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Sabres rookies getting ample opportunity to impress

Monday, 09.16.2013 / 10:00 AM
Arpon Basu  - Managing Editor LNH.com

MONTREAL -- The Buffalo Sabres got a glimpse into their future as they kicked off their preseason schedule with a 5-4 shootout win against the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday night.

Well actually, they got a whole lot more than a glimpse. Coach Ron Rolston made it so he saw a whole lot.

Included in Rolston's lineup Sunday were the Sabres' last four first-round draft picks: forwards Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons, both selected at the 2012 NHL Draft, and 2013 draft picks Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov on defense.

Girgensons scored two goals, including a shorthanded beauty that tied the game early in the second period. Grigorenko scored the shootout winner and the two rookie defensemen each logged more than 21 minutes playing on both special teams units.

"They understand the opportunity that they have on this team, and we're going to give them a lot of opportunities," Rolston said. "You saw the ice time and the situations we were putting the young guys in tonight, and I thought they handled it well."

While Rolston considered Girgensons to be one of his best players in the game, it was the play of the two defensemen that may have stood out the most.

Ristolainen was the eighth pick in the draft, Buffalo's highest drafted player since selecting Thomas Vanek fifth in 2003, and he arrives in training camp with two seasons of professional experience under his belt with TPS Turku in his native Finland's SM-liiga. Ristolainen played a team-high 23:22 on a pairing with summer acquisition Jamie McBain, including 5:20 on the penalty kill and 3:54 on the power play. He had two shots on goal, had three other attempts blocked and blocked three shots himself, looking perfectly comfortable the whole time, no matter the situation.

"I'm a two-way defenseman," Ristolainen said. "I'm not a superstar in any one situation; I can play PK, power play, anything. That's my style."

As for Zadorov, he's a 6-foot-5, 221-pound giant drafted No. 16 in June who finished his preseason debut with a plus-3 rating in 21:35 of ice time.

Rolston said Sabres fans had better get used to seeing the two defensemen on the ice often this preseason.

"They're going to play," he said. "I thought they played really well, both guys really weren't fazed by the environment here. Montreal can skate with good pace. Ristolainen's played a couple of years of pro hockey, so he probably had a little bit more mature of a game in terms of his presence. Nikita's got a ton of ability, a lot of poise, he can make plays, and he can really skate and cover ground for his size. We're really happy with both guys tonight."

Girgensons, the 14th pick in the draft last year, showed he has every intention of sticking in the NHL this season after spending last season with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League, where he was coached by Rolston before he was promoted to Buffalo after the firing of Lindy Ruff.

Girgensons also spent a lot of time on both special teams units, and his shorthanded goal showed off his speed and poise as he held off a backchecking Lars Eller, then used a nifty toe drag move to beat Peter Budaj on a partial breakaway. And while he has no assurance of making the Sabres, Girgensons is already thinking as if he will.

"It still matters how we play here, but it's a lot about learning for the regular season," Girgensons said of how much time his team spent killing penalties in the game. "The good thing about being in those situations a lot is that it will help us down the road."

Grigorenko was the 12th pick last year and spent a good chunk of last season in Buffalo, playing 25 games with the Sabres before being sent back to the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, burning a year of his entry level contract in the process. He played a modest 15:23 in the game and had zeros right across his stat line -- zero points, zero shot attempts, zero hits -- until he went upstairs with a backhand off a nice deke to win it for Buffalo in the shootout.

Rolston said those 25 games spent with the Sabres last season were valuable for Grigorenko, but that he still has work left to do.

"He got the experience in the League and understanding the compete-level on a daily basis, whether it's in practice or in game situations, and just that the time and space is limited out there," Rolston said. "He's got to play with pace and he's got to battle. He's got a ton of talent, you see what he can do on the power play and shootout situations, but he's going to have to continue to improve in other areas."

With the Sabres in the midst of a rebuild, players like Grigorenko and his three fellow first-rounders will get the opportunity to improve, and they may very well get to do it at the NHL level.

"My goal in the first part of summer was to make the team," Ristolainen said. "It's hard, very hard, but I think I have a chance and I have to do everything I can."

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