With Ryan O’Reilly still at the World Cup, Derek Grant used his locker. With Jack Eichel not playing, Grant filled his role as Buffalo’s second-line center.
He did a fine impression of both. If Grant keeps it up, there’s a chance all three will be in the lineup when the Sabres’ season starts.
Grant continued to be the surprising star of training camp Tuesday, scoring once and adding two assists in Buffalo’s 3-2 overtime victory against Ottawa. He tied the game against his old team with 4:42 to play, then set up Jake McCabe for the game-winner with 1:32 gone in the extra session.
There is one forward spot open in Buffalo, and Grant is pushing hard to secure it.
“It’s not a long opportunity, so you’ve got to take advantage of the chances you get,” he said in KeyBank Center. “It’s a little bit of confidence going forward. I’m just trying to come in here every day and work and try to prove that I can be here.”
Dan Bylsma continually praised Grant during the opening weekend of camp, and the coach had no choice but to add more fine words after the victory.
“He’s building trust in his game with the way he’s playing,” Bylsma said. “You have to earn the trust in your coach. You have to earn the trust in your teammates with your game. I’m pretty sure he’s been doing that.
“He’s had four days, and he’s had four good days. He’s going to get another opportunity because of that.”
The 26-year-old center signed with Buffalo because he knew he’d get a chance to compete. When Tim Murray worked in Ottawa, the Sabres general manager drafted Grant in the fourth round in 2008. They talked again this summer, and the result was a one-year, two-way deal that pays $650,000 in Buffalo and $400,000 in Rochester, according to CapFriendly.com
“He’s an honest guy,” Grant said of Murray, “and he said, ‘You come in here and work, and there could be a spot open in camp.’ I just thought if there’s an opportunity there, it’s up to me to come and take it. I’m just trying to do that every day I’m here.”
The 6-foot-3, 212-pounder reappeared on Murray’s radar after two impressive seasons in the AHL. He put up 21 goals in 73 games for Binghamton in 2014-15, then exploded for 27 goals and 45 points in just 36 games last season for Calgary’s minor-league team. He played in 15 games with the Flames and recorded one assist.
“He’s a very good guy and he’s doing very well,” said Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner, who played with Grant in Ottawa and Binghamton and is letting the center live with him during camp. “He’s a hard-working guy with a lot of speed and underrated skill.”
Bylsma used Grant in all situations Tuesday. He played 15:36, including 2:49 of power-play time and 55 seconds while short-handed.
“He’s a real big man, and he can skate and move around,” Bylsma said. “He’s excellent positionally, smart-wise. There’s been a determination with the way he’s played, and I think it’s been evident.
“As a player who’s new to our organization, he wants to come in and prove what kind of player he is. He’s certainly done that.”
Bylsma and Murray have five more preseason games to determine who should join the team as the 13th forward. Grant’s competition includes Justin Bailey, Evan Rodrigues, Hudson Fasching, Nicholas Baptiste and Cole Schneider. Baptiste had a goal and assist in Tuesday’s victory, while Fasching added a helper.
“Is it a person who could play in a specific spot?” Bylsma asked rhetorically. “Is he a jack of all trades? Can he play different positions, center and wing? Or is he an element player that is going to add a certain element, a speed element or physicality to the team?
“That’s part of the competition. We’re going to see how that plays out.”