I really wanted Zemgus Girgensons to sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his interviews. Ever since I saw his pictures after the 2012 draft, when he was taken 14th overall, I pictured him screaming in German in the weight room while he put up some crazy conglomeration of steel, his teammates looking on in mingled fear and admiration. I know, he’s Latvian, so the whole German thing probably wouldn’t work, but even his nickname sounds like someone who could go toe to toe with the Predator: The Latvian Locomotive. I pictured broad shoulders, killer biceps and a fleeting grasp of English that would make for some fantastic interviews. Sadly, Girgensons sounds like a average American dude with little to no accent. If you just listened to his voice, you’d think the kid was from Wisconsin. Luckily for fans of the Buffalo Sabres, everything else about his game is anything but average.
Zemgus Girgensons wasn’t even supposed to be in Rochester last year. Having been drafted at 18 years old, the Locomotive was supposed to be playing at the University of Vermont in 2012-13. However, he impressed his coaches so much at the 2012 Buffalo Sabres Development Camp that they signed him on the spot and convinced him to skip school and stay in Rochester all year, where he would start the season as the youngest player in the AHL. You could say he was a boy among men, but he never played like it. While his offensive game was (and will continue to be) a slow moving project, Girgensons proved he belonged at the pro level by playing a tenacious, hard hitting game with a great attitude to match. This physical type of player with offensive upside has been scarce in the Sabres’ organization for nearly a decade. Now, the team hopes that they have that answer in the middle.
It’s not just his big hits and physical nature that make Girgensons an appealing prospect for Buffalo. It’s his attitude. There’s this piece on the way he’s constantly talking on the ice and trying to set the tone for his teammates. There’s this piece, from which comes my favorite Girgensons quote to date: “I don’t care, we lost.” This quote came on the heels of the Rochester Amerks having been swept by the Toronto Marlies in the first round of the AHL playoffs. Girgensons put up three goals in that three game sweep and was being asked about the laudatory comments he’d received from teammate Cody McCormick. Did he care about those three goals though? No. They lost. Nothing else mattered. It’s a breath of fresh air from a guy coming into an organization full of excuses as to why they haven’t won a playoff series since 2007. Speaking of playoffs, that performance is typical for what the Locomotive has done in the playoffs in his young hockey career. While his sample size is limited, it’s worth noting that Zemgus Girgensons has averaged nearly a point per game in the playoffs at every level he’s played. Being a clutch performer in the USHL and even the AHL is much different than being one in the NHL, but it’s a strong sign for Girgensons that he’s been able to come up big in the games that have mattered most.
There simply hasn’t been enough of that attitude in Buffalo of late. There’s been too much justification for efforts that come up short. There have been too many long, meandering answers when all anyone had to say was, “We lost. We weren’t good enough.” Zemgus Girgensons brings that simplicity to Buffalo. He doesn’t seem interested in excuses. He’s going to give his all every game and if he comes up short, he’s going to take personal responsibility, even if this is a team game.
At 19 years old this fall, it’s tough to say that Zemgus Girgensons absolutely must start the season in Buffalo, but it seems inevitable. This is a team that not only needs tough, responsible hockey players at center, but it’s a team that needs a take-no-prisoners mentality. When I read stories and quotes from Girgensons, I think of a guy whose greatest contribution to the 2013 Buffalo Sabres wouldn’t be his hard hits or his growing offensive game. It wouldn’t be his iron man workout routine that produces a twitter account almost entirely dedicated to getting buff. It’s going to be his attitude. It’s going to be the way he absolutely refuses to accept failure or an effort anywhere below 100%. Having watched nearly every Sabres game last year, it’s easy to say there were many nights when this team gave far less than 100% out there.
Youthful exuberance keeps a pro team honest. You need veteran leadership and you need guys who can keep their cool no matter what, but you also need guys who are willing and capable of throwing their bodies around, shouting at their teammates and keeping the focus on winning first and foremost. You need guys who forget about the long-term of anything and play for the moment. Watch any clip of his play, and that’s what you see in Zemgus Girgensons. You can expect hiccups along the way. You can expect the rigorous AHL/NHL schedules to catch up with this kid at some point. That’s okay. It happens to everyone. It will be worth the attitude change that comes with his arrival. If Zemgus is a little young, then he’ll fit right in with the youngest team in the NHL. He may start the season in Rochester, but it will be tough to keep Girgensons out of Buffalo for an entire season. For a team and a franchise with such low morale right now, the Latvian Locomotive promises to be something different and something sorely needed in a time when the Buffalo Sabres must look for players around which to build. Let’s hope we catch a positive glimpse of one big (literally and figuratively) piece to the puzzle this year.
Cory Buck is a staff writer for Sabre Noise. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @TheBuckMopsHere.