BUFFALO, N.Y. – One way or another, Darcy Regier had no intention of leaving the NHL draft in Pittsburgh without addressing the Buffalo Sabres’ most pressing need at centre.
After it became clear that the price was too steep to engineer a trade for an established top-line player, the Sabres general manager settled on the next best option by selecting two centres in the first round on Friday night.
The Sabres opened the draft by selecting play-making Russian centre Mikhail Grigorenko with the 12th pick. Regier barely had time to make his introductions with the new addition before he swapped selections with Calgary to select Zemgus Girgensons—a hard-hitting centre out of Latvia—two picks later.
In exchange for Calgary’s 14th pick, the Sabres dealt the No. 21 pick and the first of two second-round selections, No. 42, to the Flames.
“It certainly was a focus of ours to try and cover off the centre position in this draft,” Regier said. “In Grigorenko’s case, his skill level and play-making ability is exceptional. In Girgensons’ case, he’s a very good playmaker and has a physical component to his game. So I think they complement each other.”
Grigorenko, listed at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, played for Quebec of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season. He led the league’s rookies with 45 goals and 85 points in 59 games despite dealing with an illness at the end of the season.
Girgensons, 6-foot-2 and 198 pounds, has spent the past three seasons playing in North America. Last season, his second with Dubuque of the U.S. Hockey League, he led the team with 55 points (24 goals, 31 assists) in 49 games, with six of his goals game-winners.
Both players have the potential to fill a big void on the Sabres, who have been lacking at centre since losing Danny Briere and Chris Drury to free agency on July 1, 2007.
Selecting Grigorenko was a departure in philosophy for the Sabres, who were among several NHL teams that had avoided drafting Russian players in recent years because of a fear of having them stay home to play in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Regier said he has received assurances from Grigorenko, his agent, as well as his Quebec coach—former NHL star goalie Patrick Roy—of the player’s intention to stay in North America. Regier noted other signs of Grigorenko’s commitment in how he spent last year learning English as well as having his mother live with him in Quebec.
“Those are all strong indicators,” Regier said. “We’re very confident he’ll have a good, long NHL career.”
Grigorenko dismissed concerns about returning to Russia in an interview with Buffalo’s WGR-Radio shortly after he was selected.
“Last year, I came here to be ready for the NHL, and it was my dream,” he said. “I can’t wait to go on the ice with NHL team. I really want to be an NHL player.”
Grigorenko’s stock dropped in the draft, as NHL Central Scouting had him ranked third among North American skaters. He fell partly because eight defencemen were taken within the first 10 picks.
The run on blueliners was a pleasant surprise for the Sabres because of their need at forward. Regier said the team was targeting Grigorenko and centre Filip Forsberg, who was selected 11th by Washington.
Regier had spent the week attempting to make a trade for an established player, but said it became quite clear that the asking price was too high.
“To fill one hole and create a bigger one in what we’d have to give up is too much for us right now,” he said.
The Sabres were among the NHL’s biggest flops last season in missing the playoffs for the third time in five years. Expectations had been high in Buffalo after the Sabres went on a high-priced shopping spree last off-season in new owner Terry Pegula’s bid to build an immediate contender.
Those hopes unraveled due to a rash of injuries and a lack of chemistry. Despite closing the season with a 15-5-4 run, Buffalo dug itself too big of a mid-season hole to climb out of in finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference.
Buffalo owns six picks on Saturday, when rounds 2-7 will be held.