Marc-Andre Gragnani was the top offensive defenseman in the QMJHL the past two seasons and is putting up good numbers with the Rochester Americans of the AHL in his rookie season, but it has not all come from the blueline. The 20-year-old Buffalo Sabres prospect has been asked to play some forward in 2007-08 on a young, struggling team. McKeen's had the opportunity to chat with Gragnani prior to the AHL All-Star Break and talked about playing forward and defense for Rochester, his development in major juniors with Prince Edward Island, playing for Team Canada, his experience with the Buffalo organization, playing for a split-affiliate, and the blueliners favorite players.
McKeen's: I noticed you played some left wing tonight at even strength. Has that happened a lot this season and how do you like it?
Gragnani: I've been playing, maybe, I've been playing it for 15 games now. So, I like it, wherever the team needs me. If the need me back on "d" or up on forward, I'll play whatever the team needs. I like both, so it doesn't bother me.
McKeen's: Rochester has a number of defensemen that they could have picked from to move up to forward. Has the coaching staff told you why they picked you to move up to forward?
Gragnani: They didn't tell me anything, but I assume it's for my offensive skills and stuff. But, they didn't tell me why, I just assume that.
McKeen's: You have four goals and 21 assists in 45 games, which is pretty good production for a defenseman, but how much of that production has come as a winger?
Gragnani: Uh, maybe less than half. I think I was doing pretty good offensively on defense, too, and I'm doing pretty good at forward defensively, too. So, that's good.
McKeen's: How has the transition been for you from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to the AHL?
Gragnani: At first, at first it was rough. My first game was good, but then after that, maybe 20, 25 games, it was rough. It's a completely different game. It's way faster, the guys are all a bit stronger, you have half the time you had with the puck. So, it was pretty tough, but I think slowly, slowly I'm getting there.
McKeen's: While you are here in Rochester, what are some of the things that Buffalo wants you to be working on?
Gragnani: On forward, I have no clue, they haven't told be anything. But on "d," I think my positioning, always be on the defensive side. I think I have trouble with that. That's pretty much it.
McKeen's: On the other hand, what would you say are the strengths of your game already?
Gragnani: I'd say I have pretty good skills, pretty good vision, hockey sense, good passes. So, pretty much everything offensively.
McKeen's: You have still been playing the point on the powerplay. Tell me about playing the powerplay this year.
Gragnani: I like playing on the point. Again, it's different from junior. In juniors, you have ten times more time with the puck. But, here it's harder. Every night it's hard, it's a challenge. So, I like it.
McKeen's: As a defenseman, you have the ability to see, a lot of the time, the entire play, but tell me how that changes for you skating at forward.
Gragnani: Yeah, the game is completely different up at forward. Again, you have less time with the puck, because at "d" you're the one that starts the play, you see everything, the whole play's in front of you. But, at forward, half is front, half is back, so it's pretty hard. You just have to keep, try to look, have your head on a swivel before you get the puck, so you see where the guys are and make the best out of it when you have the puck.
McKeen's: In your last two seasons in the QMJHL, putting your points together from those two seasons, you led the league in defenseman scoring. What were some of the things that helped you achieve that accomplishment?
Gragnani: I think it was just moving the puck fast. I think I'm pretty good at that. Just moving the puck, finding the open guy always, and a bit of luck, obviously (chuckles and smiles).
McKeen's: In your four seasons in major juniors, what were some of the parts of your game that improved the most with the Rocket?
Gragnani: Uh, probably a bit of everything, I'd say. For sure, when I got there, I was 16. Now I'm 20. For sure, you learn every year. Every year you learn something. I couldn't pick one thing or two, but I think my whole game got better.
McKeen's: And that extra maturity you pick up over the years.
Gragnani: Yeah, yeah, for sure. When you get there, you're just a little baby (smiles and laughs), and then I come here and feel like a baby again.
McKeen's: You played for Team Canada on the Under-18 team in the Czech Republic in 2005. Tell me about that experience and some of the highlights from that.
Gragnani: That was pretty fun. For sure, when you represent your country, it's always special. Unfortunately, we lost in the finals against the United States. But, I think we had a pretty strong tournament, third team. It was a great. It was a lot of fun.
McKeen's: Was there any disappointment in not playing in the World Junior Championships?
Gragnani: Yeah, yeah, for sure the World Juniors is the big stuff, big step. I think the team that they put together, they won everything, they didn't lose one game. So, you can't blame them. I think 87s on defense are a very strong group. For sure, I was disappointed, but it's okay.
McKeen's: You were drafted by Buffalo in the third round in the 2005 draft, which was a little different draft, with the way things were after the lockout. How did you find out, where were you, and what was your reaction?
Gragnani: I was just home. I was home on the computer trying to find out if I was getting drafted. Then, actually it was my parents that saw it first. I was thinking, I wasn't paying attention, my parents saw it first. It was a good feeling.
McKeen's: When did Buffalo first contact you and what did they tell you?
Gragnani: Probably a week, or, I don't know, maybe a day. Maybe the day of the draft, I can't remember. But they just said that they were happy that I was with them and they were going to contact me for the rookie camp and training camp and stuff like that.
McKeen's: With those developmental camps and training camps, what were some of the biggest things that you have learned over the past three years of camps?
Gragnani: Hard work, I think. You never work hard enough. If you don't work hard enough, someone will. So, it's hard, it's hard. For sure, it's hard, but, I think at the end it will pay off and it'll be a lot of fun.
McKeen's: Any particular Sabres take you under their wing and show you the ropes at all or some tips?
Gragnani: Uh, no. I think this year Jason Pominville was really nice to me. For sure, it helps that he's French, like me. He comes from Montreal, too. I come from Montreal, too. But no, they're all nice, but especially Jason. Jason was really nice to me and I went two times to eat with him and stuff. So, it was pretty nice of him.
McKeen's: I guess along the lines of the French things, tell about the adjustment of going from Quebec to Prince Edward Island.
Gragnani: Yeah, I didn't have a big transition there, because Montreal, where I live, is all English. So, I really knew how to speak English and stuff, from school. So, for me, it wasn't a big deal.
McKeen's: Yeah, Montreal is a pretty cosmopolitan city. Obviously, as a team, you guys are struggling a bit this year. You have a really young team. I do not think you had a guy on the ice older than a 1982-born tonight. Tell me about playing for such a young team and maybe, the advantages and disadvantages that creates for you.
Gragnani: I think the advantage is that everyone goes along. We're all friends, because we're all the same age, we're all the same generation. But, the flipside is, sometimes when you're young, maybe we need a few guys that show the way. But, I guess we're going to learn the hard way (smiles). For sure I think we, every night we try to give our best. Obviously, in the last two months, it's not been very good. But, at least we try.
McKeen's: You are one of a couple split affiliations in the AHL. Tell me about the dynamic that creates with the Americans.
Gragnani: I think, once you're in the room, it doesn't matter if you're from Buffalo or Florida. He's just a guy like you. It doesn't matter. We're here to play hockey and that doesn't really bother us.
McKeen's: Lastly, who was your favorite player, or players, growing up and why?
Gragnani: First one, probably Wayne Gretzky, because he's? (pauses) obviously the best (smiles and chuckles). Also Forsberg, because he's complete, he's smart, physical, does everything. And right now I'd say Pavel Datsyuk, in Detroit, because he's just so much entertainment when you watch him. You never know what he's going to do, and a lot of creativity.