Even in a normal year, the American Hockey League is a place for men. It’s filled with former NHLers, college graduates and players who have moved on from juniors. This year, because of the NHL lockout, even more veterans will skate in the league.
So if Zemgus Girgensons wants to compete against guys who are older than him, he made the right choice by signing with the Buffalo Sabres. Nearly everyone in the AHL is older than he is.
Girgensons, who skipped college and made his professional debut with the Rochester Americans this week, is one of just two 18-year-olds set to play in the AHL. Anaheim sent first-round draft pick Hampus Lindholm to Norfolk, and the Swedish defenseman is a whopping 15 days older than the Sabres’ first-rounder.
Girgensons’ desire is indisputable, but the Amerks and Sabres know there will be a steep learning curve because of his youth.
“Again, he’s 18 years old playing in this league, you know?” Amerks coach Ron Rolston said in Rochester. “A lot of those guys are 23, 24, 25, and he’s still learning but he’s hard. He’s physical, and he’s hard to play against.”
Girgensons showed that at times during his debut. During one of his opening shifts, he sped toward his zone on a backcheck, caught up to the puck carrier and blasted him into the boards to give the Amerks possession. Some shifts, the left winger was an unnoticed third-liner.
“You can always do better, but I don’t think I made any mistakes that hurt the team, so I did pretty good for the first time,” Girgensons said. “I don’t know how many 18-year-olds are in this league, so I think I’m going to accept my role that I need to on this team. If it be a third-, fourth-line center with all the NHL guys sent down and the depth that this team has, then I’ll take it and do my best to make the team better.”
The Sabres traded up to draft Girgensons with the 14th overall pick partly because of the work ethic he showed with Dubuque of the United States Hockey League. It’s been evident this summer. Girgensons spent nearly all of his time in Western New York, skating with the locked-out Sabres or the Amerks.
“He works extremely hard,” Amerks forward Mark Mancari said. “I like the way he plays. He’s physical. He takes the puck to the net. He definitely likes finishing his hits.”
The 6-foot-1, 198-pounder will need to display that grittiness regularly against the older players.
“He’s young, but he plays a pretty rough style, too,” Amerks center Cody Hodgson said. “He’s not afraid to go in the corners and throw the body around. He seems pretty confident, so I’m sure he’ll do great.”
Girgensons is confident he made the right choice in signing with the Sabres’ organization. He had verbally committed to Vermont, but his time in Buffalo convinced him to sign an entry-level contract.
“I never regret my choices, and I hope everything start well,” he said. “It’s good just being with NHL guys and NHL coaches and Ron, and learning every day and getting better.”
At the moment, Girgensons is learning a new position. He has always played center, but he is starting the season at left wing.
“I’ve played my whole life at center, but I think it’s easier to start with the wing in pro because you don’t have to do as much in the D-zone,” he said. “You just have to read the play. It’s a little bit easier adjustment for me playing the wing.”
Like the others who have spent time with Girgensons, Rolston has been impressed by the Latvian’s transition.
“Usually, you see those young players playing the wing, pucks up the wall they have a hard time with, with guys pinching on them, but I thought he was good on the walls,” Rolston said. “Again, he’ll just adjust to the pace, and I’m sure he’ll get better and better.”