Darcy Regier’s dilemma of what to do with Mikhail Grigorenko would have been non-existent in a normal season. The 18-year-old would be in Quebec right now skating for his junior team.
Things changed with the lockout. While the Buffalo Sabres were idle, Regier got to watch the team’s top prospect perform in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and in world junior tournament exhibitions. The general manager noticed the kid had grown considerably since the Sabres’ summer development camp.
“From the start of the year to where he is now, he’s a much better hockey player,” Regier said by phone Monday. “If we were making this decision back in September, I’d argue it would have been a lot easier than it is now.”
The decision is whether to make Grigorenko a permanent member of the Sabres. His five-game tryout period is over. The first year of his entry-level contract kicks in with a sixth game, which could come tonight when the Sabres host Toronto in First Niagara Center.
The sixth game also could come Thursday when the Sabres visit Boston or Saturday when they play in Montreal. It might come Sunday when Florida visits Buffalo. Or it might come during the 2013-14 season if the Sabres send him back to Quebec.
“We really haven’t made a final decision,” said Regier, who planned to continue discussing the team’s options today with coach Lindy Ruff. “It doesn’t matter which way we go with this decision, there are pros and cons to it.”
Grigorenko is patiently awaiting word. He hopes he’s staying in Buffalo.
“I learn things every day here,” he said. “I feel like here I can learn a lot of things and I can improve a lot. I’d be really happy to stay.”
Ruff and Regier said at the start of the process that Grigorenko would stay if he could contribute and help the team win. He has no points and the team is 2-3, but his presence makes them a more formidable squad. He gives the center-thin Sabres a third-line middle man with offensive talent.
“What he can do with the puck is pretty entertaining to watch,” defenseman Tyler Myers said. “He’s got a tremendous amount of skill, and he’s worked hard. He hasn’t looked out of place to me, but it’s not my decision.”
While Grigorenko is known for his offensive talent, he’s held his own in the defensive zone. That’s vital on a Ruff-coached team.
“He’s put himself in a good position in respect to not being a liability when he’s on the ice,” Regier said. “From a coaching standpoint that allows you an opportunity to get back on the ice again.”
If the Sabres ship Grigorenko back to juniors, it’s to give him more experience being “the man.” He had 29 goals and 50 points in 32 games with the Remparts and gets to play 20-plus minutes per night. If he stays in Buffalo, there are certain to be more games like Friday against Carolina, when he played just two shifts in the final 40 minutes.
“He would be in a go-to situation in Quebec,” Regier said. “He’d be in virtually every situation that would allow him to improve his game.”
Quebec has just 20 games remaining. The Remparts are seventh in the 18-team league, so Grigorenko would have the benefit of playoff games.
“I’m trying not to think about it a lot, just trying to work hard,” he said. “For now I’m with the team, so it’s good.”
Grigorenko was one of the final four players on the ice Monday during the Sabres’ optional practice. More than 90 minutes after it started, he was still skating alongside Nathan Gerbe and T.J. Brennan, taking shots on goaltender Ryan Miller.
“He’s handled himself really well,” Miller said. “He’s been pretty professional. He understands you have to come in, do the work and take care of yourself. He’s got good habits already in the locker room, off the ice. On the ice, he seems to be picking it up pretty well.
“Scoring opportunities change quite a bit from junior to NHL, and I think if he has a little more comfort in those situations he’ll start to shoot for his strengths and you’ll see some of his skill start to come out even more. It’s tough to get chances in the NHL, and as soon as he starts to find those spots I think he’ll be good.”
Now it’s just a matter of getting into another NHL game. It could be tonight. It could be next season.
“We’ll support him either way,” Myers said. “He’s going to be an important player on this team in the future, if not this year as well.”