Zemgus Girgensons heard from players and coaches on other teams this offseason what’s rarely been said about the Buffalo Sabres since their playoff drought began 11 years ago.
“To be honest, a lot of people say they felt like they're a bit in trouble when they played us,” Girgensons said Saturday morning in LECOM Harborcenter following the Sabres’ first intrasquad scrimmage of training camp.
As the longest-tenured Sabre on the roster, Girgensons has played for five head coaches since making his NHL debut in 2013. Ownership has fired three general managers since Girgensons’ selection with the 14th pick in the 2012 draft. Now, at 28 years old, he is regarded as an invaluable leader in the dressing room and he, along with Kyle Okposo, are credited with changing the team’s culture.
Girgensons’ worker-beelike approach to a checking-line role was a catalyst for the Sabres upon his return from injury in March. Over the final 22 games with Girgensons in the lineup, Buffalo went 12-7-3 for a .614 points percentage that ranked 14th in the NHL during that span.
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Entering his ninth season, and the final year of his contract, Girgensons will again be asked to provide versatility, energy, physicality and speed. But it’s unclear where he’ll be lining up when the season opens on Oct. 13.
Sabres coach Don Granato used the club’s first intrasquad scrimmage, which ended in a 5-1 win for a Yellow team that was headlined by Dylan Cozens and Rasmus Dahlin, to experiment with lines and begin to evaluate who will fill the important fourth-line center spot vacated by Cody Eakin’s departure.
Girgensons, who has ample NHL and international experience at the position, lined up at center in the scrimmage. Rasmus Asplund, Riley Sheahan and Brandon Biro also got a look there while West Seneca native Sean Malone recovers from an injury.
“I think both come naturally to me wherever I’ve been put in,” Girgensons said of center and wing. “Whatever position I have to play this season, it doesn’t really matter to me. I feel natural at both.”
Girgensons is coming off his first back-to-back, double-digit goal seasons. He’s a defensive stalwart, selflessly throws his body in front of shots when trying to protect his net and remains an exceptional penalty-killer. Perhaps the only argument against him winning the fourth-line center job is that he’s been so reliable on the wing. But the Sabres’ competition at forward, particularly the potential arrivals of Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka, will force Granato to be creative to ice the best lineup possible.
Asplund, 24, has played center throughout his career, including in Sweden, and early in his time with the Rochester Americans, but he’s been more effective on the wing in the NHL. Biro, 24, has only one game of NHL experience and, though Sheahan has the most recent experience at the position, he doesn’t provide the offensive upside. Back in Buffalo on a two-way contract, Sheahan has only eight goals in 122 games over the last two seasons and is likely to begin the year in Rochester.
It’s also possible that Granato will use a rotation at fourth-line center early in the season until the Sabres settle on a lineup. Regardless of where he’s positioned, Girgensons wants to help his teammates meet their elevated expectations and continue to aggravate opponents.
“Team success, that's all that matters to me,” said Girgensons. Being around for as long as I've been, to have the team succeed would be the one thing I want. We finished last year on a good note, but at the end of the day, that's still not where we want to be. This is a fresh year, and we have different expectations where we want to be.”
Here are other observations from the game:
1. Looking sharp
Casey Mittelstadt looks ready to establish himself as an effective NHL player. Mittelstadt, 23, had instant chemistry with rookie center Matt Savoie, who made a remarkable centering pass to Mittelstadt on Saturday after shedding defensive coverage with a nifty play along the boards. Mittelstadt generated chances and almost scored on a give-and-go with Okposo.
Savoie is in line to play in the preseason opener Sunday, providing the No. 9 pick an opportunity to show he deserves to stick around camp longer. Elsewhere on the roster, defenseman Spencer Sova, a tryout who attended Prospects Challenge as an invite, is showing that he should be considered for a contract.
Peyton Krebs made a few highlight-reel passes and worked well with Quinn after the duo skated together during Rochester’s playoff run. And Cozens’ goal, a snipe off the crossbar that went in, showcased the goal-scoring prowess he plans to carry into the season. Though Cozens suffered from bad puck luck in the second half of 2021-22, he had an impressive IIHF World Championship with seven goals and 13 points in 10 games.
2. Intriguing pair
Rasmus Dahlin’s spectacular play in the 3-on-3 period drew audible gasps from both benches and the small crowd watching from the stands. Dahlin, now 22, sliced through the defensive coverage by stickhandling around Jeff Skinner and scored on a shot to the far post. While it’s too soon to read into forward lines and defense pairs, it’s worth noting that Dahlin skated with right-shot defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin, who signed a two-year contract with the Sabres in July.
Lyubushkin complements Dahlin’s skill set by bringing a physical style of play and the ability to shut down an odd-man rush if Dahlin gets caught deep in the offensive zone. The Sabres have options on defense. Dahlin can play the right side, as we saw in the final weeks of last season. Mattias Samuelsson already has chemistry with Dahlin and took shifts with Owen Power during the scrimmage.
Regardless of how the six line up, the Sabres will need their defensemen to be aggressive for the club to reach their potential offensively.
“You guys know, I said I’m the happiest guy in the world to have Mattias back last year because you can get that process going,” Granato said Friday of building his offense. “We had one of those young guys you mentioned, one of the drills we did, he says, ‘I’m not comfortable getting up ice like that.’ And our reply is, ‘Well, you better get comfortable getting up ice like that. We need you out of your comfort zone. We need to be on the attack more.’ And that goes with what I say, it’s uneasy to jump to offense sometimes when you know you can be held accountable for what may happen against you, and we want to shed that.
“It’s a process – it’s an individual process, it’s an individual trust the next guy’s going to cover you when you do jump to offense more and play more aggressively with an offensive mind. You have to have the trust and the faith in the guys around you to read that quick enough to cover for you. And again, it’s a process.”
3. Showing comfort
Power was aggressive and assertive while playing with different defense partners for Team Blue. Power, 19, didn’t hesitate to join the rush, including a 3-on-2 in which he received a pass from Quinn and fired a shot from the slot that was stopped by Craig Anderson. Power also outmuscled Peterka when the winger attempted to enter the offensive zone. It wasn’t a surprise to see Power deliver an exceptional performance in the scrimmage. He’s ready to assume the same prominent role he had in Buffalo over the final eight games of last season.
“I think it's really helped,” Power said of his introduction to the NHL last season. “It kind of gave me a feel for, first off, what the team is like and how we like to play, but also just kind of the competition in the NHL, to kind of go in the summer and just pick out things from my game and try and work on it.”
On Blue, Tage Thompson centered Jeff Skinner and Jiri Kulich; Quinn skated alongside Krebs and Alex Tuch; and prospect Tyson Kozak was between wingers Brett Murray and Lukas Rousek.
On Gold, Cozens centered Peterka and Aleksandr Kisakov; Biro and Sheahan rotated at center with Vinnie Hinostroza at right wing; Savoie centered Mittelstadt and Okposo.
The Sabres open their six-game preseason schedule Sunday against the Capitals at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Puck drop is 2 p.m. The first preseason home game is Tuesday against Philadelphia at 7 p.m.