BUFFALO – The Sabres have a slew of shiny new prospects in their arsenal competing for jobs this training camp. No. 2 pick Sam Reinhart’s gunning to make the team out of junior. Rasmus Ristolainen appears to have the inside track for a defense spot.
Meanwhile, Mikhail Grigorenko, the team’s top prospect less than two years ago, has been battling out of the spotlight.
“I can just focus on my game a little bit more,” the Russian said Monday inside the First Niagara Center after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s preseason game against the Carolina Hurricanes.
A stronger, more mature Grigorenko has quickly become one of the camp’s early surprises, impressing coach Ted Nolan, who said the center has “looked tremendous.”
“The first practice I saw him (was) by far the best I’ve ever seen him skate and pay attention in practice,” Nolan said.
After shuttling between the NHL and junior for two seasons, many expected the Sabres would assign Grigorenko to the AHL, a league he wasn’t old enough to play in until late last season, to begin 2014-15. In Rochester, the 20-year-old would quietly development against men.
Not so fast.
The Sabres haven’t ticketed Grigorenko, the No. 12 pick in 2012, for the minors. They’ll award him a spot if he earns one.
“Why not?” said Grigorenko, who will play tonight. “They always say that the best guys get a job. Hopefully, I’ll be the best guy for a job. I’m trying to do that. I just want to do my best and do everything I can every day.”
Clearly, Grigorenko, who started his first two seasons in the NHL, has matured in recent months. Remember, in January he briefly refused an assignment back to his junior club, the Quebec Remparts, before accepting it a day later. The Sabres then sent him to Rochester to close the season.
“We had a good talk (before) departing last year,” Nolan said. “We talked about having a good offseason workout, coming to camp in shape and trying to compete for a job.”
Following an unimpressive run as a rookie in 2012-13, the Sabres’ old regime guaranteed Grigorenko a job last season.
Grigorenko owned up for his past struggles in July, saying, “It was no one’s fault but mine.” He responded to Nolan’s workout challenge, adding muscle. He’s listed at a sleek 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds.
“I think it’s a really big difference from last year and this year,” Grigorenko said. “I worked really hard this summer. My conditioning got real better. I got really stronger. I feel a lot stronger on the ice, better in battles and stuff.”
The new Grigorenko was on display in the preseason opener. In 12 minutes, six seconds on the ice, he possessed a willingness to battle he hadn’t showcased much during his 43-game NHL career, registering three hits.
“I thought I was really involved in the game,” Grigorenko said. “My line, we made things happen. We were really good on (the) forecheck. I thought we had pretty good chances and we had a good game. I felt really good out there, too. I think just from the start of the camp I’m feeling pretty well.”
Grigorenko also won seven of the eight faceoffs he took. He won 51.5 percent of his faceoffs last season.
He’s trying to zero in on each task he has this camp.
“Every time I skate, I try to skate my hardest,” Grigorenko said. “Every time I pass, I try to make a perfect pass, and every time I shoot, I try to score. Same thing in the game. I take faceoffs, I focus on this faceoff. I need to win this faceoff, and after I think about other stuff.”
Nolan added: “I think we’re all creatures of habit, and he’s just got to create himself some good habits. He’s got good some good skill sets a lot of people would die for. So we just got to get it out of him somehow.”
Before Sunday’s game, new assistant coach Bryan Trottier, a Hall of Famer, gave Grigorenko a message.
“He told me to work hard and have fun, don’t be afraid to make plays, try to take care of your own end and everything will take care of itself,” Grigorenko said.
Those words relaxed him. He wasn’t fretting about making a mistake.
“Because of that I feel like I’m more involved in the games,” he said. “I’m not afraid to go and put pressure on Ds and stuff, go in the corners. Even sometimes if it’s not the right play, it’s still better than just sitting back and waiting for something to happen. I try to make something happen.”