Season Stats: 72 GP | 5 G | 13 A | 18 PTS
Contract Status: Restricted Free Agent
Entering a contract year, many believed that the 2018-19 season would be Zemgus Girgensons’ final year in Buffalo. That might still be the case, but the Sabres’ decision regarding the soon-to-be RFA was made a bit more interesting given his performance as primarily a fourth line player this season.
While he certainly hasn’t developed into the scoring presence that fans were expecting after being selected with the 14th overall pick in 2012, the “Latvian Locomotive” has adapted nicely to a more defensive role and could still provide value on a short-term deal. Bursting onto the scene as a 20-year-old rookie in 2013-14, the Riga native appeared to be one of the critical future core pieces in Western New York. In 2014-15, his 30 points in 61 games earned him a spot in the NHL All-Star Game (thanks in large part to the voting efforts from his fans in Latvia).
In the four years since, Girgensons’ annual point-production has consistently landed in the high-teens. At this point in his NHL career, he needs to continue to solidify his role as a consistent, defensively competent forward. It’s fair to assume that Girgensons recognized this fact given how well he adapted to his role beside Johan Larsson on the fourth line.
On the surface, his Corsi-for of 49.23 doesn’t jump off the page as particularly impressive, but when you consider his offensive zone-start rate of 16.32-percent (down significantly from his 2017-18 rate of 52.51), the fact that he was actually able to improve upon his Corsi numbers from last season is quite impressive.
A lot of people hate the term “puck luck” and how it’s used to help justify goals versus expectation, but given his work rate, the data tells us that Girgensons’ performance should have earned him more than five tallies on the season. Despite registering only 78 shots on net (down from 113 last season, which is understandable given his vastly reduced OZS rate), his high-danger ratio was actually relatively good.
It’s unfortunate that his conversion percentage was so low at 4.46-percent despite his improved positioning.
Despite Phil Housley’s lineup optimization deficiencies, he did a nice job of putting Girgensons in a position that better suited his strengths after trying to force him as an offensive catalyst last year.
His role as a penalty-killer cannot be ignored either. Averaging 2:24 shorthanded minutes per game, no other Sabres forward spent more time contributing to the league’s 12th ranked PK unit.
If the Sabres decide to extend him, a short-term deal for under $2 million (he’s currently making $1.6 million), could make sense. Part of that decision will likely depend on which (and how many) current Rochester Amerks Jason Botterill feels are in line for a promotion in 2019-20.
Either way, Girgensons displayed improvement this season and his skill set could prove valuable given what will likely be a very modest pay increase.
Season Grade: B-
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