Pat LaFontaine joined the New York Islanders at age 19 with a ridiculous resume. In his only season of junior hockey, he recorded 104 goals and 234 points in 70 games. He represented the United States in the 1984 Olympics.
Surely, a player like that could be trusted on the ice.
Nope. In a story LaFontaine relayed to four young, departing Sabres on Tuesday, the Hockey Hall of Famer said it took more than two years for Isles coach Al Arbour to allow him to take a defensive-zone faceoff. LaFontaine needed to mature and earn his way into key situations.
It’s a message Buffalo hopes Nikita Zadorov, Rasmus Ristolainen, Johan Larsson and Mikhail Grigorenko think about with their new teams.
Prior to the Sabres’ 4-1 loss St. Louis, the Sabres sent Zadorov back to his junior team and Ristolainen, Larsson and Grigorenko to the Rochester Americans.
“It’s a great place for them to develop, not only physically but more so mentally,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said in First Niagara Center. “We look at where we are with this organization and where we have to go, and proper development is so important.”
The Sabres said Monday they would make their kiddie pool shallower, and they followed up in significant fashion. The roster had an average age of 25.9 when the Sabres visited Toronto on Saturday, and it was 27.2 when they hosted the Blues.
Zadorov went back to London of the Ontario Hockey League. Because the 18-year-old didn’t play 10 games — the NHL’s teenage tryout limit — the first year of his entry-level contract did not kick in.
The 21-year-old Larsson will get significant playing time at center for the Amerks after being scratched in the Sabres’ previous three games. Ristolainen, 19, averaged 17:13 of ice time with the Sabres and played on the power-play and penalty-kill units. The defenseman will skate in even more key situations in Rochester.
Grigorenko headed east on a two-week conditioning loan, and the 19-year-old will remain on the Sabres’ roster while in Rochester.
“It’s a good opportunity for those guys to go down, play some bigger minutes, play some more important roles and take the experience they have from here down there,” said defenseman Mike Weber, who played 181 games in the minors. “It’s one of those things that it’s a maturing process. You don’t know how helpful it is until you’re older, until you make it.”
The transactions are expected to help the departing players, but they also impacted the veterans who remain. While they didn’t have personal beefs with the youngsters, many felt it wasn’t right they were handed jobs without earning them.
“Good players, all of them, maybe not NHL ready just yet, but they will be eventually,” said alternate captain Henrik Tallinder, who liked the message sent by the team’s new management. “I think they got it right. They know what to do. They want you to earn the spot, not just give it.”
The decision to go young was made by former General Manager Darcy Regier and owner Terry Pegula. It was a new plan for Regier, who previously had a guideline of 120 minor-league games for players. The departure from his long-held belief didn’t work as a culture of losing invaded the youthful dressing room.
“You’ve got to learn how to be a winner and not learn how to be a loser,” center Ville Leino said. “That won’t help the organization or yourself in any way. That’s the situation and how it goes. That’s how it’s been always, and it’s for a reason.”
While the quartet was disappointed to depart, Nolan sensed another emotion.
“I can’t speak for them, but just by the expression on their face, it was almost like a relief,” the coach said. “You talk to almost any player that went through junior hockey, some of the things they always say is it was the best three years of their life. They get to play with their peers. They get to go to movies. They get to go on dates on a certain night off. That’s what kids do, and these guys have to be kids and mature at the right time. You don’t want to force-feed them.
“We want these kids to mature. They’re all really good players, and they’re going to be great contributors down here at the right time.”
The Sabres activated Weber from injured reserve to fill one roster spot, but they have two more positions available. Nolan said they will call up players from Rochester.
The moves may come today, giving the newcomers time to practice before the Sabres visit Philadelphia on Thursday.
“Pat LaFontaine knows exactly what we’re going to do,” Nolan said, “but we’ll announce that later.”