When the Buffalo Sabres drafted Zemgus Girgensons in the first round of the 2012 NHL draft, the expectation was that he would become a physical, two-way center. But for almost all of his first professional season, the 19-year-old has played left wing.
Friday night, however, Girgensons was given the chance to play center for the second weekend in a row.
Maybe the 6-foot-2 Latvian forward should have been in the middle before now, but there's good explanation for him being used at wing.
First off, he entered the season as the youngest player in the American Hockey League. The Sabres' organization wanted to bring him along slowly, giving him around eight minutes per night on the wing to learn how to play against much older, bigger and tougher players.
Then in mid-January, he suffered a concussion. It was shortly after the lockout ended and he was likely to get a chance in the middle. But his progression was brought to a halt while he recovered. After missing more than a month, he was forced to start at square one again.
But Girgensons is back to 100 percent now and is finally playing his natural position – one where he's projected to be a top six player with edge and scoring ability.
Against the Toronto Marlines on Friday, the Amerks' rookie was paired with Evan Rankin and Patrick Rissmiller – two offensively skilled players. The line, like most of the Amerks, struggled to create offense. They managed just one shot between them in the 4-1 loss.
Girgensons' game was more solid in his own end.
“He's really strong in the defensive zone,” head coach Chadd Cassidy said. “I haven't seen a lot of deficiencies in his D-zone coverage helping our D-core down low, so I've really liked him there so far.”
His success on defense is predicated on effort. It's noticeable how often he skates hard on the backcheck, causes opponents to lose the puck and has successful breakout passes.
“He'll win loose puck battles,” Cassidy said. “He'll get there first, he'll own the lane to the puck. And I think he's done a good job being able to get it and then get it to somebody that will get us out of the zone.”
Getting back into the habit of playing center this late in the season isn't easy. The Amerks have played three three-in-threes this month and this is about the time young players tend to wear down physically and mentally. Girgensons would have been playing in the playoffs in juniors about this time last year. He's also taken more punishment from older and far more developed players.
“The last time I played center was last May,” Girgensons said. “I hadn't taken a faceoff in 11 months. It's about getting back to doing all the little details.”
And there's the offensive side. The Amerks' young forward has shown flashes of quick decision making and impressive passing ability in the offensive zone, but he's only scored 17 points in 59 games. Part of that is because of his role and lack of power play time, but it's also part of being a raw prospect.
“Through the middle, I'm a player that's good with speed,” he said. “If you hit me with the puck with speed, good things can happen.”
But the game is more difficult in the pros to get that speed and rush into the zone. Goals often get scored in front of the net on rebounds or on passes from behind the net or along the wall.
The Sabres trust that he'll make the adjustments. Cassidy has said multiple times his rookie center has tremendous makeup. Girgensons has shown a commitment to his work ethic and to learning the game throughout the season. His mental and physical toughness are, to say the least, needed within the organization.
David Leggio - Stopped 35 of 37 shots in the loss. The AHL announced that Syracuse's Tyler Johnson has won the AHL MVP. In my opinion, Leggio should have been the choice considering he's played as many games as most forwards and is consistently pummeled with shots.
Jerome Gauthier-Leduc – Continues to struggle in his own end. The game-winning goal on Friday came when Gauthier-Leduc allowed the Marlies' forward to walk directly in on Leggio instead of directing him to a bad angle. The rookie defenseman finished -3 on the night.
Corey Tropp – Was back in the lineup after letting his recently-repaired knee rest last weekend. The Amerks will need Tropp as they head into the playoffs. But his long-term outlook is more important.
Alex Biega – Is the most under-appreciated player on the Amerks. The team will give out awards on Saturday night and Biega should be given the award for being a strong contributor without a whole lot of limelight.
Johan Larsson – Has not impressed on the offensive side of the ice. Several times he hesitated to shoot on the power play and cost himself a chance to score. His passes have often ended up on the other team's tape or nobody's. He was a minus-3 with one shot.
Playoffs – The Amerks could have clinched with a win on Saturday. The need a win or help Saturday against Hamilton on Fan Appreciation Night.