BUFFALO, N.Y. – So long as centre Mikhail Grigorenko remains on the Buffalo Sabres roster, it doesn’t matter where the top prospect is forced to sit in the team’s fancy, wood-paneled locker room.
For now, that spot is off in the corner, near the fridge and whiteboard, where Grigorenko’s No. 25 nameplate is perched precariously on a narrow ledge. It’s a makeshift “stall” that amounts to an armless black chair and a metal computer monitor stand, on which the Russian-born player has just enough room for two helmets and his team-logoed toiletries bag.
“At least I have a chair,” the 18-year-old said, smiling after practice Wednesday. “It’s better than to sit somewhere in another room. At least I’m here with the guys. It’s an honour to be here in the locker room.”
The setup is temporary, and a reminder that his spot on the team is not yet secured. That won’t be determined until this week at the earliest, when the Sabres set their roster before opening the regular season hosting Philadelphia on Sunday.
By then, Grigorenko is hoping to have showed enough of his play-making potential during a four-day training camp to have earned the opportunity to land a more permanent spot.
“Yeah, that’s my goal,” he said, “to have a real stall in this locker room.”
Selected 12th overall in the NHL draft in June, Grigorenko is the only player without previous NHL experience the Sabres invited to camp. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, he’s shown flashes of his smooth-skating and deft stick-handling skills this week centring a line alongside veterans Steve Ott and Ville Leino.
The question for the Sabres is whether a one-week glimpse is enough to project how he’ll do outside of practice, and without the benefit of a preseason.
“It’s really the toughest question to answer because you’d love to see him in preseason games,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “You’d get to see him under the gun. And we don’t have that luxury.”
That leaves the Sabres with a few options. They can return Grigorenko to the Patrick Roy-coached Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for one more season of schooling. Another is keeping Grigorenko for what would amount to a five-game tryout before deciding whether to keep or demote him.
“Yeah, there’s a million ways we can slice it,” Ruff said. “We’ll make that decision at the end of this week, and if we feel he’s ready, that he can help us win hockey games, he’ll in all likelihood be here.”
What’s not in question is the good first impression Grigorenko has already made on Ruff and his teammates this week.
He didn’t look out of place during a scrimmage Monday, when his line generated numerous chances. Grigorenko snapped a shot off the post from the right circle, and he also showed off a deceptive touch by making several pinpoint passes.
“He’s off to the right start in having the building blocks of being a big, big deal in this league,” Ott said. “He brings an element of the game that for me, personally, I haven’t seen from a kid in my tenure that’s come in like this.”
Leino was impressed, too.
“He’s got a great career ahead of him,” Leino said. “Hopefully, it will be this year. It’s hard to say this early, but he’s definitely got all the tools.”
Grigorenko’s objective to play in the NHL began two years ago, when he brought along his mother to Quebec.
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. This season, Grigorenko still ranks 19th in the league with 50 points (29 goals and 21 assists) in 32 games despite missing 11 to compete in the World Junior Hockey championships and attend Sabres camp.
That already puts Grigorenko ahead of numerous NHL players, who haven’t had the benefit of playing in competitive games during the lockout.
“I feel good. It’s a little hard here, practice and stuff,” Grigorenko said. “But I look at the guys and see it’s not easy for them, too. So I’m kind of happy about that.”
He’s trying to keep an even keel about his future. Returning to Quebec would be a disappointment, but something he can deal with.
“I would be disappointed and stuff, but this life won’t stop and I’ll try to finish my season strong,” Grigorenko said.
His focus remains on Buffalo
“Every day, I’m coming to the rink and trying to do my best because you kind of know that any day could be my last,” Grigorenko said. “I’m still here. I guess that’s good.”