Down, down, down the draft board Mikhail Grigorenko slid, just as plenty of mock exercises predicted he would this week even though experts say he could someday be comparable to Penguins' Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin.
Pegged by many as a top-5 pick much of the season, the enigmatic Russian who speaks excellent English and became a junior star in French-speaking Canada preferred to look at his situation in the best possible light Friday night. He was No. 12 overall in the NHL Draft but was the top choice of the Buffalo Sabres, a team in need of a big upgrade at center.
"Eleven teams didn't draft me, so too bad for them," Grigorenko said. "So I'm No. 1 pick for Buffalo Sabres."
So what could possibly be so wrong with a 6-foot-3, 200-pounder who lit up the Quebec League for 40 goals and 85 points in 59 games? There's questions about work ethic, that he takes shifts off. He did not impress in the league's playoffs, largely because of a bout of mononucleosis. And there's murmurs that all Russian players will take the money and run back home to play in the KHL.
Grigorenko has insisted for weeks that's not the case and said it again here Friday.
"I will improve my weaknesses and I think I will be ready to play in the NHL next year," he said.
There's even been questions about his age, with some scouts insisting he's 20 and not 18 (his date of birth is listed as May 18, 1994). That would explain his dominance of the league.
"I know nothing about this," he said.
One thing Grigorenko knows is he was the No. 4 forward taken in the draft and the No. 3 center. Sounds a lot better than No. 12. The Sabres – who had not taken a Russian since 2005 – had been in constant contact, right up until draft day and Grigorenko said he sensed his wait was over when it was Buffalo's turn.
"I liked this team," he said. "They talked to me a lot and I really like this organization. They were really nice to me and they were really interested so that's the most important thing. ... I can't wait to go on the ice to wear this jersey and be a part of this."
Grigorenko came to Canada to play for the Quebec Ramparts – coached by the legendary Patrick Roy – and said he was thrilled at the results.
"It was a really good experience," he said. "Patrick taught me a lot of things and I have to say thanks to him."
Roy has told all comers Grigorenko was worth the pick. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff had a chance meeting with Roy here Thursday and got the same report.
"That all came back very positive," said General Manager Darcy Regier. "Patrick is a huge believer."
"He's made a huge commitment to be an NHL player," Roy said this week to Sportsnet.ca. "When people question his work ethic, it's not true, he works hard all the time. The thing that we need to work on with him is to get his stamina to another level. He gets tired fast, but that doesn't mean a player doesn't work hard."
"He's the type of player that controls the whole pace of the game," said David Gregory of NHL Central Scouting. "He can play with the puck at the same pace he plays without the puck. He sees the ice and opportunities really well. He can hang onto it longer than most players ... Mikhail has the patience and the ability to see opportunities and let them develop, which is a special skill."
Grigorenko agreed that he needed to improve his strength and work on his power game but that he feels his offensive skills are NHL-ready. And it's a good bet he'll play with a chip on his shoulder too. A lot of teams said thanks-but-no-thanks when they had a chance to snap him up.
"Seriously I don't really care about 29 teams in the league," Grigorenko said. "I just care about one team. About the Buffalo Sabres. I want to prove them right, that they made the right choice."