With quarrels among teammates, management uncertainty and a spot near the bottom of the standings, there have certainly been Better Days (please excuse the Goo Goo Dolls reference) in the place known as Hockey Heaven (which now seems more like a Purgatory for the game’s cast-offs and under performers). However damning the current state of the franchise is, a much larger issue of the underdevelopment of their young players looms large over the Buffalo Sabres.
This topic is once again brought to the forefront after the reassignment of rookie forward Mikhail Grigorenko to his QMJHL team the Quebec Remparts. Many have questioned how the 18-year-old Russian has been handled during his fledgling career. On the very surface, this move clearly hurts the Sabres from a business standpoint. As The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell points out, it appears the Blue and Gold waited too long to make a decision on Grigorenko. Not only did the Sabres burn a year off of his entry-level contract (by allowing him to play beyond the five-game limit), but also burned a year off of the accrued seasons requirement, meaning Grigorenko will be eligible for unrestricted free agency one year sooner.
According to THN, the typical 40-game requirement that awards an accrued season was pro-rated to 23.4 games due to the shortened season. Unfortunately, Grigorenko wasn’t sent back to Junior until the Sabres played 27 games. Although Grigorenko was scratched five times, the rule is counted by games on the active roster and not games played. It appears Sabres GM Darcy Regier was unaware of this rule or else they would have sent him back sooner seeing that he was once a scratch and only played sparingly over the course of the four games before the reassignment. Shall we queue the fire Darcy chants?
More significant is how this will and how it has affected the development of the young forward. Called into question will be whether or not the 2012 first-round pick should have even made the club or at least played past the five-game threshold. Others will argue that “Grigs” was never given a real opportunity to succeed. He often found himself playing on the fourth line playing with the likes of John Scott and seeing limited ice time. A lot of armchair coaches suggested that Grigorenko should have played with some of the team’s more talented players to be given a real chance to shine. Then there were the healthy scratches. That couldn’t have been good for the youngster’s psyche, right?
Past Grigorenko, there are a slew of other examples of players who have never seemed to reach their potential. The Sabres have done a tremendous job drafting players and getting most of them through the system, but once they reach the NHL they seemingly run into a roadblock along the way. A prime example is Tyler Myers. After winning the Calder Memorial Trophy for the 2009-2010 season, he’s never been the same player. This season in particular, his miscues and poor performance have been highlighted and highly scrutinized. He’s future is now in question. Will he ever reach his true potential?
Another current example is Drew Stafford. After reaching the 30-goal plateau while playing in just 62 games during the 2010-2011, the American-born forward has never been able to recapture that output. Like Myers, he’s struggled mightily and has even found himself on the fourth line. He’s always struggled with inconsistent play and is always a mixed bag from game to game, never knowing what to expect. Other examples of players that seemed to have peaked are Nathan Gerbe, Andrej Sekera and possibly Tyler Ennis.
Even some of the Sabres homegrown talent that could be considered elite (or at least very good) have had trouble being consistent. Ryan Miller’s never been the same goalie after winning the Vezina in 2010 and, Thomas Vanek has never turned in a season as complete as he did during the 2006-2007 campaign where he scored 40 goals, 80 points and was a plus-47.
Another telling sign is the fact the Sabres were led by players acquired from outside of the system during the run to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals. Players like Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, Mike Grier, Jochen Hecht, J.P. Dumont , Jaroslav Spacek, Teppo Numminen and Toni Lydman paved the way.
The next question to ask ourselves is why has the growth of so many players been stiffled? Is it because of former head coach Lindy Ruff? If so, we’ll soon find out. Maybe it’s the type of players that Regier is attracted by? We could soon have an answer to that question as well, as it appears the GM is on the hot seat. Either way, it appears there needs to be a philosophical change in the way the Buffalo Sabres develop players at the NHL level.
As an American based in Amsterdam, Joe provides a unique hockey insight, bringing a global perspective to the game. Joe has several years of experience covering the game on both a domestic and international level, including being credentialed for multiple World and World Junior Championships.