By Bill Hoppe
PITTSBURGH — The defensemen kept going and going at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft; seven straight after the Montreal Canadiens selected center Alex Galchenyuk third overall, in fact.
For the Buffalo Sabres, a team targeting a talented center, the planets aligned Friday night inside the Consol Energy Center.
They got two.
Incredibly, picking 12th, the Sabres grabbed a Russian, Mikhail Grigorenko, a slick playmaking center from the QMJHL’s Quebec Ramparts ranked No. 3 among North American prospects by NHL Central Scouting.
Some had the 18-year-old Grigorenko pegged as the potential No. 1 overall selection at points during the 2011-12 season.
Minutes later, the Sabres dealt the 21st pick they had acquired from Nashville for Paul Gaustad and the 42nd selection to Calgary for the 14th pick, which they used to nab bullish Latvian center Zemgus Girgensons from the United States Hockey League’s Dubuque Fighting Saints.
“It’s a good night,” Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said. “The center position is a very important position. … To be able to acquire two centers – two different-type centers – is good.”
For the Sabres, who need more young forward prospects, especially pivots, Friday could be a franchise-altering day.
“If you somebody told us we’d get those two guys at the end of the day, I’d be pretty happy,” said Kevin Devine, the team’s director of amateur scouting.
Grigorenko, who’s been dogged by a questionable work ethic and a belief he could bolt home to the KHL, thinks he’ll be playing for the Sabres in October.
“I will be ready to play in the NHL next year,” said Grigorenko, who hails from Khabarovsk, the same hometown as Sabres legend Alexander Mogilny.
Devine thinks he’s close to being NHL-ready.
“I’m not sure if he’s strong enough quite yet,” he said about the 6-foot-2, 191-pound Grigorenko. “But he’s got the skill level to play in the NHL right now. He’s got a big lower body. His upper body has to be developed a little bit.”
Grigorenko, who scored 40 goals and 85 points in 59 games last year, added later: “I can say now Buffalo Sabres is my team, and I can’t wait to go on the ice. I’m proud to wear this jersey and be part of this.”
Falling so far has left a little chip on his shoulder.
“I don’t really care about 29 teams in the league,” said Grigorenko, who battled mono and an ankle injury last season. “It’s just about one team, the Buffalo Sabres, and ending up proving them right, they made the right choice.”
What helped completely sell the Sabres on Grigorenko? Sabres coach Lindy Ruff recently spoke with former Montreal Canadiens goalie Patrick Roy, Grigorenko’s coach in Quebec.
“It all came back very positive,” Regier said. “Patrick is a huge believer. We had a number of meetings with (Grigorenko) and spoke with his representative.”
The Sabres, like many other teams, have shied away from Russians recently. They hadn’t selected one since 2005 and last took one in the first round when they took Artem Kryukov, an all-time bust, in 2000.
But Devine said Monday if a talented Russian fell, they could be swayed into taking him. The Sabres showed a strong interest in Grigorenko, talking to him several times recently.
The Sabres believe Grigorenko’s fully committed to the NHL. He came to North America last year with his mother and quickly learned English in a French-speaking city, taking three-hour lessons daily.
“He was very convincing this is where he wants to be, this is where he wants to play,” said Regier, who noted the Sabres also have a scout in Quebec City. “We have a centerman that has a tremendous talent level. He admits he’s got some work to do. But he’s willing to do it.”
Meanwhile, the 18-year-old Girgensons, who’s 6-foot-1 and 182 pounds, had 24 goals and 55 points in 49 games last year. He’s committed to the University of Vermont.
“Right now, at this point, I’m going to Vermont,” he said. “I got to see in the next couple days after rookie camp what’s going on.”
Devine added: “Fans of Buffalo will love this guy. He won’t quit.”=
In other news, Regier acknowledged he spoke with the Penguins about star Jordan Staal, who was later dealt to the Carolina Hurricanes. It appears, at this point, the Sabres will keep center Derek Roy, who struggled mightily last season and has been the subject of trade speculation.
“My thinking with Derek remains what it is,” Regier said. “He’s under contract. He’s a good player. He’s going into the last year of his deal. I think there’s a lot of motivation there. I’ve met with him on a couple of occasions since the season’s end. He’s been very positive. He’s been in working out. So we’re heading in a good direction.”
The draft continues today with the final 6 rounds, starting at 10 a.m. The Sabres pick at 44, 73, 133, 163, 193 and 204.