The Buffalo Sabres’ new regime, led by president of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine and coach Ted Nolan, has vowed to make their young players earn their way to the NHL. Instead of letting their teenage first-round picks get their tails kicked in The Show and learn how to lose, they want want the kids learning how to win at a lower level.
That’s why hulking defenseman Nikita Zadorov (16th overall in 2013) was returned to the London Knights and blueliner Rasmus Ristolainen (eighth overall in 2013) went to Rochester of the American League.
Zadorov, who reminded me of a young Zdeno Chara when I saw him live last year, gets to play big games at the 2014 Memorial Cup, which London will host. In Rochester, Ristolainen can at least be part of a playoff push and will cut his teeth alongside other high-end Buffalo prospects like Johan Larsson, Joel Armia and Matt Hackett, health permitting.
But Mikhail Grigorenko was the conundrum. The offensively gifted pivot, 19, had nothing left to prove in junior as a man among boys averaging almost a goal per game last season with the Quebec Remparts. And the NHL blocked the Sabres’ attempt to send him to Rochester on a conditioning stint, as the AHL’s agreement with the Canadian Hockey League states that major junior prospects must have played four full seasons or be 20 years old to play in the AHL.
So the Sabres were out of options with Grigorenko, essentially a “Quad-A” player, too good for junior and not good enough for the NHL, with eight points in 43 games, three different coaches and a litany of healthy scratches over his first 14 months as a pro.
Enter the 2014 World Junior Championship, the saving grace. The Sabres announced today they will loan Grigorenko (and Zadorov) to Team Russia for the tournament, which begins later this month in Malmo, Sweden.
Perfect. Everyone wins here. Russia gets a marquee scorer who can instantly take a spot on its top line. Grigorenko gets big-game experience against high-level competition and actually has a chance to win something, which he won’t do in Buffalo for the foreseeable future.
It’s a positive omen for Sabres fans. The new brass won’t rush the rebuild even when the cupboard bulges with talented prospects.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News’s 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