Go into any NHL locker room after a practice or a morning skate in the last 10 days and the TV was on, with all eyes on Malmo, Sweden.
The World Junior Championships are a big deal in Canada and in Europe, as folks in Buffalo learned when the tournament was here in 2011.
And the medal round this year was especially huge to the Sabres.
Mikhail Grigorenko and Nikita Zadorov won bronze, with Grigorenko scoring the first goal in Russia’s 2-1 win over Canada on Sunday. And Rasmus Ristolainen became a hero in his homeland forever, scoring the Golden Goal in overtime that gave Finland a 3-2 win over Sweden.
“That’s a pretty big goal for him,” interim coach Ted Nolan said of Ristolainen, the 19-year-old who was the team’s top draft pick in June. “When you’re that age and score a big goal with your peer group, that’s how you get to the next level. So he did his country proud and did us proud.
“When you’re a big player, you make big plays. The fans here and this organization really have something to look forward to.”
In the immediate short term, the Sabres are looking forward to tonight’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes in First Niagara Center. That’s weather permitting, of course. The Hurricanes got to town Monday afternoon and the NHL is expected to decide today if the game will go as scheduled.
With the tournament over, the Sabres have decisions to make on their three young prospects. Zadorov is heading back to London of the Ontario Hockey League, which will host the Memorial Cup, and Ristolainen is slated to return to Rochester. Nolan and Pat LaFontaine sent him there shortly after they took over in mid-November; Ristolainen had one goal and was minus-4 in 19 games with the Sabres.
Things are not as clear with Grigorenko, who has junior eligibility left. Nolan said he will return to Buffalo to meet with team officials, but the coach said he’s “leaning” toward sending Grigorenko back to the Quebec League.
Grigorenko had good moments in the tourney and led Russia with five goals, eight points and a plus-6 rating. But there were still times he coasted and relied on his talent overwhelming his peers, which doesn’t happen in the NHL.
“Some mixed reviews,” Nolan said. “That’s a problem with some young players, that consistency factor. He played great at moments and not so well at other moments. … That’s been the book and it’s up to our organization to correct that.
“And you don’t correct that by giving things to players. You make them earn it and you watch them do it on a consistent basis for a consistent amount of time. You don’t just do it for a week and say, ‘We’re all fixed.’ ”
Ristolainen was named the most valuable defenseman in the tournament and Zadorov joined him on the all-star team. Ristolainen’s goal was the talk of the locker room.
“Bobby Orr kind of play. Overtime too,” said a grinning Mike Weber, Ristolainen’s regular partner in Buffalo. “It’s good for Risto and all of our prospects. Risto is a great kid and him and ‘Zaddy’ were men against boys out there in that tournament.”
“It was exciting to see. It was really fun for me to see,” said Ville Leino, the lone Finn on the Buffalo roster. “He’s been working hard and he’s a great kid. He’s talented and you could see he wanted to win. He had a lot of will. That’s a big goal.”
As expected, the Swedish contingent wasn’t as enthused.
“It was a pretty nice goal,” said goaltender Jhonas Enroth. “That was a good play and his celebration was pretty funny, the way he threw his helmet and everything.”
“It was tough to see them lose, a tough game,” added fellow Swede Johan Larsson, who captained his country to gold in 2012. “They had the possession most of the game. I feel bad for them.”
Larsson, who has played with Ristolainen this year in both Buffalo and Rochester, said he saw that his teammate had several good chances to score in overtime with three forays in the offensive zone.
“He’s a good guy and I’m happy for him,” Larsson said. “I feel bad for my country and the boys home but he had some good looks there in overtime. He was really good.”
While the Sabres continue to languish in last place, there was plenty of heady chatter in Sweden about their prospects. Joked one Toronto writer on Twitter: “Overheard here: No wonder Sabres losing. All their best players are here.”
“The last couple of years it seems like we’ve had some great draft picks and that part is exciting,” Weber said. “It’s frustrating that it takes time for guys to develop but you have to develop them the right way. From a management standpoint, they want to get them here as soon as they can so when we can get out of this thing we’re in. But they have to be ready.”