Buffalo Sabres fans hoped The Grooming of Grigo would be a key story line to follow this season. The team had modest hopes and there have been few instant results.
As the shortened season continues, particularly if the Sabres maintain their spot in the basement of the Eastern Conference, the development of rookie center Mikhail Grigorenko will be closely followed.
So far at least, there hasn’t been much of a plot.
Grigorenko has just one goal and two assists in 15 games, sitting out four as a healthy scratch. He’s averaging only 10 minutes, 53 seconds per game — and has been under 10 minutes five times.
One theory was that a veteran head coach like Lindy Ruff, especially one in a fruitless effort to save his job, didn’t want to trust a raw rookie. Then Grigorenko’s ice time would quickly jump up when a developer like Ron Rolston was behind the bench.
That hasn’t happened yet. Rolston played Griogrenko just six minutes in Saturday’s 4-0 loss to the New York Islanders and said afterward the NHL’s lone remaining 18-year-old needs a lot of work. Grigorenko was Buffalo’s No. 1 draft pick and the No. 12 choice overall last June.
Rolston said he didn’t see any issues with conditioning but it was simply a case of the rookie not being up to speed with the NHL game enough.
“Right now, it’s more his pace,” Rolston said. “The pace I think is what he struggles with at times, when it picks up and the tempo picks up. He’s got the ability. You see his hands, his vision. But when the tempo gets jumped up a little bit is where he’s going to have to make improvements.”
Prior to Saturday’s game, Grigorenko told The News he couldn’t really pinpoint what he would learn watching from the press box but felt the team was doing what’s best for his longterm development.
“Every hockey player wants to play and for the last week I didn’t,” he said. “I missed the last three games. It was a little bit hard. It’s never happened to me in my life.”
It’s fairly obvious that Grigorenko’s game is not yet at an NHL level and that he would likely benefit from being in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans. But as a junior-eligible player, the rules limited the Sabres to two choices: The NHL or a trip back to junior with the Quebec Ramparts.
The latter option was turned down because the Sabres felt Grigorenko had dominated at that level for the first half of this season and was a standout for Russia in the World Junior Championships, so he needed a new challenge. In addition, staying in Buffalo would get him extra work with the coaching staff and a head start in the team’s strength and conditioning program.
And, of course, the Sabres had a real lack of depth at center and were hoping to catch lightning in a bottle from a kid who was in midseason form when the lockout ended and the NHL season suddenly began Jan. 20. But the quick pace of NHL play, particularly the way defenders close on players with the puck and the spaces they’re trying to pass to, has proved challenging.
One thing bugging Grigorenko is how other junior-eligible players are contributing much more to their teams.
Florida center Jonathan Huberdeau, the No. 3 overall pick in 2011, is off to a strong start with the Panthers with eight goals. Among 2012 draftees, No. 1 overall pick Nail Yakupov has had some big moments in Edmonton with five goals and No. 3 pick Alex Galchenyuk has 12 points and a plus-9 rating while playing slightly over 12 minutes a game in Montreal.
The most time is being garnered by Boston defenseman Dougie Hamilton, at nearly 18 minutes a game, although his time has been cut back in recent games with the Bruins going with five veteran blueliners for the third period.
“Everybody is on different teams and in different situations,” Grigorenko said. “I saw Galchenyuk and Yakupov have been good. I don’t know what exactly is their situation and how it’s different for them there. But I’m happy I’m here and in the NHL.
“For sure, everybody wants to play more but I need to deserve my ice time and I’m trying to do that. Hopefully soon, I’ll get more ice time.”
“We want our players to focus on their own play and he’s in a different situation and we’re in a different situation here that maybe those other players are in,” Rolston said. “His job is to start to build on that confidence and instill in the staff that he’s making those steps that we need to keep seeing … so we can continue to build on what his gifts are.”
Many fans take issue with the lines Grigorenko has played on. In a couple of different games, he’s had sporadic shifts on the fourth line with teammates like enforcer John Scott.
The thinking is he needs to play with offensively talented players to thrive and Rolston seems to agree.
Grigorenko started on a line with Marcus Foligno and Patrick Kaleta on Saturday, then bounced around the lineup although it seemed that Rolston was trying to keep him with Foligno. He had no shots on goal and no real impact on the game other than one neat backhand pass to Andrej Sekera that drew some noise from the crowd until Sekera then gave the puck away.
“He’s a player that’s very important to our future,” Rolston said. “It’s finding the right developmental time in making sure we’re doing it properly, getting him in the right situations. When we put him in there, we want him to be playing with some players that he can play with and make plays and build confidence.
“But on his end, he has to earn that. We’re not going to be an entitlement situation because he’s got a lot of skill.”
The Sabres were off on Sunday. They will practice this morning in First Niagara Center before heading south to meet the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night and the Florida Panthers on Thursday. The next home game is Saturday afternoon at 3 against New Jersey.