Saturday, June 23, 2012

"Best player available" suits the Sabres just fine at Day One of the Draft

The Buffalo Sabres, as well as nearly every other team in the NHL, follow the philosophy of choosing the best player available when it comes to their first pick in the draft.

When it happens to coincide with a position of need, especially as far down as the middle section, it makes for a very good start to a draft.

It's no secret that the Sabres organizational strength lies on the blue line with a bevy of defensemen coming in all shapes and sizes. There was a definitive need for them to add to the forward ranks, especially at center, and they were able to do just that with the 12th overall pick last night in Pittsburgh.

In a departure from the previous regime, owner Terry Pegula and his charges landed 6'3" 198lb center Mikhail Grigorenko. The big, highly skilled Russian dominated the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last year scoring 40 goals and adding 45 assists in an injury-shortened, 59 game campaign.

The Sabres have not drafted a Russian since Marek Zagrapan in 2005.

In pre-draft interviews, Sabres Head Scout Kevin Devine had brought up the "Russian factor" numerous times. The spector of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia poaching NHL'ers with the lure of big money and a chance to play back home in the Motherland would temper any thoughts of moving up in the draft and might prove to be to risky a move for an organization like the Sabres. Losing a top pick for nothing would hurt any organization.

That thought process was put to the test as both Grigorenko and another top-five prospect, center Filip Forsberg, continued to slide in the draft.

The tandem's fall had little to do with anything other than a run on defenseman after RW Nail Yakupov went #1 to Edmonton and C Alex Galchenyuk went #3 to Montreal.

One after another, defensemen started going off the board as the next seven picks after Galchenyuk were all on the blue line. In all, a record eight were taken with the first ten picks.

Mikhail Grigorenko
is the first Russian
taken by the Sabres since 2005
The Washington Capitals sat at #11, one spot before Buffalo, with the pick they received from Colorado in the Semeyon Varlamov trade. They took Forsberg, a center who was expected to go in the top-five.

Buffalo's entourage wasted no time in heading to the podium for their selection:  Grigorenko.

Unlike Forsberg, who was a consensus top-five to seven pick in the draft, Grigorenko and his place in the draft was somewhat of an enigma and there's no doubt his nationality played a major role in this. He was all over the place:
  • International Scouting Services had him ranked #4 overall
  • Central Scouting had him #3
  • TSN's Bob McKenzie was dead on at #12
  • TSN colleague Craig Button's mock draft had him drop all the way to #17 yet had this to say about Grigorenko, "The strong two-way centre falls to the Sharks, and he might be ready to play in the NHL next season."
  • The Hockey News ranked him the #1 center, ahead of Galchenyuk, yet mocked him going #14 overall to Calgary behind Zegmus Girgensons at #13 (a tie-in we'll get to in a little bit)
  •'s Adam Kimelman mocked him at #8, while Mike Morreales had him go #5 and Steven Hoffner had him go top-three to Montreal

Such was the enigma of Mikhail Grigorenko. Such was the chutzpah of Pegula and the Buffalo Sabres.

Last draft they broke a five year trend and drafted outside of North America when they chose Joel Armia. This draft day they broke a six year trend by drafting a Russian.

Pegula doesn't seem to care and one would believe he instructed his charges to get the best player available. Period. It would seem as if he's saying, "You do that, and I'll take care of the rest."

They showed no fear in drafting Grigorenko.

And it didn't stop there.

Zemgus Girgensons is
the first ever Latvian
to be taken in the
first round.

Bolstered by the Grigorenko pick the Sabres moved up to the 14th slot (giving up the #21 and #42 picks to in the process) to select gritty Latvian center Zemgus Girgensons in a trade with Calgary. Of note is that the Sabres still had a second-rounder (#44) courtesy of Calgary in the Regehr trade from last year.

Many had the Sabres going after Girgensons at #12 to bolster a small, skilled center ranks in the organization.

The Hockey News called him a "tireless worker" and "hard to play against." TSN's Button had him ranked #13 calling him "A hard player. Hard on the puck, hard on the body, hard competitor, hard working."

Girgensons clocks in at 6'2" and 198 lbs and cbssportsline calls him "an honest, physical center who can score and punish the opposition.

Kevin Devine put it this way, “The fans of Buffalo will love this guy; he just will not quit. We talked to his coach, and he said that he’s got the leadership qualities of a Jonathan Toews and Mark Messier,”

The consensus is that the Sabres landed themselves two top-nine centers with Grigorenko as a possible #1.

The Hockey News' Ryan Kennedy tabbed the Sabres as one of his "winners" of the first round saying, "If everything shakes out the right way, the Sabres just nabbed their top two centers for the next decade in Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons. Grigorenko naturally brings the point-piling playmaking skills, while Girgensons has a Ryan Kesler ceiling to his game."

The caveat to all of this is that NHL teams are drafting 18 year olds so question marks abound. All you can do is take your best shot.

From GM Darcy Regier, “It’s a good night. The center position is very important not just to us, but around the league too. To acquire two centers – two different types of centers – is good,” said Regier. “Kevin had a list of forwards, and we were focused in on getting two of them. Grigorenko was near the top, and Girgensons was near the top as well. We were pretty sure he wouldn’t be there at 21, so we had to pay a little more to get him.”

You really can't ask for more then that.

Other links:|BUF|home|BUF|home (Grigorenko)|BUF|home (Girgensons)

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