From All-Star untouchable to fourth-line role player

Zemgus Girgensons hasn't met the bar raised for him early in his career

Joe DiBiase
January 26, 2019 - 10:18 pm

Photo: Charles LeClaire - USA TODAY Sports

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Four years ago, Jack Eichel was in college, Sam Reinhart was playing junior hockey, and Rasmus Dahlin was probably taking Algebra in some middle school in Sweden. Here in Buffalo, in the necessary darkness that was the tank, there shined one bright light. As a recent first round pick, it was easy to get sucked into the hype on Zemgus Girgensons. 

He had a nickname, "The Latvia Locomotive". He had a rap song made in his name. Fueled by his home country of Latvia, as well as Sabres fans, Girgensons won the 2015 NHL All-Star fan vote. He would be the Sabres' only representative at that year's game. It wasn't a complete farce. It wasn't John Scott being voted in the following year. When he was named to the All-Star game, the 20-year-old Girgensons had 20 points in 29 games. Maybe not All-Star worthy, but certainly respectable for a young player on one of the worst teams in NHL history. 

Look at everything that happened up until that 2015 All-Star game.

He was selected a little higher than most had him ranked heading into the 2012 NHL Draft. Most experts had him pegged to go somwhere around the 20th overall pick. In 2012, NHL Central Scouting had Girgensons ranked as the 18th North American skater. Add in Europeans like Filip Forsberg, Hampus Lindholm, Radek Faksa, and Tuevo Teravainen and you would've expected Girgensons to go late first round. Darcy Regier traded up to take him with the 14th overall pick after taking Mikhail Grigorenko at 12th overall. 

That was Step 1 of raising Girgensons' expectations. Step 2 was his earlier success, combined with the vacuum of young talent in Buffalo. I remember the conversation after the 2012 draft being all about Mikhail Grigorenko. The Russian center had been ranked by some to be a top-five pick, but fell to the Sabres at 12. Fans were clamoring for him to start the season as the Sabres' third line center because of his offensive potential. We had no one else to pin the future on.

Fans that attended Sabres Development Camp in 2012 and 2013 could've easily seen that Girgensons was miles ahead of Grigorenko. Faster, more physical, and on par with his offensive skills. 

We know the story on Grigorenko. No NHL production, to juniors, back-and-forth between the AHL and NHL, traded. For Girgensons, he showed up and quickly became a fan favorite. In 2015, he was given the role of centering Tyler Ennis and Matt Moulson to make up the top line on a tanking team. As mentioned before,  Girgensons had 20 points in 29 games to start the year. He was "untouchable" and "future captain" material. In dreams of a future Cup contender, Girgensons was the Jordan Staal to Crosby and Malkin. In this blue print (the Sabres slogan for 2015), that would've been McDavid/Crosby and Reinhart. 

It's easy to say this now, but Girgensons was never going to live up to the hype of his early career. It seemed like the 2015 NHL All-Star game wouldn't be the only time we'd see him casually skating around with the league's best. It certainly will be. After a great start to that year, playing all situations and big minutes on a top line, Girgensons had just 10 points in the final 32 games. He hasn't had 20 points in a season since. Top line center, averaging over 19 minutes a night, quickly became second and third line winger playing closer to 13 minutes a night. 

Now that we're pretty far removed from Girgensons being "untouchable" and "future captain" material, he's settled into being a role player. At 25-years-old, he's certainly not what we all would've hoped he could be. However, he should continue to have a role on this team going forward. 

While his role is replaceable, Girgensons is a perfect modern-day fourth liner in the NHL. He has great speed, very good defensive ability, and can give you some scoring here and there. He'll block shots, penalty kill, and can play center if you need him to. Girgensons has been a part of the Sabres' penalty kill that has been near the top of the league all year. Paired with Johan Larsson for much of this year, the two don't score much, but they have good possession stats. It seems like they're always cycling in the offensive zone, which, in a way, is really good defense. It rarely becomes a goal, but at least the other team isn't generating their own chances.

At a $1.6 million cap hit, Girgensons isn't costing the Sabres much to keep around. He's a nice piece to keep around in a bottom-six role. 

The days of fans wondering if he can become a 20-goal scorer are over. In many ways, he hasn't lived up to expectations. The biggest reason he hasn't, is because they were unrealistic. The bar was raised too high.

Is Girgensons a bust? No. There's really no star player that the Sabres could've picked in his spot, unless you consider Tomas Hertl a star. 

Looking back, the story of Zemgus Girgensons is a curious one. Not often does a young player go from being considered untouchable, to being a fourth liner so quickly. One thing is for sure, he was a far better pick by Darcy Regier than Grigorenko at 12.

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