes even more crowded. If Reinhart remains on the wing, that opens a spot for Girgensons to play as a fourth line center. However, that is a role we’ve seen him struggle to be productive in the last few years.
Thinking back to when the Latvian native had his most productive season under head coach Ted Nolan. He was put on a scoring line with playmakers in a system that wasn’t overcomplicated. The struggle for Girgensons in Dan Bylsma’s system was fairly easy to see. He was hesitant and appeared to spend more time thinking about what he had to do than letting his instincts take over.
While Bylsma has been credited with one of the most complicated systems some players have played in during their career, we don’t know what to expect from a Phil Housley system yet. With that being said it sounds like something that fits what Girgensons does best. An attacking game with a north-south style that puts pressure on the opponent.
Opportunity for Success
In this new system, the former first-round pick has a chance to return to being an offensively productive player if he can capitalize on the opportunity. Heading into training camp there appears to be at least one opening on the wing in the top six. We saw Girgensons get the chance to play with Eichel in brief stints, but the 20-year-old star plays a different style than Girgensons.
The line mates that may fit him best in the top six would be Kyle Okposo and O’Reilly. Those two play a possession style in which they generate their offense by going to the dirty areas on the ice and solid board work. That type of playing style is a much better fit than the speed game of Eichel.
A bigger role could come with a bigger opportunity of success for Girgensons. Last season he averaged a career low 13:10 time on ice per game, which followed a previous low of 15:02 in the 2015-16 season. Girgensons routinely was amongst one of the least skated players per game as the numbers would indicate playing primarily a fourth line role. During his career year where he scored 15 goals and 30 points in 61 games, he averaged 19:05 time on ice per game as a top line player.
Also, perhaps non-coincidently, Girgensons had career lows in shooting percentages in his two seasons under Bylsma of 6.4 and 6.3 percent respectively. While in his All-Star season he had a 13.0 shooting percentage. The shots per game have been consistent over the last years of 1.5 the previous two and 1.9 in the 2014-15 season. The argument could be made that the 30 point season is the anomaly and not likely repeatable. On the flip side, it could be argued that Girgensons was successful playing with better players and was able to capitalize on better scoring opportunities he would have seen playing with such players.
Girgensons recognizes the clean slate he’s getting with the Sabres. Under Bylsma and general manager Tim Murray he appeared to have one foot out of the door. Now under the new direction of Housley and Jason Botterill, he has the chance to re-establish himself as a productive player.
Girgensons – I put in a lot of work this summer on and off the ice. Really focused on shooting, needed to get better at that #Sabres
— WGR 550 (@WGR550) August 18, 2017
He now has the stability of a two-year contract and a new coaching staff that could be willing to give him an opportunity to play again in a bigger role. The departure of Brian Gionta and likely diminishing role of Matt Moulson opens the door for power play time again on the second unit as well.
This is a big opening to change the direction of his career back into the promising place it was a few years ago. He’ll be an interesting player to watch throughout training camp and early in the season to see if he’s run away with the fresh start or lets it pass him by.