Darcy Regier got to know Mikhail Grigorenko the past three months as a player and person. The Sabres’ general manager believes Grigorenko will grow into a top-line center who will shine in Buffalo.
The 18-year-old isn’t ready to do that now, however.
The Sabres sent their top prospect back to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League on Friday, temporarily ending his NHL stay after 22 mostly uneventful games.
“There’s been benefits for us,” Regier said in First Niagara Center. “There’s benefits for him. We got to know his game. He got to know us. He has a very good understanding of what he needs to do, and he gets to go back and he’s going to have the opportunity to practice and work on those things.”
Grigorenko had one goal and five points while averaging just 9:44 of ice time. He impressed the Sabres during a brief training camp after putting up 29 goals and 50 points in 32 games with the Quebec Remparts. The junior team has one regular-season game remaining before starting the playoffs.
“It is big news and a big surprise for us,” a Remparts spokesman said by phone.
Regier expects the 12th overall pick in the 2012 draft to resume his role as the Remparts’ go-to guy.
“At some point in his NHL career, that’s what we’re going to expect here out of him, but it’s not fair to look for that out of an 18-year-old,” Regier said. “He surprised all of us by being here for the length of time he has been here. Depending on how far they go in the playoffs, he will return here at the end of the season.”
T.J. Brennan also departed Friday as the Sabres shipped the defenseman to Florida for a fifth-round pick in this June’s draft. Brennan’s hot start in Rochester didn’t translate to Buffalo, as the Amerks’ leading scorer during the lockout had just one goal in 10 games with the Sabres.
Brennan, 23, was usually Buffalo’s seventh or eighth defenseman, but the team figured he would not clear waivers to return to Rochester. He had 14 goals and 35 points in 36 games with the Amerks. The Sabres picked him in the second round in 2007.
“We weren’t able to get him in our lineup,” Regier told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle while watching the Amerks host Albany. “Obviously, if somebody’s prepared to pay a draft pick, he wasn’t going to clear waivers.”
The oft-traveled draft pick acquired by the Sabres originally belonged to the New Jersey Devils and was sent to Los Angeles before going to the Panthers.
Like Brennan, Grigorenko’s role with the Sabres has been miniscule since Feb. 9. He topped 10 minutes of ice time just twice in 11 games and was scratched five times. He’d been relegated to a fourth-line role and played just 4:51 against the New York Rangers on Tuesday.
It’s not what the Sabres hoped for after they decided to keep the Russian rookie past his five-game tryout and use up the initial year of his entry-level contract.
“Really it was about whether or not he was going to be able to get his minutes up to a level where he could continue the development,” Regier said. “What drove the decision was we really were using him in a fourth line-type role where we were hoping to get him in to create some offense. But his minutes really probably topped out at 10 minutes, and in the end he’s got an opportunity to go back to Quebec and be the go-to guy.”
The Sabres, who host the Ottawa Senators this afternoon, are near the bottom of the NHL. It’s created a thought process that maybe they should use Grigorenko and other young players extensively to get them used to the league.
“The bind you get into is it’s a team game, it’s a team sport,” Regier said. “You can only go so far to give the individual something at the expense of the rest of the team. ... A teammate recognizes whether someone is gratuitously given something or has earned it, and you need to keep the team concept in place.”
While hesitant to call the decision to start the year with Grigorenko an “experiment,” Regier admitted he wasn’t sure how things would turn out. Though Grigorenko failed to establish himself or last the entire season, the GM doesn’t view it as a failed experiment.
“You can view these things as an accumulation of knowledge and skills,” Regier said, “and utilizing what you’ve learned to take to the junior and build on that and then come back here at some point. It’s all about the mind-set and the perspective that individual holds versus being a victim, which is largely about, ‘I can’t believe this happened to me.’
“Based on my conversations with him, I think this has been a very good thing because I think he’s got a very good mind-set.”
Based on the Sabres’ spot in the standings, Grigorenko won’t be the last player to depart (or arrive) in Buffalo. But Regier says not to expect widespread change.
“I’m not in a blow-it-up mind-set,” he said. “Blowing up to me means blowing up, nothing left. No, I’m not in that mind-set, but I am in the mind-set that organizationally we have to find a way in order to win a championship to acquire more top players.”
The trade deadline is April 3, and the NHL’s general managers will gather Wednesday in Toronto for their annual meetings.
“There are a lot of calls to try and get a sense of what the market is and what the cost is going to be, so the activity is going to pick up,” Regier said. “Our focus, it’s not just about the playoffs. It’s about the ability to win a championship with the group of players you have, so that extends beyond this season.”