A crazy Tuesday for Buffalo Sabres rookie Mikhail Grigorenko went like this: It started with a great morning but morphed into what looked like a largely forgettable night until it was turned around by the moment everyone in town was waiting for.
The Sabres released the pressure but increased the expectations on the 18-year-old with one simple conversation Tuesday morning, when General Manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff told him he was staying in the NHL and not returning to junior hockey.
Grigorenko responded by getting benched in the second period after he was on the ice for all three of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ goals to that point. He reset himself in the second intermission and scored his first NHL goal at 7:10 of the third period to draw the Sabres even in their eventual 4-3 overtime loss to the Leafs.
“After the second period, I didn’t have any emotion. I was really down,” Grigorenko said. “I was having a game where things didn’t work well for me. In the third period, they put me on the ice and I started to play really good. I scored a goal and it took me away from all the pressure.”
Grigorenko took Mike Weber’s rebound and slid a backhander low along the ice between the legs of Toronto goaltender James Reimer to pull Buffalo into a 3-3 tie. He was in the midst of a windmill celebration until winger Marcus Foligno tackled him and they slid together into the boards as the crowd at First Niagara Center unleashed by far its loudest cheer since the NHL returned.
“I was in front of the net, the defenseman shot the puck and I was just ready for the rebound,” Grigorenko said. “I put it on the net and finally it went between the legs. I was really excited. It would have been a great night for me. I was real happy I scored a goal but we lost the game so I feel bad.”
Grigorenko lost Matt Frattin on Toronto’s second goal and was beaten by Tyler Bozak on a faceoff that directly led to Cody Franson’s shot from the point that produced the Leafs’ third tally. Ruff sat him for the last 13 minutes of the second period but said he didn’t think of calling it a night for the rookie.
“I didn’t want to leave him where he was at,” Ruff said. “I wanted him to go out and try to make a difference. I’ve talked to him at length about this process and developing and growth. There’s going to be pain, I’m going to feel pain and he’s going to feel some. But as an organization we feel he can grow and help us win. He helped us get a point tonight. He can be better but that’s a pretty good night to come back for him and help us get the point.”
Overall, Grigorenko finished at 10:05 of ice time. The goal was his only shot and he had a minus-2 rating while going 1-6 on faceoffs. Earlier in the day, Regier said the combination of development and helping the team win tipped the scales in Grigorenko’s favor. The GM then recounted the message he had for the franchise’s most bally-hooed prospect in many years.
“I asked him if he knew what the expression, ‘You never arrive’ means,” Regier said. “And after more conversation he did. And that’s the challenge. You don’t arrive. You never arrive. You can’t have an attitude or a mindset of arriving because I’ve seen that happen too many times with young players and it becomes problematic.”
Quite simply, the Sabres need centers and they need skilled ones. So what purpose would sending their No. 1 draft pick back to the Quebec Ramparts serve?
“It’s really amazing news and I’m really happy and really excited,” said Grigorenko, who will earn a pro-rated $925,000 under his entry-level contract. “It’s a good step in my career and I’ll do everything to show people they made the right choice.”
Grigorenko becomes the first 18-year-old to earn a spot as a regular with the Sabres since former No. 1 overall pick Pierre Turgeon in 1987 (Martin Biron and Jay McKee combined to play four games when they were 18 during the 1990s).
Sabres players got the news on the ice from Ruff at the end of their workout. They greeted the word with stick taps for Grigorenko and several players gave him a face-wash with their gloves.
Several Sabres have said in recent days how they’ve been impressed with Grigorenko’s work habits off the ice.
“He’s a good kid. He listens. He wants to learn, wants to get better,” said Thomas Vanek. “He’s a mature kid for his age,” added captain Jason Pominville. “He comes to the rink, works hard every day. … He’s here to make plays. That’s what he’s capable of doing. He’s got the talent to do it and got rewarded for it by making the team. As an 18-year-old, it’s pretty impressive.”