Ted Nolan knows Zemgus Girgensons has the talent and desire to do extraordinary things. The Sabres’ coach is also mindful that Girgensons is a 19-year-old rookie. Nolan wants to let him grow at a casual pace, one that isn’t weighed down by demands or expectations.
Girgensons sees things differently. He wants to be relied upon by Buffalo. He thinks he can be a difference maker on a team that’s in desperate need of them.
Girgensons made an impact on the Sabres’ last game, something that was long overdue, in his opinion.
The forward scored a highlight-reel goal early in the third period in Montreal, pulling the Sabres within one during their 3-2 loss. It was just the second goal in 29 games for Girgensons, but the way he scored it showed he’s getting more comfortable at the NHL level.
“I’ve been hard on myself about that,” Girgensons said. “I definitely can do better, and I just hope I get more.”
Girgensons has points in two straight and three of four heading into Tuesday’s home game against Ottawa. He scored by putting the puck between the legs of P.K. Subban, skipping past the Canadiens defenseman and slipping around goaltender Carey Price. Girgensons had an assist Thursday against the Rangers right after a 10-minute, third-period benching.
“I was low energy that game,” said the man known as the Latvian Locomotive. “I totally understood that. I didn’t get mad or anything. I thought it was the right move to do.”
Girgensons’ self-awareness and work ethic have made him a favorite of Nolan and the fans.
“I’m not sure about the expectation that we should put too much on the young kid, but he played well,” said Nolan, who coaches Girgensons in the Latvian national program. “I’ve known the kid for about three years now and have watched him play. He does this all the time. It’s one of those things with maturity and his body matures, he’s going to get better. The one thing you can’t teach somebody is to give them that work ethic that he has.
“Those are the building blocks in which we’re going to turn this organization around and turn this team around. It’s through people like that with some strong character and a will to get better.
“The young guys are not our problem. We’ve just got to get more production from the people who are supposed to give us production. We have to be better overall.”
While Girgensons and linemate Tyler Ennis (goals in two straight) have found some offense, it’s lacking in a major way elsewhere. Ville Leino hasn’t put a puck in the net in 17 games this season. Captain Steve Ott has no points in nine games. Drew Stafford has gone 13 games without a goal. Cody Hodgson has one goal in 10 games. Tyler Myers has a goal and four points in the last 14 outings.
The droughts are why Nolan’s plan to slowly groom Girgensons could speed up at some point.
Girgensons, selected 14th overall in the 2012 NHL draft, has offensive potential underneath the grind-line exterior. He totaled 45 goals during his two seasons in the United States Hockey League. He found the net three times in Rochester’s three playoff games last season.
Now he has a spectacular NHL goal, one that could push him to work even harder.
“I think every day I’m getting more comfortable,” Girgensons said. “It’s just keeping it moving and improving.”