The center position was one of the deeper areas on the Buffalo Sabres‘ roster to begin the season. After a sudden rash of injuries, the position has thinned out.
Ryan O’Reilly has missed some time with an appendectomy, but he did return to practice and is expected to get back into the lineup against the Chicago Blackhawks Thursday. The more significant injury was to third-line center Johan Larsson. The 24-year-old will miss the remainder of the season after suffering a dislocated elbow and wrist against the Boston Bruins on Saturday.
The loss of Larsson is actually bigger than it may appear on the surface. From an offensive standpoint, he was on pace for a career-high of 14 goals and 25 points this season. The guy his teammates call “Larry” was on his way to proving himself as a legitimate two-way third line center. In the past few years, the former second-round pick of the Minnesota Wild struggled in finding his role in the NHL. He had desires of being a top-six forward, but could never produce at that level. He struggled to find consistency in production and to accept his role as a bottom-six player.
This season, however, it all seemed to be coming together for Larsson. He found his role and was excelling at it. Not only was he producing offensively, but he took on the responsibility of matching up against the opponent’s top line on a nightly basis.
Now the future for Larsson remains uncertain. He’ll head into the offseason as a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. He could be an attractive target for the new Vegas Golden Knights if the Sabres decide not to protect him in the upcoming expansion draft. Larsson has proven he can play the role the Sabres need him in, but will someone else prove they can fill that role better in the remaining 45 games of the season?
I believe the saying goes “one man’s loss is another man’s gain.” This is certainly the case for forward Zemgus Girgensons. He now has the opportunity to slot back into a center position he prefers and attempt to prove he’s still worth consideration in being a bottom-six player on the Sabres.
The struggles of last season for Girgensons have continued through the first half of this season. He has four goals and seven points on the season. The Latvian native is on pace to beat his career-low in goals last season (seven) by one and set a career-low in points with 15. His point-per-game production is actually lower than the previous season as he recorded the seven goals and 18 points in 71 games. The eight-goal and 15-point pace of the current campaign are a projection off of him playing all 82 games.
The former first-round pick hasn’t been close to the player he was when he scored 15 goals and 30 points in 61 games during the 2014-15 season. Having just turned 23 years old, there’s hope that he can at least get back into the ballpark of being that type of player. After signing a one-year “prove it” deal in the offseason, Girgensons has failed to make a positive impression thus far. With the injury to Larsson, he’ll have the chance to see more ice time in penalty-kill situations and as a shutdown forward. Unfortunately, he won’t have the chance to move into a third-line role at this point, but any sign of a turnaround would be welcome.
The reason Girgensons won’t be able to move up a line at the pivot is because the Sabres have a better option. The time has come for 2014 second-overall pick Sam Reinhart to make the move back to center. Reinhart was drafted as a center out of Kootenay of the WHL. He found success last season in a breakout rookie season playing on the right wing. Buffalo decided to not fix what wasn’t broken and allowed Reinhart to stay at that position to begin this season. Entering the NHL as a winger is much easier than entering as a center, which requires more responsibility in the defensive zone.
Now, with an opening in the middle for the remainder of the season, the decision has been made to move Reinhart to his natural position for at least the foreseeable future. The 21-year-old is a smart player who is more than capable of handling the additional defensive responsibilities.
Bylsma – Reinhart's doing a good job playing center for us with Larsson & ROR out. We'll see him at center more over next few games #Sabres
— WGR 550 (@WGR550) January 3, 2017
Moving Reinhart back to center has a direct tie into both Girgensons and Larsson in regards to their futures in Buffalo. If Reinhart finds success at center as expected, the top three centers in the organization would be locked up with Reinhart, Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly. Not a bad trio to have as your club’s top three pivot men.