Niagara Gazette

July 12, 2013

MEILER: Girgensons moves to the front of the pack

By Mike Meiler
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — BUFFALO — There's a weird dynamic between the crowd and the players during the Buffalo Sabres' Blue and Gold prospect scrimmage.

There's very little cheering (except, of course, for hometown boy Justin Bailey), and there's even less booing (unless you're the guy who shows up in an Atlanta Thrashers sweater).

Nobody cares who wins or loses, or how it happens. Every member of the crowd is watching, optimistic with what these players could be, watching intently for a glimpse of something that will make them hopeful a player might be a big piece of the Sabres' future.

That, of course, makes everyone a scout. And if I were watching Friday's scrimmage through a scout's eyes, it was pretty easy to tell who the best player on the ice was.

Zemgus Girgensons, the other "G" from the first round of the 2012 draft. Not Mikhail Grigorenko, the supremely talented Russian center who's just as cruel to spell checks. Nor was it fellow keyboard killers Rasmus Ristolainen or Nikita Zadorov, the defensive duo taken in this year's first round, nor AHL vets Braden McNabb or Mark Pysyk.

Girgensons, dubbed the "Latvian Locomotive" during his USHL days for his big build and penchant for using it, shined brighter than all Friday. He looked bigger, stronger and faster, the Iceland to the rest of the prospects' Mighty Ducks of Team USA.

His hard-nosed play directly led to three of Team Blue's goals in a 6-3 win. He forechecked hard and went to the net harder, two skills that translate to any style of hockey, particularly when you're 6-foot-2 and 194 pounds.

More importantly, he seemed to never stop talking. Not on the ice, nor on the bench. Even during a video of the prospects go-karting played during an intermission, he seemed to be in the middle of everything.

"It's important to get the group together," he said after the game. "This locker room was a lot of fun, you could see in the game, we even stuck up for each other after hits. It's important to make it (that we're) like brothers."

And he's only 19!

Hockey is unlike other sports in that effort matters more than anything else. Where game planning and matchups rule football and baseball, and skill level dominates basketball, effort and compete level define hockey.

Girgensons has the look of a player who'd skate through a wall if it meant helping a teammate or winning a game, and those are the type of players that compete for the Stanley Cup.

If the Sabres want to become a Cup-winning organization, the smart money would have Girgensons being the one to lead them there.

Respond to Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler or by email at mike.meiler@niagara-gazette.com.