Zemgus Girgensons knew something was up as soon as he walked into the Sabres’ arena. His smiling teammates kept teasing him with jabs about his shoulder being weighed down, about walking a little lopsided.
Once Girgensons went to his locker stall for Buffalo’s season finale, he understood what they meant.
“I went and looked at my jersey, and it had an ‘A’ on,” the newly christened alternate captain said. “It was just an amazing experience to wear the ‘A’ at age 20. I was pretty shocked.
“It was pretty amazing to wear it for just one game. It didn’t matter if it was the last game. I still wore it, and I loved it.”
A forgettable season for most will be remembered fondly by Girgensons and the rookie’s growing fan base. He stayed in Buffalo while other players his age packed for juniors and the minors. He played in the Olympics for the feisty Latvians. He grew from raw talent to respected leader.
He should get used to one shoulder weighing more than the other because of a letter.
“He earned it,” Sabres center Tyler Ennis said. “He plays so hard every night. He’s a good example of what everyone should play like.”
The Sabres are desperately looking for building blocks as they attempt to rebound from last place in the NHL. They know they have at least one.
“He works all the time, and people who work all the time have a tendency to get better,” coach Ted Nolan said. “Hopefully, that rubs off on some of his peers. Even some of them mentioned that.”
While Girgensons’ teammates are talking about him, he insists on including them.
“If you want to build a team, you have to have all the blocks,” he said. “Every single player in this locker room is a block for that rebuild. I think that’s what we’re going for, to get a great group of guys and build a good team.”
Every team needs a strong leader. Girgensons captained his junior team. Given his attitude and connection with Nolan, who has known the center for four years as coach of Latvia’s national team, it’s easy to assume Girgensons will be a candidate for the Sabres’ open captaincy.
“He’s a young player that’s promising, and you want to develop with that guy,” forward Marcus Foligno said. “He’s a young energy guy, and he can put the puck in the net. He’s kind of a little wrecking ball, too. He’s a key player for us.”
At the moment, Girgensons is more appreciated by folks who look at the game rather than the stat sheets. His effort and determination were impressive. His numbers were not, though that was a teamwide trend.
Girgensons totaled eight goals and 22 points in 70 games. He showed no fear going on the road, though, finishing with four goals and 12 points in Buffalo and four goals and 10 points away from home. Girgensons was fourth among forwards in short-handed ice time (1:47 per game) and fourth on the team in hits (161).
The Sabres expect his numbers to improve as his comfort level grows.
“It just depends on confidence. That’s one of the most important things that you have to have,” said Girgensons, who scored one of the season’s most dazzling goals with four games left and followed it up with more than 20 minutes of ice time in the final three games.
“Especially at the end of the season, all the young guys got amazing ice time, played power play and penalty kill,” Girgensons said. “It’s just a great learning experience.”
There certainly were hard lessons during the 30th-place campaign. Girgensons’ goal is to put them to use when play resumes next season.
“It’s tough but good to just get all of this stuff in as young guys,” Girgensons said. “You can just take the best from it, learn from it and give the best advice to the next guys that come in.”