Mikhail Grigorenko was a healthy scratch five times and scored five points in 22 games for the Sabres. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
At least the New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres can say they got long looks at their prized prospects this season. But it seems pretty much everything else about the experiments with Stefan Matteau and Mikhail Grigorenko was a disaster.
Which makes their cases all the more confusing. The Devils and Sabres have traditionally not only been among the better teams at the draft table in recent years, they’ve also been ahead of their peers when it comes to developing that talent into NHL commodities once they’ve been brought into the organization.
Many hockey observers were left scratching their heads when the Sabres returned Grigorenko to the Quebec Remparts last Friday, followed two days later by the Devils returning Matteau to the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada for the Quebec League playoffs. That both players were returned to their junior teams was not surprising, but the fact the Devils and Sabres waited so long that they handed the players an accrued season when it comes to free agency makes it a little mind-boggling.
The fact both players played beyond the five-game limit that burned a year off their entry-level deals was, relatively speaking, consequential. But contrary to popular belief, the Devils and Sabres did indeed burn a year off the accrued seasons requirement for both players, meaning Matteau and Grigorenko will be eligible for unrestricted free agency one year earlier than they would have been if they were returned to junior before hitting the required amount of games.
NHL rules state that any player who is on the active roster for 40 games is awarded an accrued season, regardless of how many games the player actually plays. But THN.com has learned that because of the truncated season, that 40-game limit was pro-rated to 23.4 games to accommodate for a 48-game season. Matteau was on the roster for the Devils’ first 29 games of the season, 17 in which he saw action. Grigorenko was on Buffalo’s roster for 27 games, playing in all but five of them.
Both players are now where they belong, back in junior on playoff-bound teams with an opportunity to regain their confidence and have some success playing with their peers. Sending them back to junior hockey this season, and even keeping them in major junior for another season, will do absolutely nothing to hinder their development as players. But rushing them into situations for which they’re not ready has the potential to ruin them as players.
Both the Devils and Sabres probably agree the best place for both these players would probably be the American League, but neither was eligible to play there so it was either the NHL or major junior hockey. But what continues to mystify is the timing of all of this. The Sabres played their 23rd game of the season March 3 against the New York Rangers. Grigorenko played sparingly in three of the next four games, including just 4:51 in his last game before being shipped back to junior. The Devils, meanwhile, played their 23rd game of this season March 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Matteau was a healthy scratch for that game, then sat out three of the next six before his demotion.
So, it begs the question, were the Devils and Sabres wrong in letting the two players stay on the roster too long or should they be commended for having the good sense to send their players back to junior hockey even after they had used up an accrued season? We tried to get in touch with Sabres GM Darcy Regier and Devils GM Lou Lamoriello for a comment, but have so far been unsuccessful.
The Sabres and Devils can both say they got a very long look at their players by keeping them on the roster for such a long time, while giving them little ice time, and that might pay off in the long run. But it also might prove to be costly for them six years down the road.
As I tweeted Sunday night, Tyler Benson’s agent, Craig Oster, confirmed to The Hockey News that Benson has not sought exceptional player status in order to play in the Western League next season. Benson, who just turned 15, scored 57 goals and 146 points in just 33 games for the Southside Athletic Club bantams this season. It was thought he would apply for exceptional status, but will return to play midget hockey instead next season.
Sean Day, a defenseman for the Detroit Compuware midgets, has applied for exceptional status to play in the Ontario League next season, but there is speculation he will be turned down, largely because the teams drafting first and second overall, the Ottawa 67s and Erie Otters, do not intend to select him if he’s eligible.
Players had to apply for exceptional status in February. A decision on Day will be made before the OHL draft in May.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.