RALEIGH, N.C. – Nathan Gerbe watched the Buffalo Sabres’ first two games with an intrigued eye. The feisty winger has always been ready to scrap, and he noticed his teammates were eager to display their physicality.
He can’t wait to join them.
Gerbe will likely make his season debut tonight when the Sabres visit the Carolina Hurricanes. He felt fine Wednesday after his first full practice on a regular line and was just awaiting final clearance from doctors.
It shouldn’t take long for him to show he’s back. Gerbe had offseason back surgery and wants to test it right away, which fits in with his team’s new style of physical play.
“I hope I’m playing,” Gerbe said in First Niagara Center before flying south. “I want to get out there. I’m not going to be afraid. I want to hit someone, get some hits right away, and that’s probably going to make me calm down and leave any doubt in my mind behind about the injury.”
Gerbe is excited he’s only missed a couple of games this season. He had surgery to remove material on his spinal cord in July. Because of the lockout, his recovery timetable almost perfectly coincided with the start of the NHL’s schedule.
“It’s been a very long, long, long recovery for me,” Gerbe said. “Hopefully, all the hard work I put in the last six months is going to help.
“I’ve got to get back to my game, be physical and hopefully offensively help this team.”
Based on Wednesday’s skate, he’ll have a chance to show his offensive skill. He skated alongside rookie center Mikhail Grigorenko and fellow wing Steve Ott.
“I watched Nathan play a little bit last year, catching games here and there,” Ott said. “Small player, probably pound for pound one of the hardest-working guys in the NHL. You add that on a line, that’s pretty fun to play with that skill level and that hard work.”
The Sabres are at the 23-man roster limit, so if they activate Gerbe they’ll need to make room. It’s possible Ville Leino could head to injured reserve. A leg injury kept him out of the first two games and off the ice Wednesday.
“It just seemed like he wasn’t gaining any traction by trying to skate and see where’s he at,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “The thought now is maybe give him a couple days off the ice and see if we can improve his situation that way.”
Ruff and the Sabres’ management will also continue to keep an eye on Grigorenko’s situation. If he plays both games of the back-to-back set with Carolina (the Sabres host the Hurricanes on Friday), Grigorenko will have used up four games of his five-game tryout.
“I’ve adjusted to the speed,” Grigorenko said. “Now I’ve just need to bring my skill to this lineup.”
The Sabres say they’re still deciding whether to keep the 18-year-old or return him to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Quebec coach Patrick Roy told the Canadian Press he doesn’t expect the center to return. Roy said he’s been impressed with Grigorenko’s defensive showing in the NHL so far.
“We’ll really evaluate everything,” Ruff said. “What’s the best for him? What’s the best to push him to the next level? Can he help us win? Can he help us win in the role he’s at? All those things will go into consideration.
“We want to do what’s the best for us to win hockey games.”
Said Ott: “Points are one thing, but the Buffalo Sabres are 2-0. If they want to look at him individually that’s one thing, but the consistency through the lineup I think is the most important thing.”
Grigorenko insists he’s not fazed by the rapidly dwindling tryout period and the impending decision.
“I don’t really think about this,” he said. “I just come every day to the arena and try to think about the present, just get ready for practice, get ready for next game. I don’t think about what’s going to happen in one week, what’s going to happen next weekend or something. For now, I’m just getting ready for [today’s] game.”
So is Gerbe.
“Gerbs adds a lot of tenacity and fire, and it’s something that every team needs,” Sabres center Tyler Ennis said. “I know he’s itching to get in.”