By Mike Harrington
(**Be sure to go to our previous post for audio from Darcy Regier, Lindy Ruff and Mikhail Grigorenko)
The Sabres ended their morning skate today like they often do -- with coach Lindy Ruff calling them over to the boards across the rink from their bench for a quick chat. But as the group broke up, sticks were tapped on the ice and a few gloves face-washed rookie Mikhail Grigorenko in a form of hockey-team congratulations.
Ruff had just broken the news to the players that Sabres fans everywhere were waiting to hear: Grigorenko is staying in the NHL. He'll be in the lineup tonight against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"It's really amazing news and I'm really happy and really excited," Grigorenko said. "It's a good step in my career and I'll do everything to show people they made the right choice."
General Manager Darcy Regier told The News Monday night that Grigorenko would likely have stayed in juniors this year had this been a regular 82-game season. But Regier said now that he's starred for half a season in the Quebec League and for Russia in the World Junior Championships, his NHL timetable was accelerated.
"His game has come a long way since September," Regier said. "You've got half a season of junior hockey, a world junior experience. From what I've seen, when a player performs well in the World Juniors, it does wonders for that player's confidence coming out of the tournament and I think he benefitted from that. So we had an additional 3-4 months of development we otherwise wouldn't have had with a longer season."
Grigorenko admitted he was nervous coming to the arena Tuesday with the decision looming. So he's glad he can finally concentrate on hockey.
"Every day is going to be a new challenge," he said. "I need to work every day harder and harder. Every day I want to get better and better so there's no reason to stop. It's really good to know this, to know I'm staying on the team. I can focus on the hockey now and not think about all those things."
Grigorenko has no points in five games but played a season-high 17 minutes Sunday in Washington and came close to denting the scoresheet.
"He's earned this opportunity," Ruff said. "I think by the smile on his face, it was quite a big relief. That moment for any young player, playing your first game and now having the pressure off, but at the same time knowing he has a lot of work ahead. It was a culmination of practices and watching him play. Sunday was a part of it but there were a lot of things."
"It's cool. Awesome. Everyone was excited," said captain Jason Pominville. "Guys were pretty happy for him. He's made some big strides, improved in every game he played in."
Veteran Thomas Vanek, who returns to the lineup tonight after a one-game absence due to a muscle strain, seconded that thought.
"He's a good kid. He listens. He wants to learn, wants to get better," Vanek said. "Obviously he wants to point up points and goals and impress and that hasn't been there yet but he's stayed really positive for an 18-year-old. I've got nothing bad to say. I think he deserved to stay and he'll help this team a lot."
taggedDarcy Regier | Lindy Ruff | Mikhail Grigorenko