BUFFALO – If the Sabres had to decide Mikhail Grigorenko’s NHL fate back in September, then the team would’ve returned the 18-year-old rookie to junior, general manager Darcy Regier said.
But the lockout gave Grigorenko a unique opportunity to keep developing before the 48-game NHL season started.
The center dominated the QMJHL. His strong play with Team Russia during the recent world junior championship elevated his confidence to another level, Regier said.
The top prospect arrived at training camp two weeks ago NHL ready.
“We have an additional three or four months of development that we otherwise wouldn’t have had with a longer season,” Regier said Tuesday in announcing Grigorenko would be staying with the Sabres this season. “This isn’t a full-season decision; it’s a half a season, albeit a half a season with more pressure.”
When the Sabres’ skate ended Tuesday morning, coach Lindy Ruff called his team together at the bench and told his players Grigorenko would be sticking around.
Teammates then tapped their sticks in appreciation. A few even gave Grigorenko a face wash.
“It felt really good,” an excited Grigorenko said minutes later inside the First Niagara Center prior to scoring his first NHL goal in the Sabres’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. “I was happy to know that guys are happy to have me here.”
Grigorenko called it a “really good step in my career.”
“I will do everything to show people they made the right decision,” he said.
What went into the Sabres’ decision?
“The ability to continue his development in conjunction with his ability to help us win hockey games,” Regier said.
The Sabres hardly took this lightly, though.
The first season of Grigorenko’s three-year, entry level contract has officially been used. There’s no going back. It’s easy to forget, but the 12th overall pick in June’s NHL Entry Draft was still looking for his first NHL point.
The Sabres discussed a lot. But they saw a youngster who’s grown in his first five NHL games. They believe he looks like he belongs. He already makes some smart and slick plays.
“He’s earned this opportunity,” Ruff said.
With the Sabres thin down the middle and scoring at a premium, Grigorenko’s an asset. Keeping him made the most sense.
When Grigorenko skated a career-high 17:10 in Sunday’s 3-2 loss in Washington, his fifth and final “trial” appearance, it appeared he would stay.
“I think it did a lot of for his situation,” Regier said about Sunday’s performance. “One of the things with young players and their ice time is their ability – I’ll give you the negative twist – is not to be a liability because that in turn gets them the next shift. And to the extent they’re not scored on, they’re not giving up chances, they gain the confidence of the head coach. …
“The points aren’t there, (but) we think that will come.”
Grigorenko’s the Sabres’ first regular 18-year-old since Pierre Turgeon in 1987-88.
“It’s not a straight line with young players,” Regier said. “It’s not something we would’ve traditionally done. It speaks to where we think he is and his game is.”
Still, Regier and Ruff warned Grigorenko during their meeting Tuesday that he hadn’t arrived yet.
“That’s the challenge. You don’t arrive. You never arrive,” Regier said. “You can’t have an attitude or mindset of arriving because I’ve seen that happen too many times with young players.”
Grigorenko looked relieved talking to a throng of reporters Tuesday morning.
“It’s really good to know that I’m staying with the team,” he said. “Probably I can focus on the hockey now and not think about all those things.”
Ruff added: “I think by the smile on his face it was quite a big relief.”
Sabres captain Jason Pominville said “everyone was excited” about Grigorenko staying.
“Guys were pretty happy for him,” Pominville said. “He’s made some big strides. He’s improved in every game he’s played in. I think last game was probably his best. He did a lot of good things and he looked good. He deserves to be here.”
Sabres winger Thomas Vanek (muscle strain) returned after a one-game absence. The Austrian was back skating on the left wing beside Pominville and Cody Hodgson, the Sabres’ top line. He assisted on Pominville’s first-period goal, his 10th point.
Meanwhile, defensemen Robyn Regehr (lower body) and Alexander Sulzer (possibly healthy) sat.
Ruff said Regehr’s injury was “short-term.” He was spotted walking out of the FNC in a walking boot.
Winger Nathan Gerbe, just back from spine surgery, also sat.
Rookie T.J. Brennan and Mike Weber made their season debuts on the blue line.
Brennan was one of the AHL’s top defensemen this season, scoring 14 goals and 36 points in 35 games with Rochester.
The rugged Weber waited patiently for his opportunity this season.
“With the way the schedule is, Mike will give us even a little bit more physical touch,” Ruff said. “So I wanted to get him in.”
Weber fought Mike Brown in the first period.
Regier also said he believes winger Ville Leino (hip) will play this season.
Legendary Sabres play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret called him first home game this season. Illness kept him home last week.