As The Buffalo Sabres Hit A Roadblock, Critical Decision Looms
Picture courtesy of Grant Halverson/Getty Images.
By: Connor Nielen (@ConnorNielen)
Despite having been on the short-side of the outcome in each of its past three games, the Buffalo Sabres are not about to push any panic buttons. While a disappointing turn of events has seen the team’s encouraging 2-0 record quickly turn into that of a worrisome 2-3 one, an abundance of hockey lies ahead of them (even in a shortened season).
Some semblance of urgency on the part of the players would be appreciated, surely, but there will nonetheless be lots of time for them to figure things out, gel as a group, and still get back to their winning ways. Opportunities will be plentiful.
Be that as it may, time is not such a luxury for the organization in all instances. 18-year old Mikhail Grigorenko’s immediate future hangs in the balance as the Buffalo brass must carefully consider the ramifications that could come about as a result of either keeping the young Russian or sending him back to the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts for the remainder of the year.
Having reached the maximum five games within the trial period that the NHL allows for players eligible to return to junior hockey, the Sabres can not use Grigorenko in another game this season without committing to ‘burning’ a full season of his entry-level contract (regardless of how many additional games he plays in beyond that point).
While a decision must be made relatively soon, Buffalo could hypothetically give itself a little bit of extra time to choose by designating Grigorenko a ‘healthy scratch’ for each game until they reach a consensus decision on what’s best for both the player and the team.
The issue at hand (if you choose to acknowledge there even being one) is not a matter of whether or not Grigorenko is talented enough to play in the league: he is unquestionably one of the 12 best forwards on Buffalo’s roster. What requires evaluation is Grigorenko’s role, or apparent lack thereof, at this stage of the season (albeit very early into it, see above).
Coach Lindy Ruff has been hesitant to rush Grigorenko along (refusing to “throw him into the fire”, so to speak) by severely limiting his usage at key times in games (Grigorenko did not play a shift in the third period of Friday night’s loss to Carolina). Ruff gave the rookie a steep increase in ice-time Sunday in Washington, but much of that can be attributed to Thomas Vanek’s absence from the lineup, not necessarily indicative of a permanent adjustment.
While the first-round pick has been unable to make an impact on the scoresheet thus far, it is extremely difficult to fault him for that given what/who he has had to work with. Grigorenko’s linemates have for the most part been a various mix of third and fourth liners, a combination which has included the likes of Patrick Kaleta, Jochen Hecht, and even the team’s new enforcer, John Scott (all valuable contributors in their own right, but not ideal candidates to benefit a player of Grigorenko’s pedigree by any means).
For Grigorenko to flourish, he needs to be surrounded by playmakers and finishers – guys whose job it is to score goals. Granted, part of this problem/setback, whatever you want to call it, has been a lingering lower-body ailment derailing the season debut of Ville Leino, who was originally expected to begin the year alongside ‘Grigo’.
Assuming the Sabres do elect to keep him, it would be especially nice if Grigorenko were able to establish some sort of chemistry with Leino, who is thought to be in line for a bounce-back campaign after struggling to ever really find sustained success last year with the Sabres.
It is hard to say for sure, but the thinking on the part of the Sabres seems to be that they are are leaning toward keeping number 25 for the whole year. All things considered, the kid has certainly not played himself out a job. It is merely just an unfortunate consequence of the lockout that Grigorenko is not entitled to a more extensive chance to prove himself before the Sabres’ decision has to be made.
A choice to keep him means Ruff would face an ongoing challenge to find a comfortable spot for Grigorenko to acclimate himself to, but that is not exactly not a bad problem to have. The potential reward of having him stay in Buffalo appears to greatly outweigh any risk associated with not sending him back to junior. We shall find out very soon if the Sabres feel the same way.