BUFFALO – Sending rookie Mikhail Grigorenko back to junior wasn’t a snap decision the Sabres made to reach the 23-man roster limit, general manager Darcy Regier said. The team had been talking about the move for a while prior to making it Friday.
If the 18-year-old center wasn’t getting scratched, he had been playing sparingly during most of his 22 NHL appearances.
“This isn’t driven by a roster move,” Regier said during a late-afternoon news conference inside the First Niagara Center. “This is driven by what is best for Mikhail and best for his career.”
Returning the 12th overall pick in June’s NHL Entry Draft to the QMJHL, a league he dominated for two seasons, gives Grigorenko “an opportunity for him to keep growing and building on his experience here, building on the start in the Quebec League. He had a terrific world junior tournament,” Regier said.
“There’s no straight line,” Regier said about Grigorenko’s development. “You don’t go through zero to 100 and not miss a beat. There’s adversity that he’s going to deal with, and he was great.”
Playing big minutes for the Quebec Remparts, who have one regular-season game left and begin the playoffs next week, will allow the Russian to be the man again instead of skating five minutes a game in the NHL.
“He surprised all of us by being here for the length of time he has been here, and depending how far they go in the playoffs, he will be here after the season,” Regier said.
Still, the Sabres burned the first season of his three-year, entry-level contract for one goal and five points.
Regier doesn’t quite see it like that, however.
“It was an experiment,” Regier said. “There certainly are benefits. He certainly has a very good understanding of what it takes to play in the National Hockey League going forward. I think it’s very important, and he agreed, that he spend as much time as possible here in the offseason training and preparing for next season.”
Regier expects him to challenge for a spot again next year. While the Remparts’ season is ongoing, Grigorenko can only return to the NHL as the Sabres’ third emergency recall. Once the junior campaign ends, the Sabres can recall him or send him to Rochester.
Ideally, the Sabres would love to assign Grigorenko to the AHL now, although rules prohibit it.
Regier said Remparts coach Patrick Roy and the entire league are “thrilled” Grigorenko, who has 29 goals and 50 points in 32 QMJHL games, is coming back.
Having so many injuries – winger Ville Leino is returning from a hip injury this afternoon against the Ottawa Senators and must be activated – gave Grigorenko more time.
“It actually allowed us to keep him a little longer,” Regier said.
Grigorenko, who practiced with the Sabres on Friday, began the season playing as a third-liner, skating about 11 or 13 minutes. Following some brief fourth-line duty, he played a season-high 17:10 on Jan. 27, the final game before his contract kicked in.
After the Sabres kept him Jan. 29, he scored his first goal that night. But he played sporadically in games – he had spent much of his time on the fourth line with tough guy John Scott – and was scratched five times.
“It was about whether or not he was going to be able to get his minutes up to a level where he could continue to develop,” Regier said. “Really … what drove the decision was we were really using him in a fourth-line type role where we were hoping to get him in to create some offense.”
Grigorenko was averaging only 9:44 on the ice each contest. He played a season-low 4:51 Tuesday, his final game.
“You have to learn to play more hockey in your shift,” Regier said. “These kids are used to having the puck a lot with their junior teams, and they’re very good when they do have the puck. It’s when they don’t have the puck when most of the learning takes place, combined with getting stronger and getting faster, and those are all normal things we deal with with young players.”
The Sabres couldn’t just throw Grigorenko out on the ice to see what would happen.
“You can only go so far to give the individual something at the expense of the team,” Regier said.
The Sabres’ 14th-place standing didn’t help Grigorenko’s development.
“If you’re hitting on all cylinders … you can better support that young man,” Regier said. “We’re not in that position right now.”