It wasn’t even sunrise yet Sunday and Lindy Ruff could see his players were eager to get moving.
“Guys were at physicals early,” the Buffalo Sabres’ coach said. “They were supposed to be there at 7:15. They were there at 6:45. They were ready to get it done, get it out and get out here.”
Ruff’s brain was motoring in the predawn hours, too.
“I planned out where I was going to stand so I didn’t get hurt,” Ruff said. “I started that about 6:30.”
The coach, who broke three ribs during a practice collision last season, cracked his trademark, look-what-the-cat-dragged-in grin and walked back to his office. He left with a smile, but he has serious work ahead.
The Sabres’ whirlwind week, which started Sunday with the opening of training camp and ends next Sunday with the season opener against Philadelphia, moves on to an intense scrimmage session at 5:30 today in First Niagara Center. It might be Ruff’s only real look at how prepared his players are for the fast-approaching 48-game season.
The public is invited, too, and Ruff hopes the fans see guys who are just as hungry for hits as they were for physicals.
“We want good, clean, hard contact, but the players need that,” Ruff said. “They need to feel that pressure. They need to feel like they know they’re going to get hit. You’ve got to be ready to protect yourself, and it’s all part of being ready to play.”
The most intriguing player to watch today is the one who received the most attention Sunday.
First-round draft pick Mikhail Grigorenko skated with professionals for the first time, and he looked like a pro rather than an 18-year-old who could be back with his junior team in Quebec by the end of the month.
“I didn’t feel a big difference between me and some other guys,” said Grigorenko, who has 29 goals and 52 points in 32 games this season. “I need to just work hard and do everything I can. The coaches will decide if I’m good enough right now.”
It appears Grigorenko will get a quality opportunity to show his worth. The center skated in the middle of left wing Steve Ott and right wing Ville Leino, two veterans with point-producing seasons on their resumes.
“He’s got all the tools,” said Leino, who is eager to see if Grigorenko’s junior skills can transition immediately to the NHL level. “You have more time to get to use your skill [in juniors], you look a lot better. It’s a little harder to use your skill in the NHL.
“To see if it’s this year or the year after or the year after, who knows, but he’s got all the tools, for sure. Hopefully, it’s this year.”
Despite all the attention, Grigorenko is still receiving the rookie treatment.
He was the only player without a stall in the Sabres’ dressing room. He settled into a folding chair between the dry-erase board and the entrance to the video room.
“It’s better than to stay in Quebec,” he said.
To avoid a trip back, the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder will need to succeed in a more physical environment. He doesn’t have to grind out plays at the lower level because his skill sets him apart. Quebec coach Patrick Roy, the Hall of Fame goaltender, knows the Russian needs to be consistently intense to reach the next level and has been imploring him to battle.
“He tries to help me, to teach me how to work hard like all shift length,” Grigorenko said. “You know, sometimes in a game there’s like five seconds when I’m not in the game, so he wants me to be in the game all the time. I think I’m doing well.”
Grigorenko can have a five-game tryout for the Sabres before the team needs to decide whether to keep him or send him back to Quebec.
“The scrimmage will tell you something, then when he plays against an opposition that isn’t his own will tell you even more,” Ruff said. “You’d like to see something where you say, ‘Boy, it’s going to be really tough.’ ”