There’s just something different about Zemgus Girgensons, something in his attitude and outlook that foretells of future promise. He proved it again Monday.
Though Girgensons hadn’t officially been told he was on Buffalo Sabres’ roster, the signs were there. He practiced as a regular on a forward line. He was a key penalty killer during drills. Coaches typically don’t put spare pieces in such vital roles two days before the season opener.
Most 19-year-olds would be ecstatic, happy to have made it to the NHL in just their second professional season.
“For any young guy in this locker room, I don’t think there’s such a thing as ‘made it’ so far,” Girgensons said in First Niagara Center. “I think for the young guys, you have to make it every day. You have to make every day count. You’ve got to prove yourself every day to stay up here because any young guy can be sent down at any time.”
Girgensons’ play has matched the intensity of his words, a big reason he has, in fact, made the Sabres’ season-opening roster.
NHL teams needed to reach the 23-player maximum Monday evening, and the Sabres’ roster trimming lacked drama. Forward Marcus Foligno is still out with a sore shoulder, so he joined defenseman Nikita Zadorov (finger) and forwards Corey Tropp (jaw) and Joel Armia (hand) on the injured reserve list. The moves left the Sabres with 23 healthy players, and they kept them all rather than send a prospect to Rochester.
“We’ve been happy with where our young players are early on,” coach Ron Rolston said. “I think that’s been a good sign, just how they’ve fit in and acclimated into what we want to do, how they are in the room. They’re all guys that are hard-working players, and they want to be a part of things, and there’s a lot of respect that they have for the older guys. I would say that has been the pleasant surprise of camp.”
With the team in place, the next move is determining which 20 players will dress in Detroit on Wednesday night. The only real questions are up front. Buffalo has 14 forwards, so two will be healthy scratches against the Red Wings.
Enforcer John Scott and rookie center Johan Larsson served as the extras Monday, making it appear as if they’re the odd men out to start. After practice, though, Rolston lauded Larsson’s effort and preseason production.
“You could argue he might have been the best of all those guys in terms of competitive nature in camp,” he said. “We were impressed with the way he played, the details he has, the competitive nature.”
The Sabres’ four centers Monday were Cody Hodgson, Tyler Ennis, Mikhail Grigorenko and Cody McCormick. Larsson’s main competition is Grigorenko, the 19-year-old who wants to make an impact during his second season after an uneventful rookie campaign.
“I got some confidence from last year, so I think this year is going to be a lot better,” Grigorenko said. “I just want to prove to the coaches that they need me and do what I can do best, which is create offense, work hard and just show him that I can be really helpful for this team.”
Rolston gave Grigorenko plenty of opportunities in the preseason to prove his worth. The center was the only player to dress in all seven exhibitions. He finished with two goals and tied for the team lead with four points.
“It’s going to be a process, but I’ve seen off-ice maturity,” Rolston said. “I’ve seen some on-ice maturity. His compete’s getting better. It’s not where we want it to be, but it’s getting better.”
The Sabres’ third line featured right wing Brian Flynn skating with Girgensons and Grigorenko, Buffalo’s two first-round picks in the 2012 draft. The duo hasn’t “made it” in Girgensons’ view, but it’s still impressive that the two prospects have reached the big leagues so quickly. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, selected eighth overall this year, also made the cut.
“For all of our young guys, it’s just now the ability to do it every night and every day in practice,” Rolston said before elaborating on Girgensons. “He’s physically a man in terms of his development, just strength over the puck. He’s a focused player, and I know that he’s going to bring the energy every night. That’s what we’re looking for.”
The Sabres’ roster features four rookies (Mark Pysyk, Ristolainen, Girgensons and Larsson) and two skaters who’ve played fewer than 30 games (Grigorenko and Flynn). Buffalo is expected to be the NHL’s youngest team when the final totals are announced.
“We’ve got some good young players,” Rolston said. “Now it’s for us finding the mix that’s going to help us move into the future but also be able to have results, too. There’s a balance there.”