BUFFALO – This could just be a brief, low-risk experiment. The Sabres have nine regular-season games to evaluate top prospect Sam Reinhart before the slick center’s entry-level contract kicks in.
Might as well use the trial, right?
Right now, Reinhart, the No. 2 pick in June, has a roster spot. The 18-year-old will make his NHL debut in Thursday’s season opener, Sabres coach Ted Nolan said.
The Sabres also have 19-year-old defenseman Nikita Zadorov on the roster. They must make some moves to reach the 23-man limit by 5 p.m. today.
Twenty-three healthy players – 13 forwards, eight defensemen and two goalies – practiced Monday.
Could the rebuilding club use a nine-game trial on two teenagers?
“We can’t predict that far ahead,” Nolan said following practice inside the First Niagara Center. “They’re definitely here for the next nine minutes.”
Fresh off an impressive training camp, Grigorenko’s “real, real close” to making the NHL, Nolan said.
“He’s knocking on the door,” he said. “Right now, he needs just a little bit more seasoning.”
That seasoning will come in the AHL, where the Russian played 14 games late last season.
Grigorenko matured rapidly over the summer, making Nolan and general manager Tim Murray’s decision difficult.
“With Grigorenko and his past history, what he’s done here, we’re starting fresh with him,” Nolan said. “He’s had a great summer. He almost convinced us to keep him.”
Clearly, Grigorenko, the No. 12 pick in 2012, has dramatically changed his standing in the organization.
“He’s way above, as far as I’m concerned, where he was last year,” Nolan said.
A year ago, the Sabres’ old regime gave Grigorenko a roster spot yet played him sparingly. That free ride ended shortly after Nolan took over.
Grigorenko briefly refused his demotion to junior halfway through last season. He handled this assignment much better.
“He handled it like a pro, a lot different than last year when we talked to him,” Nolan said. “He understood the situation. When he’s ready to go 100 percent, when he’s here, he should be here.”
He added: “When he plays here for good, permanently, you don’t want to be a third-line pop-in guy.”
Meanwhile, Reinhart’s presence means the Sabres will have an 18-year-old in their opening-night lineup for the third straight year. Grigorenko played in 2012-13 and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen debuted last season.
Reinhart will likely be the Sabres’ third center against the Blue Jackets. He skated between Cody Hodgson and Brian Gionta on Monday.
Before Nolan said Reinhart would play, the youngster acknowledged he was thinking about Thursday.
“As the group gets down to these numbers, it definitely gets exciting,” Reinhart said.
He added: “I’m always going to be trying to prove myself. No matter what the situation is, no matter what game it is in the season.”
Reinhart said in June he believed he could crack the opening-night roster. His Sabres teammates have helped him acclimate. Players started calling him when he was home in British Columbia, something “that says a lot about what they’re thinking about the upcoming season.”
“I came in with the mentality that I’m going to soak everything in,” he said. “I feel I’ve learned more than I can ever imagine from all the veteran guys here, and I’m going to keep trying to learn from them every day.”
The 6-foot-5, 238-pound Zadorov learned from his seven-game NHL stint last season. The Sabres returned him to the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights shortly after Nolan took over.
“To have it, to learn it, I think it was a great experience for me last year,” said Zadorov, the No. 16 pick in 2013.
The Russian could be sent back to junior when injured defenseman Mark Pysyk (upper body) returns.
“Nikita, he’s physically big enough,” Nolan said. “Obviously, like any other young player, he’s got to work on parts of his game, but we’re going to sit down and really evaluate that decision.”
Whatever happens, Zadorov won’t lose any confidence.
“That’s me, and I don’t think I’m going to change,” he said.
Nolan on Dalpe, a speedster who can play center or wing: “There’s another tough one. … The one thing with Zac, he can fit in almost any line.”
Dalpe played 55 games with Vancouver last season.
Nolan said defenseman Jake McCabe had a maintenance day Monday. Meanwhile, forward Johan Larsson (likely concussion) practiced in a red non-contact jersey.