Rasmus Ristolainen played 19 games with the Sabres. ©2013, Dan Hickling, Olean Times Herald

Sabres’ reassignment of youngsters represents culture change

BUFFALO – Development time used to be mandatory. Before Mikhail Grigorenko cracked the lineup last season, the Sabres hadn’t played an 18-year-old regularly since Pierre Turgeon in 1987-88. Most of their top prospects spent at least one full season in the minors.

But former general manager Darcy Regier, who was fired with coach Ron Rolston last week, dramatically switched philosophies earlier this year as the Sabres started rebuilding.

The struggling Sabres recently became the first team since 1995-96 to have four teenagers on the roster.

The team’s veterans noticed. The Sabres’ old regime handed out too many roster spots to undeserving youngsters, defenseman Henrik Tallinder said.

Interim coach Ted Nolan and his boss, Pat LaFontaine, the president of hockey operations, agree with the 34-year-old. The two have started fixing Regier’s mistakes.

“It’s not about getting the spot; it’s about earning the spot,” Tallinder said Tuesday morning after the Sabres reassigned four rookies, three of them teenagers. “It used to be like that in this organization, too. I don’t know what happened. So I think we’re getting back to the right track here.”

The moves:

– Grigorenko went to AHL Rochester on a two-week conditioning assignment. The 19-year-old center will return when it’s over, Nolan said. The Russian had two goals and three points in 15 games. Grigorenko has been feeling ill, Nolan said.

Update: The NHL has denied Grigorenko’s assignment, according to multiple reports. He’s not on the ice for Rochester’s skate this morning, according to reporters there.

Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen went to Rochester, where he was assigned once this season in a paper move, on a regular assignment. The 19-year-old Finn, the No. 8 pick in June, had one goal in 19 games.

Center Johan Larsson went to Rochester, where he played 10 total games last season. The 21-year-old Swede has one assist in 17 games.

Defenseman Nikita Zadorov went back to the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights. The 18-year-old, the No. 16 pick in June, had one goal in seven games. The Russian had been a healthy scratch six of the last eight games.

“We’re trying to change our culture,” said Sabres defenseman Mike Weber, who returned from a broken thumb in the Sabres’ 4-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues inside the First Niagara Center. “Now it’s finally a change in culture.”

How did the prospects handle the news?

“It was almost like a relief,” said Nolan, who kept 19-year-old rookie center Zemgus Girgensons.

Nolan said the Sabres will recall players from Rochester, most likely today. He wouldn’t name them. The Sabres played with no spare players Tuesday.

Only Ristolainen played games under Nolan.

“Whether I saw them or not, I don’t think it really made much of a difference,” Nolan said. “We look at where we are with this organization and where we have to go to, and proper development is so important.”

Tallinder said the Sabres made the right moves.

“They’re good players, all of them,” he said. “I don’t think they’re ready for the NHL yet, just yet. They will be.”

Weber, who spent three full seasons in the AHL, remembers when youngsters had to “earn it.”

“You got to develop in the minors. You got to play junior,” Weber said. “You got to earn the right to be here. That’s nothing against those guys. They were given that opportunity. So it’s not their fault. From a standpoint on hockey and what we want to be as a hockey team, that’s kind of a positive, I think.”

The Sabres have received permission from the Boston Bruins to interview assistant general manager Jim Benning, according to TSN’s Bob McKenzie.

LaFontaine said Friday he would start interviewing GM candidates this week.

Benning worked 12 years with the Sabres, eight as the director of amateur scouting. The 50-year-old played 610 NHL games as a defenseman with Toronto and Vancouver.

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