Over his last stretch of games, Buffalo Sabres' forward Zemgus Girgensons has caught the attention of Sabres' fans who are desperately looking for signs of light in a rebuilding year.
There was an boost of energy around the franchise when Pat LaFontaine took over as head of Hockey Operations, but the team has only scored 16 goals in 11 games under interim head coach Ted Nolan and is 3-7-1.
But one thing Nolan has done is put Girgensons in position to succeed. He's given the the Latvian native top minutes with quality players and it's shown results on the score board.
Girgensons has two goals and two assists in 11 games since Nolan took over. A closer look at his season and recent results show that the young forward has been even better than the traditional numbers suggest.
The Sabres' power forward has risen to the top of the chart in puck possession. His Corsi % (a possession measure that uses shot attempts for and against at 5v5) is 47.0%, which ranks No.1 amongst Buffalo forwards with over 200 minutes played.
When he's on the ice, the Sabres improve greatly in terms of possession. His Corsi% Relative to teammates is +4.4%, which basically means the team is 4.4% better in terms of possession when he's on the ice than when he's off. In terms of shots that reach the netminder, the 19-year-old has the best on-ice percentage of the game's shots on goal at 48.2%
Basically, Girgensons is the best possession player on the team and his rise to the top of the chart has happened mostly under Nolan. In the last 10 games, he's posting a whopping 57% Corsi%. To give some context to that figure: If everyone on the Sabres repeated it, they would be a top five possession team. The best possession players in the NHL (Anze Kopitar, Zach Parise etc.) are around 60%.
And his success isn't based on getting easy minutes. He's often been matched against second lines and second pairings and has an offensive zone start percentage of 48.9%, which is a little above average and a lower percentage of total faceoffs taken in the O-zone than Ville Leino and Tyler Ennis.
The question mark around Girgensons from Day 1 has been if he could score goals. Certainly THIS goal against Montreal suggests he can. But do the stats back up that he can be an effective scorer?
Small sample size is in play here. He's only played 30 NHL games and 2/3rds of an AHL season as a pro. Girgensons hasn't gone wild with posting points in either league. But one underlying stat might suggest good things: His 5v5 scoring rate.
His Even-Strength scoring rate (points per 60 minutes) is No. 1 on the Sabres – ahead of Cody Hodgson, ahead of Tyler Ennis, Drew Stafford, Matt Moulson...everyone. The rate isn't blow-you-away great at 1.64/60 (top 5v5 scorers are around 3) but considering he hasn't spent much time with the Sabres with some offensive talent, that's darn impressive.
Scoring ceiling will continue to be a debate with the 19-year-old. Depending on his usage, circumstances and development, he could follow a similar path to St. Louis' David Backes or Colorado's Ryan O'Reilly – neither of which scored big in their early years, but turned into quality offensive talents. Or he could remain a 20-30 point type player.
But considering he's posted the best rate at 5v5, it might be time to give him a shot on the power play. I mean, what's the worst that can happen? He might be the type who could post up down low and slam pucks into the net off of rebounds.
There's another factor that may come as a surprise from a player who is third on the Sabres in hits: According to ExtraSkater.com, Girgensons has a +5 penalty ratio. He's drawn six penalties this season and only taken one. So he's playing hard, but not stupid.
By comparison, Tyler Ennis has taken eight penalties and only drawn four.
So there's little question Girgensons has been great under Nolan. How good can he be? You have to look to scouting to take a guess, but there's never a guarantee of any player turning into a star.
That said, scouts and hockey people are blown away by his work ethic. It's elite. His defensive skills have the potential to be elite. Girgensons' backchecking ability is already as good as the best defensive forwards in the NHL and his skating is well above average and improving all the time.
There's more to his makeup than just hard work. He wants to be great and he wants more than anything to win. You would think this would come standard with pro athletes, but anyone whose covered minor league sports will assure you that it does not.
After the Amerks lost in the playoffs last year – a series in which Girgensons scored three goals in three games – the young forward (the league's youngest player at the time) refused to talk about his own performance out of disgust for losing the series. Mark down: “Hates to lose.”
Following the Sabres' loss to Montreal – a game in which he scored a beautiful goal – he barley acknowledged his goal in a post-game TV interview and did NOT say the team “needs to get some bounces.” He's got a captain's mentality at a young age. That's not easy to find.
Should we all buy in? To him as a leader and a major part of the future, yes. To him being a top liner and offensive threat, go with maybe for now. As a puck possessing, dominant defender who opponents hate to play against? Absolutely.
Not a bad guy to start a rebuild around, huh.