Jim Montgomery has been around the game of hockey long enough to know a special player when he sees one. But as head coach of the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints, he really didn’t know what to expect from a 16-year-old rookie named Zemgus Girgensons when they first met prior to the 2010-11 season in Iowa.
“As a person, I thought he was a shy, introverted kid,” explains Montgomery. “But then as a hockey player, it was like ‘wow, we’ve got something special.’ It was his power and strength, and his ability to do that at top-end speed and still make plays. He had a competitiveness to him that would make you think he’s from Moose Jaw (Saskatchewan) or Flin Flon (Manitoba), not from Riga, Latvia.”
Girgensons became the highest drafted Latvian player ever when he was selected by the Sabres with the 14th overall choice in the first round of last week’s NHL Draft – two picks after Buffalo’s other first rounder, Mikhail Grigorenko of Russia. But while Grigorenko thrived from taking extensive English lessons as a rookie last season with the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts, Girgensons had some initial struggles with the language.
However, Montgomery said those problems didn’t last for very long.
“It was his command of the English language in terms of speaking it. He could understand it quite well. I think he just wasn’t comfortable speaking out loud around his teammates yet,” said Montgomery. “But by the end of our first year, he was the leading prankster on the team. He’d grab the team camera on the road when we were filming how we travel, and start interviewing people. I think that’s what convinced his teammates to vote him captain for the next year.”
Not only did Girgensons captain the Fighting Saints last season, he was their leading scorer with 55 points (24+31) in 49 games, along with 69 penalty minutes and a plus-17 rating. Montgomery, who spent parts of six seasons in the NHL from 1993-2005 with St. Louis, Montreal, Philadelphia, San Jose and Dallas, said that Girgensons is a true leader in every sense of the word.
“Zemgus fits in great in the locker room with his teammates. He’s extremely well respected for his work ethic because it’s incomparable. He’ll go extremely hard in practice, but then when he’s in line to do drill, he’ll be goofing around with someone with a huge smile on his face. He brings a kind of energy that teammates feed off of.
“He’s the most mature, confident young man that I’ve ever been around, even since he was 16. I don’t know if it’s because his parents did a good job of raising him, but he’s very independent, very well thought out, and when he speaks, he speaks confidently.”
Montgomery says that Girgensons may not blow you away on first impression, but as time goes on, you quickly develop an appreciation for what he brings to the game.
“He’s the kind of player you win hockey games with, in every facet of the game. He plays all three zones, all 200 feet of ice. And he’s responsible in all areas of the game. So much so, that people talk about his competitiveness and physicality, and they think his skill level is somewhat behind. But I think it’s because people just notice that other stuff so much, they just don’t realize how good his skill level really is.”
When asked who he’d compare Girgensons to, Montgomery looked no further than his former Philadelphia teammate, Rod Brind’Amour.
“It’s mostly his work ethic and unbelievable competitiveness. Zemgus is a bit more of a powerful skater, and attacks the net more than Rod. I think Rod was a better playmaker. It’s just the intangibles they both bring as far as work ethic every day and professionalism.”
Girgensons is already committed to the University of Vermont, but said on draft night that he wasn’t sure what his future plans are now that he had been selected by the Sabres. Montgomery knows this is a decision that Girgensons won’t take lightly, and is confident he’ll make the right one.
“I think Zemgus is extremely loyal. Now that he’s a Sabre, he’s going to be extremely loyal to Buffalo. And he’s going to be loyal to Vermont. If Buffalo thinks that he’s going to have the opportunity to make their team next year, I think he’ll do that. If not, he’ll go to Vermont and become a much better hockey player.”
Despite the options that lay ahead of Girgensons, Montgomery strongly believes that he’s ready for the NHL right now.
“If Zemgus has the belief that he can accomplish something, and there’s a challenge in front of him, then he’s going to attack it.”