When the NHL season starts in October, Zemgus Girgensons and Mark Pysyk should be in Buffalo.
Wait. Try again.
When the NHL season starts in October, Zemgus Girgensons and Mark Pysyk absolutely must be on the Buffalo Sabres' roster.
This week at Sabres' development camp, Girgensons and Pysyk looked more like mentors than young kids trying to make an impression. They played at a different speed. They skated smoother, handled the puck more confidently and, most of all, looked and acted like professional hockey players.
There's an obvious reason for that: They are. Many of the attendees at camp will either never see professional hockey or won't for several years. Girgensons spent last year in Rochester and Pysyk played with the Amerks and Sabres.
“It was a good first year pro,” Pysyk said, standing in front of his locker after the morning session of camp. “I got lucky with injuries up here and got an opportunity. Experience is good no matter what you're doing. And once you get a taste, you want to stay there.”
But there's more to it than experience. These two have something that has been lacking in the Buffalo dressing room: Competitiveness.
After the Amerks were eliminated from the playoffs, veteran Cody McCormick called Girgensons the best player on the ice for Rochester. When the 19-year-old was asked about his three goals in three games, he said, “I don't care about that, we lost.”
Months later, with time to reflect, I asked Girgensons again about McCormick's comment.
“That's nice coming from an old guy,” the Latvian forward said. “I still wish we had gone deeper in the playoffs.”
Pysyk isn't quite as intense in person. He's polite. And he isn't as physical on the ice as Girgensons. But don't mistake that for a lack of competitiveness. During his final year in juniors with the Edmonton Oil Kings, Pysyk led his team as the captain to the Memorial Cup – and did so with a broken foot.
At camp, there isn't much to see. A lot of drills, some breakaways, some whacking around at the puck. Not much the untrained eye can take away. But if you look close, there's some things you can pick up on.
A few weeks ago, I talked to a pro scout about watching little things with young players – ones that might give an indication about how good they can become.
“Sometimes you can tell a lot by watching guys stand around,” the scout said “Some guys just look more focused. They look more intense, even if it's just getting ready for the next drill.”
Girgensons and Pysyk looked that way on Thursday. During breakaway drills, most of the players stared on attentively when either of them got the puck. When others were skating toward the goalie, the pros watched the goalie closely, looking for any inkling of a weakness. And they both wanted to win that darn shootout.
“There's just a lot more comfort and ease here,” Girgensons said. “No nerves about meeting the guys or anything like that. A lot more fun, I would say.”
You know what would also be a lot of fun? Seeing Girgensons and Pysyk with the Sabres.
But it's hard to say whether either will be given a real chance to make the roster out of camp.
As it's constructed now, the third and fourth line (where Zemgus probably fits best at this point) are pretty crowded. Despite Nathan Gerbe's release, the Sabres still have projected bottom six'ers Steve Ott, Marcus Foligno, Kevin Porter, Brian Flynn and Corey Tropp.
“I just take it day by day,” Girgensons. “I haven't really thought about it. People have asked me about training camp and I really don't think about it.
“If you build a wall, you don't just build a whole wall at once. You do it brick by brick.”
Sabres fans think about it. They think about their team trading away high-paid veterans to make room on the roster. They think about how a rebuild might actually be fun to watch. They think about seeing the next generation rise up in front of them. And they think about what a hard-nosed, all-effort competitor might look like taking opening-night faceoff.
For Pysyk, things are even more of a cluster. With the addition of Henrik Tallinder, Alex Sulzer and Jamie McBain, there's seven players who could be considered “ahead” of Pysyk. Not in talent or potential, just experience.
“You do pay attention to the moves,” Pysyk said. “It's all over Twitter, all over the Sabres' website. But it's not going to change how I'll go to camp. I'll just do my best.”
It's nice that both Girgensons and Pysyk are saying the right things about their possibility of being in Buffalo. But it doesn't make sense toward the long-term plan or in terms of entertainment value to not have them in The Show.
With that, two questions still have to be answered: Whose place will they take? Are they ready?
Pysyk is easier, so we'll start there.
During his 19 games last season, the 21-year-old defenseman had the third best defenseman on the Sabres in terms of puck possession. Only Christian Ehrhoff and Alex Sulzer had better Relative Corsi statistics. While he didn't face the hardest competition, Pysyk only received 46.1 percent offensive zone starts – and still performed well.
So he can do it. As for whose place he'll take, well, they could waive McBain, send Chad Ruhwedel or Sulzer to Rochester. There's plenty of options.
Girgensons only scored 17 points in 61 games during his time in Rochester. So it's harder to definitively say he's NHL ready just based on statistics. So, here's the Amerks' coach Chadd Cassidy:
“Throughout the playoffs he’s probably been our best forward in terms of moving his feet, strong on the puck, finishing his checks, getting around the net,” Cassidy said at the end of the Amerks' season. “He’s a man physically, and I think the mental game has come so far this year.”
Sure, we won't know until training camp how things will shake out. But we need to see some direction out of the Sabres. Trading for Tallinder and McBain and electing not to buy out forwards Drew Stafford or Ville Leino certainly don't scream “rebuild.”
They're also nothing to get excited about. Girgensons and Pysyk? They're something to get excited about. And they MUST be on the roster come October.