Mikhail Grigorenko will be on the ice today in Quebec City for his first practice with his new team. Or his old one, depending on your perspective.
He’s finally in the right spot. It’s about time.
Last year, when the Sabres had a decision to make about keeping him in the NHL before his entry-level contract kicked in, I was on the side of the NHL over juniors. Darcy Regier & Co. agreed with me. Fools, all of us.
Grigorenko is an NHL player only in billing. As a first-round pick, taken No. 12 overall in 2013. Then you put your eyes on him and you realize why he dropped in the draft from what many thought would be a top-3 selection.
His skating isn’t good enough. His desire and passion isn’t close to what it needs to be. And his numbers aren’t either. Three goals and eight points in 43 games? That should make the decision easy.
But here was Grigorenko acting like nothing more than a spoiled brat over the weekend, refusing to go back to the Quebec Remparts after he returned from the World Junior Championships. There was no excuse for it. Not when the president of hockey operations is a Hall of Famer in Pat LaFontaine. Not when Ted Nolan is the coach. And not when a reputed keen eye for young talent in Tim Murray is the new general manager.
Among many things, the Sabres didn’t want Grigorenko sitting around for 20 days during the Olympics if he was still in the NHL. It’s clear thinking, the kind we’re not used to seeing around here. But there were plenty of deeper thoughts going on too.
“The old-school part of it is you really have to earn it,” LaFontaine said Tuesday. “There has to be a standard. And when you get to the NHL, you have to be a consistent pro. Becoming a consistent, major-league NHL level player on a consistent level every night, that’s hard.”
There’s been so much wrong with this tale right from the beginning. The one stroke of bad luck is the fact there was no training camp and no exhibition schedule last season due to the lockout.
Had there been those chances for evaluation, you would think it would have become obvious to the Sabres that Grigorenko was not ready. That didn’t happen, so the Sabres, desperate at center, decided to start the shortened season with Grigorenko in the lineup.
Grigorenko did nothing, other than help Lindy Ruff get kicked out the door. Then came development camp last July and Regier’s bizarre proclamation that Grigorenko would be on the team this year. Handed a spot without earning it again. Even Ron Rolston found that one impossible to stomach.
Grigorenko again did nothing. Other than contribute to the merciful sackings of Regier and Rolston.
The narrative of the Twitter gotcha mob is that the Sabres spent the last two years playing Grigorenko mostly with John Scott and Cody McCormick. It’s plain not true. Analytics websites show his most promiment linemates were Brian Flynn, Drew Stafford, Steve Ott, Jochen Hecht and Zemgus Girgensons.
You could say Grigorenko never got a chance with good linemates. I can say he never made anyone around him better, either. He should have been gone a long time ago.
“It’s unfortunate that maybe it hasn’t been the right program or protocol that should have occurred,” LaFontaine said. “I don’t think it was. But it happened. But that’s behind us now. What we need to do is what’s best for Mikhail going forward.”
For his part, Grigorenko is lucky the Sabres took a compassionate approach here. Refusing to report, even for just a day, was an absurd stance for the kid and agent Jay Grossman to take. So was his Facebook apology. Plain weak.
Murray’s first big act as GM could have easily been to simply suspend him without pay or even dump him somewhere else for a bag of pucks. Murray could have said to himself, “Hey, it’s not my first-round pick.”
The Sabres took Girgensons at No. 14, two spots after Grigorenko, and he’s definitely building a career. One reason is his work ethic. The coaches routinely kick the 20-year-old off the ice at the end of practices and gameday skates. Don’t have that problem with Grigorenko.
Another factor is Girgensons got to play last year in the AHL. By all accounts, Grigorenko is best suited for Rochester but he can’t go there as a 19-year-old with Canadian junior eligiblity remaining (Girgensons was a United States Hockey League player, so there’s no such rules for them).
LaFontaine is like many executives who feel it’s a terrible rule and that teams should be allowed one 19-year-old exception. For now, it’s Quebec City for Grigorenko. Next year it will likely be Rochester. The fact that it’s the final year of his deal means nothing. He has no leverage. He’ll take the Sabres’ next offer or simply go to the KHL. Whatever.
LaFontaine has an 18-year-old son, so he knows what it’s like dealing with older teenagers. Communication has to be kept open and sometimes more detailed explanations of what’s going on have to be provided.
But even then, there are limits.
“It’s not kid gloves either,” LaFontaine said. “This is the big leagues. There are certain decisions that have to be made. The decisions that Timmy, myself and Teddy talk about are in the best interest of the long-term vision of the team and that player.”
This one definitely was. About time.