The on-again, off-again development of Mikhail Grigorenko turned into a bizarre saga Saturday as the Buffalo Sabres returned the center to his junior hockey team – only to learn that Grigorenko was refusing the assignment.
Grigorenko’s agent, Jay Grossman, confirmed to The News via email that Grigorenko would not be reporting to the Quebec Remparts but did not answer inquiries as to what could be next for the Russian who was Buffalo’s top draft choice in 2012.
Grigorenko was on loan to the Russian team that won the bronze medal Sunday in the World Junior Championships in Malmo, Sweden, and returned to the Sabres for Thursday’s morning skate. He didn’t play in the shootout loss that night to Florida and was not at practice Saturday at Riverside’s Bud Bakewell Arena.
After practice, interim coach Ted Nolan confirmed Grigorenko had been sent back to junior.
The Sabres, who flew to Washington for today’s game against the Capitals, had no official comment on Grigorenko Saturday night. An NHL source said Pat LaFontaine, the Sabres’ president of hockey operations, met with Grigorenko for about a half-hour Saturday and that the 19-year-old was upset with the team’s decision.
Nolan said he was in the meeting with LaFontaine and new general manager Tim Murray, and backed that account when asked about the decision after practice Saturday.
“He was a little bit upset I imagine but this is non-negotiable,” Nolan said. “It’s one of those things that has to be done. There’s only a certain amount you can direct and put people in position. It comes down to whether they want it or not. If he wants it, he wants to be here, he’ll work at it.”
Grigorenko had reportedly cooled off by the end of the meeting and understood the Sabres’ stance that he should return to junior to play 20-25 minutes a game on a top line and try to push his team toward the Memorial Cup.
Grossman, however, is believed to be pushing for Grigorenko to stay in the NHL. Late Saturday afternoon, Grigorenko issued a statement on his Facebook page where he apologized for the situation.
“We just need to find a place for me where I can develop and be the best hockey player I can be,” the statement said in part. “I came to North America 3 years ago coming from a home in Russia where I never had a bed, a shower or heat. ... I work everyday to be the best hockey player I can be so I can provide for my family, have a better life. ... Because hockey is all I have, my passion, who I am.
“I am so grateful I played in Quebec. ... I’m also so proud I was drafted in the NHL by the Buffalo Sabres organization. I love the city and people there. I love my neighborhood and I love the guys. They also have owners who want everyone to be happy and love their team so much.
“Now I would just ask all of you guys to respect me and the time I’m taking to think about my career. It might be hard to understand but it is even harder for a teenager.”
The NHL source said the Sabres would love to send Grigorenko to Rochester so he can develop physically and improve his two-way play but that is not an option for a player with junior eligibility remaining. Sabres officials, the source said, did not learn of the apparent change of heart about Quebec until they landed in Washington and are pondering their next move.
Grigorenko has two goals – both in the Nov. 8 loss at Anaheim – and one assist in 18 games this year, after posting one goal and four assists in 25 games last season. When he played his 10th game last year, the Sabres burned the first year of his entry-level contract. This is year two and the deal expires after next season.
Tabbed as a potential top-three draft choice heading into the 2012 draft, Grigorenko’s stock fell amid questions about his attitude and work ethic. His junior coach at the time, Hall of Fame goalie and current Colorado Avalanche coach Patrick Roy, pegged Grigorenko’s subpar play in the 2012 Quebec League playoffs as a product of a bout with mononucleosis and insisted NHL teams would not be disappointed if they drafted him.
Roy, in fact, had a chance meeting with then Sabres-coach Lindy Ruff during draft weekend in Pittsburgh where he extolled the virtue of his player on a Buffalo coach long believed to be hesitant to draft Russians.
The Sabres picked him but didn’t get a good gauge on Grigorenko because the lockout wiped out training camp and the exhibition schedule in 2012. They were criticized when they burned the first year on the deal for a player who did not show much passion on the ice and was accused by some teammates of a poor work ethic off it.
Last summer, General Manager Darcy Regier said Grigorenko would have a roster spot. Coach Ron Rolston, however, wouldn’t guarantee that during training camp and made Grigorenko a healthy scratch five times this season. Grigorenko played three games for Nolan and did not get a point. He has not played for the Sabres since Nov. 27.
“He’s a young player. There’s not too many 19-year-olds outside of the Crosbys and Malkins that play,” Nolan said, referring to Pittsburgh stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. “We’re not looking at what he can do now. We’re looking at what he can do down the road when he develops.”