On the ice, 18-year-old Mikhail Grigorenko has spent the week on the Buffalo Sabres’ third line between veterans Steve Ott and Ville Leino. In the crowded dressing room, he’s spent it on a chair in one corner as the only player without his own stall.
But after practice Friday in First Niagara Center, veteran assistant equipment manager George Babcock was putting the nameplate “Grigorenko” over the stall of departed defenseman Adam Pardy and moving some equipment into the locker.
“Doesn’t mean anything, doesn’t mean anything,” Babcock said as some television cameras started shooting the empty locker. “Just not sitting at a chair.”
Uh-huh. A few minutes later, General Manager Darcy Regier walked into the media room unannounced and told reporters that Grigorenko will be on the roster to start the season and whether he plays in Sunday’s opener against Philadelphia will be a “coach’s decision.”
Lindy Ruff, standing on the side of the room, failed to hide his smirk. The kid is playing.
“I’m real happy that I’m on an NHL team now,” Grigorenko said a few minutes later when told of the team’s decision by The News. “I’m really excited.”
Grigorenko has looked completely comfortable in camp all week, showing good hands, strong skating ability and a solid shot. Ott and Leino have said how impressed they’ve been with him, with Leino even making some comparisons to former Detroit teammate Pavel Datsyuk. A crowd of more than 10,000 gave Grigorenko the loudest cheer during the shootout of Monday night’s open scrimmage.
“I feel really comfortable with them,” Grigorenko said of Ott and Leino. “Ville is a real skilled guy and he can give you amazing passes. Steve is a real good player, really tough. I feel he’ll protect me. He plays amazing defense. I really enjoy playing with him.”
“Mikhail has had a good week,” said Ruff, who won’t commit to playing Grigorenko Sunday.
Asked for an analysis of what he’s seen, Ruff said, “Good playmaker. He defends well for a young player. He’s defending against his teammates. You’d love the opportunity to see him in an NHL game against other players but he does have awareness. He understands the game. His strength is his playmaking. He’s shown that. You wish you had time to see him in games but you don’t.”
Grigorenko can play five games before the Sabres have to make a real decision on him. Either they keep him and kick in the first year of his entry level deal or they send him back to junior hockey, where he posted 50 points in 30 games for the Quebec Ramparts.
Martin Biron and Jay McKee both appeared for the Sabres as 18-year-olds in 1995-96, Biron for three games and McKee for one. But as far as regulars go, the last 18-year-old with a consistent spot in the Buffalo lineup was Pierre Turgeon, who had 14 goals and 28 assists in 76 games in 1987-88 after being taken No. 1 overall in the draft.
“I don’t think somebody should wait for me to score five goals or something,” Grigorenko said with a laugh. “Every time I’ll be on the ice all shift long I need to do my best. Don’t do something I can’t do. Play good defensively. As soon as I have the puck, try to create something offensively.”
The Sabres set their 23-man roster Friday by putting Nathan Gerbe (back) and Cody McCormick (finger) on injured reserve. Pardy cleared waivers and reported to Rochester. Kevin Porter and Nick Tarnasky, who were playing with the Amerks, also cleared and will continue AHL play.
The Sabres are hoping to catch some lightning in a bottle with Grigorenko, given that he’s played all season in juniors and was a star for Russia in the World Junior Championships. Many NHL veterans, of course, have not played a game since April.
“I have game shape. I wouldn’t say it’s an advantage over them but I’m sure it will help me and be easier for me,” Grigorenko said. “Those first games not all the guys will be in this game shape.”
When the Sabres took Grigorenko 12th overall last June in Pittsburgh, it was considered a steal because most draft experts had him labeled as a top-5 pick. Grigorenko said his goal would be to prove the Sabres right for taking him and other teams wrong for passing him up. He’s about to get his chance in front of the home fans.
“It’s going to be a great, great crowd here,” Grigorenko said. “Hopefully I will score and it would be awesome to hear my name.”