BUFFALO – When captain Kyle Okposo was contemplating returning for another season, he thought about what it would be like trying to lead the Sabres without Zemgus Girgensons, a popular heart-and-soul veteran.
“I didn’t even want to consider that,” Okposo said following Monday’s practice in KeyBank Center. “That’s how important he is.”
Girgensons’ influence has been a huge factor in the Sabres’ recent transformation into a legitimate playoff contender. The winger’s actions and professionalism set strong examples others follow.
Okposo called the Sabres’ longest-tenured player a behind-the-scenes leader.
“He does it better than anybody,” said Okposo, who will likely play on a line with Girgensons during tonight’s preseason road game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. “He’s such a selfless teammate, selfless person, and we’re all lucky to have him. When he speaks, his voice carries a lot of weight. Just a phenomenal guy.”
The thought of Girgensons, 29, departing in free agency scared Okposo. At the same time, Girgensons was worried about Okposo’s future.
While it seemed like he would re-sign after his seven-year contract expired, Okposo, 35, wanted to take to time to think about his future.
Girgensons couldn’t imagine the Sabres without their captain. Then on June 15, when Girgensons inked the same contract, Okposo said he “breathed a huge sigh of relief.”
“It was definitely one of the big things for me, too, returning, seeing Okie back here,” Girgensons said. “He’s a leader of this team and I really couldn’t see the team moving forward without him.”
Of course, Girgensons, who’s beginning his third year as an alternate captain, seemed set on returning for his 11th season no matter what transpired.
“I always wanted to be here,” he said. “I’ve been here so long that I got to see things through.”
How long has Girgensons, the 14th overall pick in 2012, been in Buffalo? He played his first NHL game 10 years ago Tuesday, scoring the Sabres’ only goal in a 2-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings at the since-closed Joe Louis Arena.
“I remember vividly, it was my first game in Joe Louis,” he said of his debut. “I mean, the building’s not around, but I’m never going to forget that building. It was a cool experience.”
Ron Rolston was Buffalo’s coach that night. Darcy Regier was beginning his 17th year as general manager.
During first shift, Girgensons said he and his linemates, Brian Flynn and Mikhail Grigorenko, got pinned in their own zone by Detroit stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
“It was like over a minute long, I think,” he said. “I definitely remember that the most.”
That game kicked off the first of the Sabres’ two tank seasons and a stunning stretch of futility. They’ve finished dead last four times and haven’t made the postseason.
Girgensons has remained the one constant through all the turmoil and upheaval. Don Granato is the Sabres’ sixth coach during his tenure. Kevyn Adams is their fourth GM.
“What a testament to his character when you have different coaches and different management teams over the span of 10 years and all of those agreed on one thing, that he should be here,” Granato said. “And that’s a credit to him.”
Granato said Girgensons “makes you want to see him successful.”
“Him as a person and his work ethic, the combination of those two really stand out,” he said. “He cares for other people. He works for other people. He works hard for his teammates.”
Girgensons’ high motor might be his greatest asset. He’s probably the Sabres’ most relentless presence. While he was a first-round pick and scored 15 goals in 61 games in 2014-15, he has carved out a long career by embracing a defensive role.
He has spent most of the past year playing left wing with Okposo and center Peyton Krebs on the Sabres’ top checking line.
“We’re all hard on the forecheck, we’re all strong on the puck,” Okposo said. “I think that’s very annoying to play against when you have a line going over the boards at the other end that you know you’re going to get a heavy game from.”
The trio combined to scored 30 goals last season, with Girgensons registering 10 for the second straight year.
“We had our chances,” Girgensons said. “I think we keep playing the same way, (be) that shutdown line and just maybe get a little more lucky with the offense, we’ll have a great year.”
Granato said Sabres goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen will be making his second preseason start tonight.
Meanwhile, defensemen Connor Clifton and Erik Johnson, the Sabres’ biggest free agent signings, are scheduled to make their debuts. Rookie winger Zach Benson and defenseman Rasmus Dahlin are also listed on the game roster.
Update: Granato said Johnson is dealing with some lower-body aggravation and will miss tonight’s game. Henri Jokiharju will replace him.