Upon hearing Mikhail Grigorenko would be a healthy scratch again last Tuesday, Sabres fans were furious.
“Every time Grigorenko or Johan Larsson sits for John Scott or Cody McCormick, people should be fired,” said one message.
Grigorenko played the next game, but it hardly appeased the fan base because the former first-round pick skated between Scott and McCormick — wingers who entered the meeting with Vancouver with one goal in 235 games.
“In what world does this makes sense?” a reader asked.
It’s one of the biggest questions in Sabreland.
The team and most of its backers are clearly at odds on how to handle Grigorenko. The arguments by both sides are easy to define:
• Fans — If the team is rebuilding and losing, why not give one of the top offensive prospects in the organization a chance to gain experience with significant minutes on a scoring line?
• Sabres — How can we give ice time to a guy who hasn’t proved he deserves it, especially when other players appear to be trying harder?
It’s basically become a chicken-or-egg dilemma: How can a guy prove he can succeed if he’s not put in position to succeed?
“For sure, I thought I would play first, second line,” Grigorenko told The News. “It’s just the beginning of my career, and hopefully I’ll get a chance to play on the first and second lines. I’ll just earn it and make coach believe in me that I can play with those guys.”
The present setup certainly isn’t working for the 19-year-old. He entered Saturday night’s game against Colorado with only one goal and four assists in 32 NHL appearances. That’s not what anyone expected from a junior star who put up 70 goals and 139 points in 92 games.
“It’s a touchy subject because I haven’t seen too many games,” Colorado coach Patrick Roy, who had Grigorenko in Quebec, said Saturday. “In the big picture, yes, I am surprised to see he has only one goal because he’s got so much talent.”
Sabres coach Ron Rolston calls it a learning experience when young players are scratched. He says it’s a chance for them to sit above the ice and see how the game is played.
Grigorenko, who has been scratched nine times during his two seasons, has no doubt he learns more from playing than sitting.
“During the games, you’ll always learn new situations, some new experiences,” he said. “From that, there’s more and more learning. If you go in the corner and something happens that never happened before, it’s a new experience and next time I will know already because I learned.
“Watching the games you learn some stuff, but you’re probably not going to learn things I’ve never heard of. You kind of know about this, but you see it again and again, and it just kind of makes me remember some stuff — if you call it learning.”
Rolston’s biggest complaint about Grigorenko, and the one that was echoed by Roy, is the center’s lack of compete. Like many skilled players, Grigorenko appears to glide through games and practices. His lack of intensity infuriates observers inside the organization.
“I feel like I compete,” Grigorenko said. “I feel like for every player it’s different. I compete. Some guys compete and it’s hit everyone, good forecheck. For me, compete can be different things like good positioning or if I have the puck good passes. It’s all part of the game.
“Obviously, I’m not a grinder or anything, so for me compete is a little different, just when I have the puck make good passes and keep the puck and help the team by bringing my skills.”
General Manager Darcy Regier, who promised Grigorenko a roster spot before training camp, endorsed using the center in a fourth-line role last season. He said “a teammate recognizes whether someone is gratuitously given something or has earned it, and you need to keep the team concept in place.”
Several Sabres, asked about Grigorenko on the condition of anonymity to get frank answers, agreed. One said teams improve only by having each player push to reach a higher line, and it would bug him if someone skated 19 minutes and didn’t strive for it. Another can see Grigorenko’s talent but noted “hard work is a talent, too.”
The root of this ice-time dilemma is Regier’s decision to keep Grigorenko in Buffalo last season. The Sabres had a nine-game tryout to determine if the teenager should stay in the NHL or return to Quebec. In Grigorenko’s nine games, he had one goal, one assist, a minus-5 rating and skated more than 13 minutes just twice.
Regier kept him, starting the clock on Grigorenko’s three-year contract. The second year would wastefully burn away if Buffalo sent him to Quebec now.
So as it stands, the Sabres are stuck. Frankly, there’s little reason not to at least try Grigorenko with skilled players. The guys on the top lines combined for a measly 10 goals in the opening nine games, so it’s not like they deserve a chance any more than he does.
“You want to be on the ice,” Grigorenko said. “So far I’m happy, but hopefully it’s just get more ice time and show my skills, and to get some power-play time would be awesome.”
Not in a party mood
For several years, the Sabres have been hosting “Road Crew” parties during select out-of-town trips. Alumni and team broadcasters head to a bar or restaurant, and fans can hang out with them for a $10 donation to the Sabres’ foundation. They’ve been a success.
The next two were supposed to be in San Jose and Los Angeles early next month. One big problem developed: Only a few dozen people planned to show up.
The Sabres looked at the lackluster sales and canceled the events. It’s not clear whether they picked cities that are short on Buffalo fans, or if few people want to party with an organization that’s not fun at the moment.
Fenton ready to be a GM
Hockey people know the fans want Regier gone. Whether the team will ax him is another matter. Prominent folks are eager to see what happens.
Nashville Assistant General Manager Paul Fenton is one of those keeping tabs, a source says. He’s in his 16th season with the Predators, including his eighth as GM David Poile’s right-hand man. Fenton appears ready to take over somewhere.
In addition to overseeing the Predators’ scouting staff, the 53-year-old serves as general manager for the minor-league affiliate in Milwaukee. The Admirals have made the postseason 11 straight times, an American Hockey League record.
Fenton has likely learned a lot from Poile. The Preds’ previous assistant GM was Ray Shero, now one of the NHL’s best leaders in Pittsburgh.
On the fly
• Like Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller, Vancouver’s Sedin twins are pending free agents. Daniel and Henrik get asked about it a lot less than Buffalo’s duo. “I’ve said from Day One that we’re not part of the negotiations,” Henrik Sedin said. “We’re playing hockey. They’re going to tell us when something is going on, but other than that I’ve spent zero minutes thinking about it. That’s not going to change.”
• Steve Mason’s record doesn’t show it, but the Philadelphia goaltender appears to have found his game. After flopping in Columbus, Mason put up a 2.37 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in his first six games this season. He was just 1-5 playing for the hapless Flyers, though.
• The Blues are off until Friday, giving them seven days between games. They decided to head to Charleston, S.C., this weekend on a team-bonding trip. “We obviously have to get work done there,” GM Doug Armstrong said, “but we want them to enjoy themselves.”