There are some decisions to be made at the bottom rungs of the defense corps, but the most interesting story line developing at Buffalo Sabres training camp is the play of Zemgus Girgensons.
With seemingly few spots available, the 19-year-old Latvian winger is trying to force his way on to the roster.
Girgensons has been a standout in camp and in the first two exhibition games. If he keeps it up, it may be hard for the Sabres to send him back to Rochester.
The Sabres open the First Niagara Center portion of the preseason with two games in three days, tonight at 7 against Carolina (Radio 550 AM) and Saturday against Toronto. Based on today’s morning skate, Girgensons will not be in the lineup tonight so that means he is almost certain to play Saturday.
Girgensons is the only Sabre with three points in the first two games, collecting two goals in Sunday’s shootout win in Montreal and an assist in Tuesday’s victory in Columbus. The 6-foot-2, 194-pounder played more than 34 minutes and has a plus-3 rating.
His second goal in Montreal was a sensational effort of power down the right-wing boards, finished by a sizzling snap shot past rookie goaltender Zach Fucale.
“Most people talk about if I’m able to put up points. That’s one of the things I’ve been working on,” Girgensons said this week. “I’ve been working on my shooting. It’s about me burying chances. I’ve had some problems with it. I have to put that behind me and be better offensively.
“I was pretty happy with myself. At the start of last season, the second goal would have probably hit in the netting up there, given a souvenir to a fan.”
The Sabres drafted Girgensons in 2012 with the No. 14 overall pick – the highest ever for a Latvian – out of Dubuque of the United States Hockey League. He captained the club and even earned the nickname “The Latvian Locomotive” for his hard-charging, physical style.
He started last season as the youngest player in the AHL and the Sabres have eased him into the pro game by putting him at left wing rather than his natural center slot. Coach Ron Rolston reiterated this week if Girgensons makes the big club out of camp, it will be on the wing.
Girgensons started slowly in the AHL, seeing limited ice and no power-play time, until he started to get up to speed with the pro style. He played in 61 games, collecting six goals and 11 assists.
But by the time the playoffs rolled around, Girgensons had become the Amerks’ top forward. He scored three of the team’s five goals in its three-game sweep at the hands of the Toronto Marlies.
“He had a lot more purpose to his game offensively,” recalled Rolston.
Asked about Girgensons showing in Montreal, Rolston said, “I saw more of the playoff games. Can he continue to do that as we move through the preseason and as these teams get better lineups?”
Certainly a fair point. The Canadiens, for instance, didn’t have premier defensemen such as P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov or Josh Gorges in their lineup.
“It’s a lot about confidence,” Girgensons said. “Especially that playoff run gave me a good boost about what I can do.”
And can a big preseason translate into a roster spot?
“It depends on how I keep performing,” he said. “It’s on the coaches to decide. I have no control.”
Like many of the Sabres’ young players, Girgensons spent time over the summer working on his strides with team skating instructor Dawn Braid, and that’s helped him increase his power game. A fitness fanatic, Girgensons has pulled back on some of his weight regimens, opting for more cardio work to improve his agility and speed.
“You don’t want to be bulky, just stronger,” he said. “It can take everything away if you become a bodybuilder.”
“He is big and strong and came in that way,” Rolston said. “They do a lot of power work with them and Dawn has done a great job with him in skating to improve his dynamics. He’s getting around pretty well with his size.”
This could be a huge year for Girgensons. His NHL debut could be at hand, either on opening night or down the road, and he already has an invitation in hand to play for Latvia in the Sochi Olympics.
“That’s a long ways to go and I definitely want to be there,” Girgensons said. “If they call me, I’ll be there. To play in the Olympics is once every four years and not everybody gets to do that.”
And not everybody plays in the NHL at 19 either. Girgensons is pushing to get that chance.
The Sabres were off Wednesday, their first break in camp, and will unveil their lineup for tonight’s game at their 10:30 a.m. pregame skate.
In advance of the first home games, the team issued an advisory Wednesday to remind fans about the impact of HarborCenter construction. Traffic will no longer be able to head southbound toward the arena on Washington Street to access Perry Street and arena parking.
The preferred route toward the arena is now Michigan Avenue, with a right turn on to Perry.
Prior to Saturday night’s game against the Leafs, Sabres players will walk the Blue & Gold carpet beginning at 4:30 in Alumni Plaza before heading into the arena. There will be live music and beverages available. Brian Duff and Danny Gare will host the festivities.