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Sabres' Girgensons seizing chance at expanded role

If the Sabres score a goal for every time they say "fresh start," the franchise record will be set by November. But for Zemgus Girgensons, it's clear those words really mean something.

No player had a bigger drop-off during the Dan Bylsma era than Girgensons. He went from a top-four point-producer to an offensive afterthought.

When new Buffalo coach Phil Housley filled out his training-camp lineups, he put Girgensons alongside center Ryan O'Reilly and right wing Kyle Okposo. Couple that enviable spot with the fact General Manager Jason Botterill protected Girgensons in the expansion draft, and it's easy to assume the new regime believes in the 23-year-old.

"I'm seeing some great things out there," Housley said Sunday. "I like what I've seen from that line. They've really set the bar.

"They're doing everything right in the practices."

Back in 2014-15 when Ted Nolan was Buffalo's coach, fans voted Girgensons to the NHL All-Star Game. He had 15 goals and 30 points in 61 games while skating 19:04 per night. The future seemed bright.

It quickly dimmed when the Sabres changed coaches. With Bylsma at the helm, Girgensons skated 14:04 per game and totaled 14 goals and 34 points in 146 outings.

Clearly, he's excited by this summer's overhaul.

"It's new coaches, new management, so I think it's fresh start for everyone," Girgensons said in HarborCenter. "You can't come in thinking that you have a spot. You have to prove it in the practice, off the ice, so I think it's good for everyone."

Girgensons is getting the first shot at a spot that's definitely available. Evander Kane is the No. 1 left winger. After that, it's a competition among Girgensons, Benoit Pouliot, Matt Moulson, Seth Griffith and C.J. Smith.

Girgensons is seizing his chance. His shift-by-shift determination has been intense through his physical play and getting to the net. There's a clear difference from the past two seasons.

"It's like he's confident or something," O'Reilly said. "It's just his excitement. Playing on a line right now with him, it's awesome. Every play you know you're getting 110 percent. He competes on everything.

"Maybe with the new look, new staff, he's got this excitement in his game that he's just feeding off. Okie and I love playing with him with the way he competes and is moving his feet out there. He's winning every battle, and it makes our job so much easier."

Girgensons admits there's a jump in everyone's practice intensity.

"When you're on the ice, you can feel the guys going 100 mph," he said. "You didn't see that the last two years. I think every single player is going to improve, and we're going to do big things."

Drafted in the first round by Buffalo in 2014, Girgensons' spot in the organization seemed tenuous heading into June's expansion draft. He was a restricted free agent coming off two bad years.

But Botterill included him on the seven-forward protected list, then signed Girgensons to a two-year, $3.2 million contract in August.

"I've been in Buffalo for a decent amount of time, and I love it here," Girgensons said. "I'd love to stay here as long as I can."

He'd love to stay alongside O'Reilly and Okposo, too.

"I don't think anyone on the team would complain about playing with those two guys," Girgensons said. "They're top guys, and to get the opportunity to play there is nice. I think I've done a pretty good job so far."

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While the practices have been impressive, this will be a big week. The Sabres play four of their six exhibition games. They host Carolina at 7 p.m. Monday in KeyBank Center, then meet Pittsburgh on Tuesday at Penn State. They visit Toronto on Friday and host the Maple Leafs on Saturday.

If Girgensons retains his determination, it could clear up the question of who starts the season second to Kane on the depth chart.

"Everyone is working," Girgensons said. "There's no messing around, and that's how it should be."

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