It’s a topsy-turvy Monday when a hockey writer sides with an “enigmatic teenage Russian forward,” but that’s what I’m doing today.
It was just a few weeks ago I lauded the Buffalo Sabres for sending Mikhail Grigorenko to the 2014 World Junior Championship. Since being drafted 12th overall in 2012, he’d played roughly 10 minutes per game at the NHL level on a bad team. Letting him take on heavy responsibility in a meaningful tournament was a no-brainer decision.
Sorry to harp on a franchise that just hired a shiny new GM in Tim Murray, but it’s time to rescind the praise. Over the weekend, the Sabres reassigned Grigorenko to the Quebec League’s Remparts. Grigorenko, 19, is not eligible to play for Buffalo’s American League affiliate in Rochester. He played there late last year, but only because his junior season was over. The Sabres’ only options until he’s AHL-eligible next season were returning Grigorenko to junior or playing him at the NHL level. They chose junior and if you ask me or Grigorenko, they chose wrong. Grigorenko’s first reaction at the news was to refuse to report on Saturday, though he changed his mind and towed the company line Sunday, announcing he would go.
The predicament is frustrating for many reasons. For one, it highlights the absurdity of the NHL and Canadian Hockey League’s transfer agreement, which prohibits a player from full-time AHL employment until he’s exhausted his major junior eligibility. To do so, you must have turned 20 by Dec. 31 of a given season or completed four years of junior service.
If Grigorenko was AHL-eligible, there would be no debate here. He’d be in Rochester and he probably would’ve started the season there. Other high-end prospects with absolutely nothing to prove in junior, like Jonathan Drouin in Halifax, would also be in the AHL, where they’d develop much better playing against grown men in one of the top three leagues on the planet.
Alas, Grigorenko and his teenaged brethren can’t play in the AHL and while I sympathize with the Sabres for being forced to choose between a rock and hard place, I still believe they chose wrong.
Last season, the Sabres jerked Grigorenko around, keeping him in the NHL as a teenager, often scratching him, holding onto him until coach Lindy Ruff was fired and then, after burning a year of his entry-level contract, returning him to junior. Back with Quebec for the final game of the regular season, Grigorenko immediately tossed up a four-point night and finished with 30 goals and 54 points in 33 dominant games.
Thirty goals in 33 games. Does that stat read to you like a player who, one year later, needs more seasoning in the same environment?
I don’t buy the “let’s not ruin Grigroenko’s confidence” argument. He’s a forward. This is not throwing an 18-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury between the pipes or keeping an overwhelmed Luke Schenn on a bad team’s blueline. The forward position develops quicker than defense or goalie and there’s a smaller risk of “ruining” an impressionable mind.
What can ruin a player’s confidence: Starting his NHL career in a lockout-shortened campaign, being returned to junior two straight seasons and playing for seven different coaches over that span.
The Sabres haven’t given Grigorenko the tiniest chance to show what he can do at the NHL level. In 43 career games, he’s averaged 10:43 of ice time. He’s played fewer than 10 minutes in 17 of those contests, or 39.5 percent of his games. On a rebuilding team that can benefit greatly from a slide in the standings, what is there to lose by giving Grigorenko a long look? Not his confidence. The way the Sabres have handled him has done that damage already.
Sometimes, a young player has to learn his place, be patient and mature before he can make a difference at the NHL level. In Grigrorenko’s case, it’s hard to do so when you’re never given the opportunity.
Well, Sabres, enjoy watching him tear up the ‘Q’ pointlessly…again.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin