DENVER – Mikhail Grigorenko’s excitement Wednesday was twofold. He was clearly happy to get the chance to play his old team. First and foremost, he was thrilled just to get another chance.
Grigorenko, scratched in Colorado’s previous three games, was back in the lineup when the Avalanche hosted Buffalo in the teams’ first meeting since June’s blockbuster trade. He joined teammate Nikita Zadorov in taking on Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn.
“I’m really excited and really happy that coach is putting me in,” Grigorenko said in Pepsi Center. “Hopefully, I’ll make the most of this opportunity.
“You want to show that you can play hockey, especially against Buffalo, the team that drafted me and I started my career with. Now it’s a new chapter.”
On the surface, the new chapter is reading like the previous one for Grigorenko and Zadorov. Grigorenko has struggled to score goals and find consistency. Zadorov, sent to the minors for 28 games, is still growing as a person.
“We made that trade for the future,” Avs coach Patrick Roy said. “It’s not for today. It’s for tomorrow.”
Underneath the benchings and demotions, the players seem happier. Though they had nothing but good things to say about their time in Buffalo, they’re excited about their chances with a new organization.
“I’m on the same team the whole year, so that helps,” said Grigorenko, who bounced from Quebec to Buffalo to Rochester and back again during his three seasons with the Sabres. “If you play or not, if you play big minutes or you play little minutes, it helps being in the same team with the same group of guys the whole year. That’s probably the biggest difference.
“Maybe it would have been better to one place. It doesn’t matter where if it’s Quebec, Buffalo or Rochester, but I still learned a lot of things from each year I was there. People were nice to me and I had good different coaches there. It was a good experience.”
Grigorenko, who centered for future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla, entered the night with two goals and 10 assists in 40 games. The 21-year-old was skating 11:14 per game, including 47 seconds on the power play and 43 on the penalty kill.
“He has to be consistent,” Roy said. “He has to continue to be good in his one-on-one battles. That’s the thing we’ve been watching. He’s been up and down in that area.”
The Avs sent Zadorov to San Antonio after 11 games. The defenseman excelled in the American Hockey League, recording eight goals and 18 points in 28 games, to earn a spot alongside veteran Francois Beauchemin in the four games since being called back up.
“He’s getting there,” Roy said. “He’s been learning a lot of humble lessons lately, which is what we want. I think it’s going to benefit him along the way.”
Immaturity, including failure to show up on time, marked Zadorov’s tenure in Buffalo.
“You’re always growing every day, pretty much learning new stuff every day,” said the 20-year-old. “I would say I matured in some things, some not. I’m still working on that. But it was a great experience over there. Now it’s a new step in here.”
Both said they were surprised but happy about the trade.
“It was nice to get a new start, especially in Colorado where Patrick knows me, especially being in the trade with Nikita and also O’Reilly coming back,” Grigorenko said. “He’s such a great player. It’s an honor to be involved in that big of a trade. It was exciting.”
Defenseman Josh Gorges, who missed two games with an upper-body injury, returned to the Sabres’ lineup and skated with Mark Pysyk. Jake McCabe was scratched along with Carlo Colaiacovo as Buffalo returned to eight healthy blue-liners.
“It pushes you to be better and be ready to compete and play knowing that we have guys that can come in and do the job,” Gorges said. “If you’re not willing to go out there and do what’s asked of you, there’s guys that can come in and do it and take your job.”
Coach Dan Bylsma put Zach Bogosian in Gorges’ spot alongside Rasmus Ristolainen during the two-game absence, and he liked the pairing enough to keep Bogosian on the top unit.
“He’s skating better and using the skating to defend better,” Bylsma said. “He’s played harder in defending. He’s working a lot on his game right now and is improving.”
The Sabres were scheduled to fly home following the game and take Thursday off. They will host Detroit on Friday in First Niagara Center.
Bylsma was happy to head back to sea level after breathing in the thinner air of Denver’s high altitude for two days.
“One of the things I feel – and I’m not even putting the skates on – is it’s a little bit drier,” the coach said. “I feel dehydrated in the short time that we’ve been here.”