Zemgus Girgensons and Dan Bylsma talked a few times during the summer, so Girgensons knew the Sabres’ coach might shift him from center to wing. Sure enough, when Buffalo handed its training camp booklets to the players, Girgensons was listed as the right winger for center Jack Eichel and left wing Matt Moulson.
It was one thing for Tyler Ennis to read it. It was quite another for the Sabres forward to see it on the ice Friday as Buffalo opened training camp.
“That’s one of the exciting/optimistic things, too, is how deep we are now with centermen,” Ennis said in First Niagara Center. “Zemgus is a solid centerman, and he’s on the wing. He’s effective all over the ice, but if we have enough talent and enough quality centermen that a great player like Zemgus can go over to the wing, that’s a good thing for our team.
“I think Z’s ready for a big year.”
Girgensons is certainly in position to excel. The move to the wing kept him in the Sabres’ top six. Camp opened with Ryan O’Reilly centering Ennis and left wing Evander Kane on the top line, with Moulson, Eichel and Girgensons on the second line.
Though the combinations may change before the season opens Oct. 8, the opening look helped raise the excitement level in the dressing room and out in Sabreland.
“Everything has changed in the locker room,” Girgensons said. “The motivation for the guys is way up. It’s a new, fun group. We’re excited, and it’s a lot more fun than past years.”
Girgensons was one of the few Sabres to find joy last season. The 21-year-old played in the NHL All-Star Game after becoming a phenomenon in his home country of Latvia. He scored several highlight-reel goals and was on his way to a 20-goal season before taking a puck off his ankle in late February, ending his year.
With Girgensons’ rapid development evident, why would Byslma move him from the middle? Essentially, the coach wants to help the development of the team’s 18-year-old draft pick.
“The reason why it’s Zemgus on the wing with Jack is because you’re offering some protection,” Bylsma said. “In a D-zone faceoff and it’s a matchup on the road, you know you have a real solid player down low and he could take the draw. He could play in that spot and have Jack play the wing as they come out of D-zone coverage.
“I like a lot of what we have because we have protection for players. They’re going to be playing in the right spots. They’re going to have people to play alongside them and complement them and have them be in good situations. Zemgus does that, I think, for Jack.”
Eichel already feels comfortable having Girgensons nearby. During an informal workout this week, Girgensons caught Eichel’s eye by repeatedly doing the right things.
“He’s one of the hardest-working players,” Eichel said. “He obviously competes extremely hard on the ice, and he’s super skilled. I was just watching him, and it seems like he’s always in the right position with his stick down. He’s just a really smart player.”
Girgensons, who was drafted in 2012 as a center, spent his opening year in the Sabres’ organization on the wing. Though the position isn’t foreign to him, it’ll still be an adjustment.
“Just your position in the D-zone and knowing where you have to be as a wing, it’s going to take a couple days just to know where they’re going to go,” he said.
Given the pace of the opening day, Girgensons may have the new position down by Saturday afternoon. The players’ practice sessions were done at a high pace, while the scrimmage was intense.
“The coach says the way you practice is the way you’re going to play,” Girgensons said. “That’s something that we’re going to try to do for the next month and throughout the season, keep the pace up.
“All the moves the general manager made, that kind of makes you forget about the past and look forward to this upcoming season.”