DALLAS – When it comes to Mikhail Grigorenko, the Buffalo Sabres are looking for any small glimmer of hope. Numbers aren’t there, so the 20-year-old is better judged by how much offense he’s creating.
Mostly a bust in his multiple trips to the NHL this season, Grigorenko got his feet moving and made things happen during the third period of Saturday’s 3-0 loss in Nashville. Now the trick for him, something he’s rarely mastered in the NHL, is to do that in consecutive games. He’ll get that chance when the Sabres meet the Dallas Stars on Monday night in American Airlines Center. The team took Sunday off.
The numbers are the numbers for Grigorenko and they’re ugly. He’s played 15 NHL games this year with just one goal and one assist. He’s played 58 games in Buffalo over the last three seasons with just four goals and six assists.
Grigorenko had some success Saturday centering Jerry D’Amigo and Cody Hodgson. He fed Hodgson for a good scoring chance in the second period and made a neat feed to D’Amigo for a third-period breakaway. Late in the game, Grigorenko himself neatly snapped Pekka Rinne’s shutout with a quick snap shot that beat the Nashville goalie but rifled off the goalpost.
“We had chances. Unfortunately we couldn’t score but overall it was a good game for our line,” Grigorenko said after the game. “I beat him on the shot and I’m frustrated but at the same time I’m happy I had some chances. The first period wasn’t really good but I kept working and skating and the chances started coming to me.”
For the most point, Sabres coach Ted Nolan clearly seems unimpressed with Grigorenko. The Sabres coach played Grigorenko for just 8:09 of Friday’s loss to New Jersey, when the center was minus-2. Grigorenko got up to 12:47 in Nashville and the line didn’t give up a goal.
Nolan said he was happy to see Grigorenko creating some offense in the third period, but remained stingy with any praise for the 20-year-old.
Said Nolan: “He does have those skills that got him to be a No. 1 pick. He’s got to learn to play like that all the time.”
Prior to the game, Nolan said he’s hoping to see the kind of breakthrough from Grigorenko that Johan Larsson has had this month.
“No question that’s what he has to do in order to play in this league,” Nolan said. “You don’t get too many opportunities. They come and go and slip away before you know it. He’s a young guy still learning his trade. The one thing he can improve on his intensity and urgency.
“... We’re going to be hard on him but also understanding with him. We have to try to find the button to compete with him at a certain level. Larsson, his first couple times with us were just OK. Now he’s competing much better. Maybe the same thing will hold true with Grigorenko.”
Girgorenko said he’s noticed a difference in Larsson’s play at the NHL level this month as well.
“I really noticed he was working hard even when he wasn’t scoring,” Grigorenko said. “He plays the same way and with the confidence. I’m really happy to see him succeed and I’m looking to do the same thing.”
Nolan criticized Grigorenko after Friday’s game and Grigorenko had a pedestrian first period again Saturday.
“Sometimes offense and the puck is just not there,” Grigorenko said. “The first period was a lot of ‘D’ zone and playing without the puck. I was focused on skating and doing the right things without the puck. Finally we were able to get the puck and do some things.”
The game seemed to turn for Grigorenko when he won a possession battle in the second period along the boards and fed Hodgson for a good chance.
“That was the moment everything started going,” he said. “That was the first time in the game I was able to get the puck and work with it a little bit.”
Nolan demands grit from all his forwards but knows it’s a very delicate balance with a skill player like Grigorenko.
“When you try to ask players to be a bit gritty, they think they have to go out and bang people,” Nolan said. “That’s not his game. His game is being strong on the puck, driving to the net, jumping in holes and creating some offense.”
In theory, it would make sense to give Grigorenko the final 10 games of the season to see what, if anything, he can produce. He’s no longer on emergency recall so it seems like it’s a good bet that will happen for the pending restricted free agent.
“Obviously I’d like to stay here for the rest of the year -- and the rest of my life,” he said. “It’s a good chance for me. Playing in the NHL is where I want to be. I want to play here as long as I can. Hopefully I’ll give the team good games.”
The Sabres lost out on a key college free agent Saturday night when Penn State forward Casey Bailey signed a two-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Bailey’s father confirmed to the Penn State student newspaper that there were lengthy negotiations with the Sabres, but that the Leafs offered an immediate NHL job.
Glen Bailey said Sabres General Manager Tim Murray did not want his son playing in the NHL this season, thus saving the Sabres from burning a year off Bailey’s entry-level contract.