Zemgus Girgensons (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
The rambunctious center went from fan favorite to depth player under coach Dan Bylsma and his off-year puts his summer contract status in the spotlight. How much should Buffalo invest in Girgensons, given the talent bubbling up around him?
There is a lot of room for long-term optimism in Buffalo. Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Ryan O'Reilly and now Alex Nylander are all gems up front, while Rasmus Ristolainen looks like a solid No. 1 defenseman in the years to come. But the team is still in transition and there will be bumps in the short-term. One of those storylines involves fan favorite Zemgus Girgensons.
As beat writer Mike Harrington reports, the team and the player are in a bit of a spot when it comes to a new contract. Girgensons naturally wants a multi-year deal, but the new brain trust of coach Dan Bylsma and GM Tim Murray is still trying to figure out where Girgensons fits on the team.
The rambunctious Latvian Olympian made a great early impression with the franchise and the city, jumping straight from the draft to the pro ranks with AHL Rochester in 2012-13, then on to the Sabres the next year. In 2014-15, he was only seconds behind Tyler Ennis as the ice time leader among Buffalo forwards, but as Harrington points out, that was under coach Ted Nolan.
With Bylsma arriving – not to mention Eichel, O'Reilly and Reinhart – Girgensons' usage dipped this past season and his production cratered. Now, Girgensons was still a decent possession player, but I'm sure that felt like no more than a moral victory for a competitive player such as him.
It's an interesting scenario for the Sabres. They are improving, but still rebuilding. As the Eichel-Reinhart-O'Reilly-Ristolainen core firms up, veterans will surely move out. Captain Brian Gionta is 37 and entering the final year of his contract, for example. Ex-Eichel landlord Matt Moulson still has a few years left on his deal, but he just suffered through a wreck of a season and at 32, his best attribute seems to be his veteran mentorship. How long is he a Sabre?
Murray wondered aloud if Girgensons is better suited as a winger, but the Sabres have plenty of options there already, with Nylander a future top-six threat added in. Perhaps Girgensons becomes Las Vegas bait?
It's tough to envision the Sabres giving up on a 22-year-old who has performed in the past, but this is a business. On the other hand, perhaps Girgensons finds his stride this season as a middle-six center or winger and the whole conversation becomes moot. His physicality is useful and he is loved by the local faithful.
But make no mistake; no matter what his new contract looks like, this is a pivotal season for Girgensons.