While sniffing for answers as to why his encore wasn’t a success, Zemgus Girgensons found there was one person to blame.
After a sophomore season that featured storybook moments, Girgensons’ third chapter lacked drama. He suffered major dips in offense and playing time. His goal total dropped from 15 to seven despite playing 10 more games, and his ice time fell more than four minutes per night.
“Definitely, offense was a struggle and disappointing for myself,” he said. “No doubt about that. Any player will always have a down year.
“It’s definitely on me how I played. It’s just bearing down on chances I had, more focus, more drive, more passion for the goals and offense I should have.”
Girgensons cited unfriendly goal posts for his failure to reach last season’s numbers, and the NHL’s stats show him ringing the iron four times. The bigger culprit was a lack of accuracy.
Girgensons scored on 13 percent of his shots during his 2014-15 All-Star season while finishing second on the Sabres in goals and fourth in points (30). His shooting percentage was just 6.4 percent this year, dropping him to 11th in goals and points (18).
While Ted Nolan used the Latvian as his workhorse, coach Dan Bylsma did not. With newcomers such as Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane ahead of him on the depth chart, Girgensons’ average ice time dropped from 19:04 to 15:02. His special-teams time also took a hit in power play (2:03 to 51 seconds) and penalty kill (2:04 to 1:02).
“Definitely a different two years,” the 22-year-old said. “It was way different. The year before I was more the No. 1 guy on offense and stuff like that. Definitely a role change, but it’s definitely something you learn.
“As long as you help the team play and win, that’s all that matters. It doesn’t matter where you play – wing, center, first or fourth line – as long as you have your jersey, you’re good.”
The Sabres gave Girgensons opportunities to turn around his season, putting him alongside Eichel for much of the year.
“He had a tough go,” General Manager Tim Murray said. “There was a certain point in the season where I started to wonder, but then he played hard after that. In fairness to him, he had a tough year. I asked him if he was a centerman or a winger. He thinks a center, but it’s not that he doesn’t like wing. We’re not sure, either, still.
“There are questions to be answered there that he has to answer, but we also have to answer and our coaching staff have to answer to make it more comfortable for him. But I have no reason to believe that he’s not going to bounce back and be an important player.”
Girgensons did improve in one area. His plus/minus rating jumped from minus-16 to zero. Defenseman Jake McCabe (plus-6) and forward Marcus Foligno (plus-4) were the only regulars to finish ahead of Girgensons.
That probably won’t be enough to earn him a big raise. Girgensons will be a restricted free agent this summer after making $832,500 this season.
“Playing with the group of guys we had, it was a lot of fun on and off the ice,” he said. “Overall, I played really solid. There wasn’t too much about anything I was mad about my game besides offense. That’s something I have to improve this summer and move on.”