BUFFALO -- Growing pains were to be expected with the Buffalo Sabres this season, but in spite of their 0-3-0 start there’s a lot of excitement surrounding the team’s young core.
The Sabres began the season with three rookies in their starting lineup, all of whom were first-round picks from the past two NHL Drafts. Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons (2012) and Rasmus Ristolainen (2013) are all important players on this season’s team and they’re each under 20 years old.
"They've done an unbelievable job. Even Mark [Pysyk] when he stepped in last year was very calm, very sound," Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers said. "Seeing the three teenagers, it's amazing the way they're handling things."
The player who’s gotten the most rave reviews in what’s been a rough start to the season is Ristolainen. Being a young defenseman in the League is difficult on its own, but his peers on the team have nothing but compliments for the 18-year-old from Turku, Finland.
"One thing I noticed is you can tell he's a guy who's played in a league of men in Finland," Myers said. "The way he handles himself, it doesn't seem like a lot fazes him at all. He keeps it very simple, he doesn't do anything flashy and I think that is a huge reason why he's part of the team this year at 18 years old."
Defenseman Mike Weber has been paired up with Ristolainen and he too loves his game.
"He's a man-child," Weber said. "He's got great strength, great vision. He plays the game pretty simple, in a good way. Smart, easy plays. He tries to make the game really easy on himself and it's been great to play with him."
While Ristolainen has been a rookie virtually on his own on the blue line, Grigorenko and Girgensons have been on the same line together with Brian Flynn. Girgensons says keeping the young guys together works well for them.
"It's definitely easier to play with all the younger guys than the big names," he said. "You can try to take more stuff on your back and you don't always think you have to pass it to the big guy. I think it's kind of an advantage to be yourself."
"I think we've got a really good mix on this line of strength, power, spirit, and skill," he said. "I think it works really good together, so hopefully we stick together."
That mix of style is evident. Grigorenko has the offensive skill set to make a tape-to-tape pass across the zone to create a scoring chance while Girgensons isn’t afraid to do the dirty work.
Veteran forward Kevin Porter, who played with Girgensons in Rochester of the American Hockey League last season, said the rookie has the skill set to stay in the NHL a long time.
"He's getting the puck in and he's getting it out when he needs to, and he's getting in there and he's forechecking and he's getting to the net," Porter said. "That's his game. He's going to score a lot of goals five feet, six feet in front the net. I think he's done a great job so far."
Grigorenko, meanwhile, had a long look last season after being drafted out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He said things this season are much different for him.
"I wasn't confident [last year]. I was a little nervous, even in the locker room," he said. "This year, I've got confidence and I've gotten used to the guys, and I've gotten adjusted a little more. I'm a little bit more comfortable this year."
The Sabres would love to see the comfort level rise and have the goals start coming soon. With just two goals through three games, offense has been a major problem.
Part of what it means to have so many young players on the roster is dealing with mistakes. How they move on from them is key, however, and forward Steve Ott said their crew of rookies has shown the ability to shake things off.
"They've handled it better than most kids I've ever seen coming in at this age group and playing in the NHL," Ott said. "When we're this young, it's a shift-to-shift thing, but it's true because they're driving confidence every single shift that they can get out in the NHL."
Not every rookie in the League will arrive on the scene and blow everyone away with their skill set. Most of them take time to adjust.
Coach Ron Rolston knows this well, but likes where he’s at with his crew of young players.
"They've done pretty well, I would say. I think we probably had a little more success on the back end," he said. "The forwards are still coming. It's a hard position, especially being centered. That's a lot responsibility for those guys. They're moving in the right direction, but there's a ways to go."
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