BUFFALO – It was just an informal skate before training camp, so Sabres defenseman Josh Gorges couldn’t be sure if Derek Grant, the center who quickly caught his eye that day in September, was as talented as he looked.
“Summer skates, how do you tell?” Gorges said Sunday following practice inside KeyBank Center.
So Gorges, a 12-year veteran, kept watching the 6-foot-3, 202-pound Grant when camp opened last month.
What has Gorges noticed about the free agent?
“From Day One until now, I think he’s been our best player in training camp,” he said.
Yes, Grant, an unknown with three assists in 40 NHL games, was consistently the Sabres’ best player throughout camp. He impressed in the opening scrimmages through the exhibition slate, compiling three goals and six points in five preseason appearances.
It’s hard to imagine Grant, 26, not at least being on roster when the Sabres open the season Thursday at home against the Montreal Canadiens. Rosters must be finalized by 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Coach Dan Bylsma, who has been lauding Grant for weeks, stopped short of saying the Michigan State product had made the Sabres when asked Sunday.
But in the same breath, Bylsma said, “It would be tough to imagine a way he could’ve done more to earn making our team.”
Before camp, many had Grant ticketed for the Rochester Americans. Grant, after all, is an AHL star, having compiled a stunning 27 goals and 45 points last season in only 36 games for the Stockton Heat, the Calgary Flames’ affiliate.
That’s a 57-goal, 95-point pace over a full AHL season.
Grant has turned heads with the Sabres by scoring and excelling in other aspects. He scored the game winner in Friday’s 4-2 win against the Ottawa Senators and had the late tying goal and three points in a 3-2 win over Ottawa on Sept. 27. In another appearance, he won 15 of 19 faceoffs.
That versatility has impressed Gorges.
“His ability to play offensive, defensive, power play, penalty kill, take draws,” Gorges said. “He’s a big man that skates well, sees the ice. Getting to talk to him for the last couple weeks, great guy, too.”
Bylsma knew little about Grant before the Sabres signed him on July 2 to a one-year, two-way contract worth $650,000 in the NHL and $400,000 in the minors. He figured Grant could be a strong defensive forward and penalty killer.
“(I) really didn’t anticipate seeing him provide daily offense for the team,” Bylsma said. “He has been able to come in and do that, do those others roles, do the defensive aspect of it, play a good, solid game in the center of the ice in a third-, fourth-line checking role.”
Grant said he has never made an NHL team out of camp, although he has earned some quick recalls. He played 15 games for Calgary last season, compiling one assist.
Perhaps he just needed the right opportunity. Bylsma awarded Grant, who has been skating regularly with NHL talent, a chance to succeed.
“I’ve definitely been in situations before where you come in and you don’t really get an opportunity,” Grant said. “I think from the start here I was given an opportunity to show what I can do, allow myself to play my game. It’s that comfort and confidence that’s allowed me to step in and contribute right away.”
Grant played under Sabres general manager Tim Murray in the Ottawa organization, earning 10 NHL games in five seasons. Grant mostly skated for AHL Binghamton, where he became close with Sabres goalie Robin Lehner, who’s currently housing his friend.
Lehner isn’t surprised Grant, someone he called “a hell of a player,” has excelled.
“I think he’s been a little bit unfortunate being on teams that haven’t really given him a shot,” Lehner said. “In the Ottawa organization, they kind of have their guys and they stick to them, even if there’s other guys who are better.”
Update: The Sabres have placed defenseman Justin Falk on waivers, according to reports.