PITTSBURGH – In a matter of minutes, the Buffalo Sabres added size, talent and physical play where they needed it most. Best of all for the organization, the two players they added might contribute immediately.
The Sabres watched with anxious eyes as Mikhail Grigorenko slid down the draft board Friday night, with the talented center landing on their lap with the 12th overall selection. While the star from Russia met the media in Consol Energy Center, the Sabres saw another player they liked. They decided to make a deal with Calgary and shipped the 21st overall pick and the 42nd pick for the 14th selection, which they used to pick center Zamgus Girgensons.
It can easily be considered a winning night for the Sabres. They needed to improve in the middle, and they did.
The addition of Grigorenko is the highlight of the Sabres’ night. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder is ready to jump to the NHL at age 18. He dominated for Quebec of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, recording 40 goals and 85 points in 59 games. NHL Central Scouting had him ranked as the third-best player in the draft.
Questions persisted about whether Grigorenko would stay in North America, however, with many believing he will bolt for the money of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. The Sabres decided, at 12th overall, it was well worth the risk.
Grigorenko was glad.
“I liked this team,” he said. “They talked to me a lot, and I really liked this organization. I talked with them during the few seasons a few times, at the combines and here before the draft [Thursday].
“Buffalo Sabres is my team and I can't wait to go on the ice to wear this jersey and be a part of this.”
With four picks in the top 44, the Sabres had the assets need to make moves. They did it for Girgensons.
The 6-foot-2, 198-pound center from Dubuque of the United States Hockey League became the first Latvian-born player taken in the first round of the NHL draft. He had 24 goals and 55 points in Dubuque, and the hard-hitting captain made noise away from the score sheet with his physical play.
“People have said next year I can play in the NHL. People have said it will take me five years,” Girgensons said. “We’re going to see what happens next year, and we’ll go from there. I feel like I can play next year. I’m physically ready.”
With the likelihood that at least one of the prospects will be ready to join the Sabres, it’s more likely the team will try to move center Derek Roy.
One established center did move Friday night, and the fans in the Steel City rose out of their chairs when Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the deal.
The host Penguins dealt center Jordan Staal to Carolina for center Brandon Sutter, defense prospect Brian Dumoulin of Boston College and the No. 8 overall selection. Staal, who has one year left on his contract, reportedly turned down a 10-year extension from the Penguins on Thursday.
“On behalf of ownership, we’d like to thank Jordan Staal for six great years here,” Pittsburgh General Manager Ray Shero told the crowd, which responded with loud cheers.
The ovation turned to some boos moments later when the Pens used their newly acquired pick on Derrick Pouliot. The defenseman from Portland of the Western Hockey League was ranked just 12th by NHL Central Scouting, lower than available players such as centers Mikhail Grigorenko (No. 3) and Radek Faksa (No. 7), and defensemen Cody Ceci (No. 6) and Olli Maatta (No. 8).
The building was full of cheers, however, when Pouliot reached the stage and donned the Penguins’ jersey.
“Anything can happen in this draft,” Pouliot said. “We saw that.”
The Hurricanes were thrilled to unite Staal with his All-Star brother, Eric, and feel the combination will be together for a long time.
“I hope so,” Carolina General Manager Jim Rutherford said. “For many years the family said that the brothers wanted to play together, so now that they’re together I don’t know why he’d go someplace else. I told Eric at the end of the season that we were going to try to improve our team. I said we were going to look at some good players around the league.
“I believe this improves our team. You name me two or three other players, center-ice men that are like Jordan Staal. You just can’t find them.”
Jordan Staal was unavailable for comment – because he was getting married in Canada.
“I left a message right after it was announced, and I said I didn’t expect him to call me back for a few days,” Rutherford said with a laugh.
For the third straight year, the draft started the same way. The brass of the Edmonton Oilers walked on stage and selected a forward first overall.
The Oilers added winger Nail Yakupov to a young core that includes Taylor Hall, the first selection in 2010, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the top pick last June. Edmonton has more pressing needs on defense than at forward, but Yakupov – the top-rated player by NHL Central Scouting in both the midterm and final rankings – was deemed too impressive to pass up.
“I’m glad to start my next life,” said Yakupov, who feels he’s ready to be an NHL player at age 18. “Yeah, why not? I have lots of time to work in the summer, work with Edmonton and try and make the team. I think I’m ready to play in the NHL.”
Because of the Oilers’ young talent up front, it was debated whether they would select a defenseman or trade down. Instead, they added firepower. Yakupov recorded 31 goals and 69 points in just 42 games for Sarnia of the Ontario Hockey League. The Oilers were 19th in scoring at 2.52 goals per game last season, a number that should rise with the new right winger.
“They’re young, but they played good,” said Yakupov, the first Russian taken with the top pick since Washington’s Alex Ovechkin in 2004. “It’s going to be a great team, plus me maybe.”
The Columbus Blue Jackets selected defenseman Ryan Murray with the second overall pick, starting the expected run on D-men. The blue-line depth of this year’s class was highly regarded, and it showed by teams going with defensemen with eight of the first 10 picks.