Tomas Hertl became a highlight-show sensation Wednesday after putting an exclamation point on his four-goal performance. While moving right on a breakaway, the San Jose rookie put the puck and his stick between his legs, then roofed a laser into the top left corner. The video became must-see TV that was witnessed by millions.
Meanwhile, with about five people watching in Buffalo, Mikhail Grigorenko made the same exact play.
A few Sabres remained on the ice following practice, and they worked on close-range shots and rebounds. Grigorenko went up Hertl’s avenue with the trick shot, beating Jhonas Enroth and earning a big cheer from Marcus Foligno.
Displays of Grigorenko’s skill are never far away. The difference is Hertl is making an impact during games and Grigorenko only shows morning glory.
Grigorenko’s tenuous hold on a lineup spot may slip away tonight when the Sabres host Columbus in First Niagara Center. Rookie Johan Larsson practiced in Grigorenko’s spot between wingers Zemgus Girgensons and Brian Flynn. Grigorenko filled in for absent center Cody Hodgson alongside Steve Ott and Thomas Vanek. Hodgson will play after taking his maintenance day, which would leave Grigorenko out of the lineup if the forward groups stay the same.
“You have to find a way to be an impact in a game,” coach Ron Rolston said. “It’s his ability to put himself in positions where he can use those skills. That means you’ve got to go to the puck, you’ve got to get the puck, you’ve got to support the puck, you’ve got to be around the puck, you’ve got to battle for the puck. You can stickhandle in a phone booth and that doesn’t really translate unless you can be an impact on the game.
“He’s a young player. He’s still learning those things and how to do that, be impactful at this level, and how that’s changed from junior hockey to pro hockey. It’s a learning process.”
Grigorenko’s ice time has steadily dwindled through the opening four games, bottoming out at 8:07 during a 3-2 overtime loss to Tampa Bay on Tuesday. He has no points and only five shots, including none against the Lightning.
“Obviously, I didn’t have as much time as the first couple games, but it’s up to coach,” Grigorenko said. “At this time of the game, he probably would rather put out other guys. We almost won the game, so I’ll just keep working and hopefully I’ll get back my ice time.”
Rolston has not been enamored with the Russian, who was selected 12th overall in the 2012 NHL draft. The coach has repeatedly knocked Grigorenko’s lack of competitiveness.
“It’s getting there, but it needs to continue to improve,” Rolston said. “That’s that last hurdle for him. That’s something that he’s going to work on.”
Grigorenko is in a unique position regarding his age and contract status. He showed enough flashes at the beginning of last season that General Manager Darcy Regier decided to keep Grigorenko past the nine-game tryout limit for teenagers. The decision started the clock on Grigorenko’s entry-level contract, and once it starts it doesn’t stop.
Though the center is eligible to return to his Quebec junior team, the second year of his three-year contract would go by the wayside, multiple sources said Wednesday. The nine-game tryout (and resulting contract slide) doesn’t apply in the second year if a player goes past the cutoff during the first year.
“We have really good vets on this team, so every day I could learn a lot of good things from them on the ice and off the ice,” said Grigorenko, who added his NHL lessons have helped. “Last year, I just remember I was working a lot on those around-the-net rebounds, and I scored exactly the same goal in the world juniors in the semifinals against Sweden. It for sure helps with the reflexes.
“I’m pretty sure I’m going to have these chances around the net and I’m going to score.”
In order to score, Grigorenko will first have to prove that his practice prowess can show up when it matters most.
“We see it every day in practice, and he’s just got to bring it to the game,” Sabres center Kevin Porter said. “He’s got great hands. He’s got great vision. He makes guys miss. He’s good one-on-one. When he gets those chances he’s got to start shooting more and make the plays when they’re available.
“Everyone in the NHL has skill. All the guys can make plays and score goals. It comes down to who wants to work the hardest.”