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2021-22 Buffalo Sabres: 4LW – Zemgus Girgensons (+ Drought Moments)

August 4, 2021, 8:22 AM ET [356 Comments]
Hank Balling
Buffalo Sabres Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Want to feel old? Zemgus Girgensons has been with the Buffalo Sabres organization for nearly a decade. The Riga, Latvia native was taken 14th overall in 2012 and has logged nearly 500 games for the blue and gold since then. Hopes were very high for Girgensons during the Ted Nolan years (or the tank years, however you prefer to think of them), when Girgensons posted 15 goals and 15 assists in 60 games while making an all-star game appearance.

Since then, Girgensons has largely settled into a checking role which often pits him against top offensive talent in the NHL in order to stymy and smother the opposition. “The Latvian Locomotive” has seen five coaches and three GMs during his time with Sabres but each one of them has seen the defensive value Girgensons has brought to the team. He is now entering the second year of a three-year contract which pays him $2.2m per season. It’s unclear whether the decision to give Girgensons a relatively lucrative contract was made by former coach Ralph Krueger or by current GM Kevyn Adams, or perhaps by ownership. The question as to was running the show following the departure of former GM Jason Botterill is somewhat of an open question, although it’s clear that Krueger occupied a larger role than is typically seen from an NHL head coach. In any case, he’s here for two more years.

The 2021 season never really got off the ground for Girgensons who was injured in an early January scrimmage while attempting to check Steven Fogarty. Girgensons ultimately had successful hamstring surgery which was expected to take 6 months to fully heal. That timeline would put him as a full participant at training camp in September where he’ll figure to hold down his familiar role of checking like forward and penalty kill stalwart.

One thing you’ll see in Girgensons’s advanced statistics is that his expected goals above replacement (xGAR) is often higher than his actual goals above replacements (GAR) which is a trait that’s pretty easily backed up by the eye test. The veteran forward has decent NHL speed and can use his reckless abandon to get himself into good scoring positions around the net, but once there, the scoring touch simply doesn’t allow him to cash on his share of opportunities. Even in that excellent year he had with Ted Nolan, that relationship between xGAR and GAR was present and he created more opportunities than he Matt Moulson and Tyler Ennis could finish. Girgensons did pot 12 goals in 69 games under Krueger in 19-20, but that figures to be somewhat of a mirage as his shooting percentage was over 14, despite having a career average of 8.4%.

Talking about his offense may seem like a pointless endeavor because he’s really not known for that, but it’s worth remembering that the coach of the Sabres is Don Granato – not Ralph Krueger – and Gus will likely be asked to play the same high-tempo offense as the rest of the team. Defensively he tends to put up strong numbers that – like Okposo - were very good under Ralph Krueger for the most part. He is a good forechecker and can actively flip the ice for the more offensively talented players on the roster.

It remains to be seen if the hamstring injury will have any impact on his ability to move around the ice compared to previous years when he tended to play a style that saw him throw his body around at a high velocity. It should also be remembered that by the time the puck is dropped, Girgensons will have gone over a year and a half without playing a professional hockey game due to the injury and the schedule implications related to COVID-19. It will likely take him a bit to get up to full game speed once the rubber really starts flying in October. Locomotives need a bit of time to get chugging along at full steam.

Girgensons figures to play with Kyle Okposo as he has for the past few years so the two can feed off of each other’s defensive tenacity in order to annoy and stifle the opposition while trying to create and cash a few of their own opportunities. It’ll be interesting to see if Granato elects to use him as a winger or as a center. Personally, I’ve always thought that Girgensons plays better at center where his straight-line speed affords him the opportunity to drive the net as hard as he wants with as much room as possible. No one will accuse Gus of having elite balance or turning ability, but his tenacious attitude has always lent itself to moving downhill toward the opposing goalie. It’s possible that he ends back up at center, though perhaps there are candidates who are seen as more natural to that position.

The 27-year-old also figures to maintain his position as a primary penalty killer on the team along with probable linemate Okposo. Girgensons has put up decent penalty killing numbers over his time with the Sabres and there’s no reason for that trend to end this year. Overall, his role figures to change very little from where it’s been in recent years: He’s a penalty killing defensive forward who can pop in 7-10 goals. To expect much more from him is unrealistic.

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I want to put together a top-10 playoff drought moments series and I need your help, Sabres fans!

Despite the fact that it’s been a bleak, awful decade, there must be some unforgettable moments that you want to see on a top-10 list. Buffalo sports fans are a self-deprecating bunch so there will undoubtedly be some great, unexpected selections. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a hockey play, though. Perhaps your moment happened off the ice and is emblematic of the decade or perhaps it’s more sincere in nature.

Many Sabres fans were happy to see the Pegulas build the Harborcenter which served as a beacon of hockey light to spur on development in the canalside area. It doesn’t all have to be sarcastic in nature (although that’s fine too). I have a few moments in mind, but surely there are plenty that I don’t remember. So hit me with your favorites to help assemble a top-10, all-drought moments list.
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