Sunday, January 13, 2013

Training camp opens today, eyes fixed upon Grigorenko

The Buffalo Sabres are known for letting their players develop in the minors before bringing them up to the big club. And that's a good thing.

Prospect Mikhail Grigorenko, though, may be the exception this season as the 2012 first rounder is set to hit camp today with the goal of making the team.

The 6'3" 200lb center has had a stellar season in Quebec thus far and acquitted himself very well on the Bronze Medal-winning Russian team at this years World Jrs.

Odds are that he will be sent back to the Remparts and continue his development under coach Patrick Roy, but there is a possibility that he gets a audition of a few regular season games for the Sabres.

As of right now forwards Nathan Gerbe and Cody McCormick are out with injuries and will probably miss the start of the season, if not longer, and that opens up the door for a possible extended audition for Grigorenko.

Many picks have come and gone since GM Darcy Regier took the reigns of the club some 15 years ago, and no player under his guidance has made the jump immediately from draft pick to the NHL. "If you were to go to Vegas and place a bet on it, most 18-year-olds go back and play juniors, " he said recently when asked about Grigorenko making the team out of camp this season.

The closest was defenseman Tyler Myers who spent one year in junior after his draft year before joining the team as a 19 yr. old.

Which begs the question, why not?

First off, the Sabres like to let their prospects learn the professional game before they're thrown to the wolves in the NHL.

Second, they've had a pretty decent (read: average to above average) team most of the time and the roster was usually filled with some pretty competent players who had them in the playoff hunt for many of those years.

Because of that, the highest draft position for Buffalo during that span was #5 overall in 2003 when the team took Thomas Vanek. In most instances, any prospects taken outside the top three picks in the draft usually need some seasoning, and generally speaking, the lower you go down the board, the more seasoning is necessary.

Then there is the fit on the team and within the organization. In nearly every case, the Sabres drafted the "best player available." Recently, when the team was in need of quality centers, their draft position lead them to a better defenseman or winger because the top centers were already gone.

The case of Grigorenko is a bit different, though.

Circumstances lead him to fall from a pre-draft mock that had him as high as #3 overall to #12. Amongst the contributing factors at the draft was the rush on defensemen (eight of the first 12 picks,) of which the Sabres have an abundance of prospects. Plus, Grigorenko had a poor second half of the season, which some (many?) attributed to his bout with mononucleosis later in the season. And, if that weren't enough, there's always the lingering possibility that a player of Russian decent will be lured to the KHL to play in the Motherland.

So he fell to Buffalo with the 12th pick. He was the fourth forward taken and second center taken (Alex Galchenyuk, #3 overall.)

The intrigue with Grigorenko begins with his skill level, which is pretty high, and the reason that some had him going 3rd overall in the draft. He has soft hands and excellent on-ice vision and he has a wicked accurate wrister. The question marks, as with nearly all forward prospects, are:  what he does without the puck, how he handles himself defensively and does he have the intensity to play amongst men.

From a team standpoint, there are still obstacles in the way for Grigorenko to make the squad as the Sabres do not have major holes to fill down the middle, at least with their top two centers. And in this shortened season, a 48-game schedule is a sprint so Head Coach Lindy Ruff more than likely will go with his "tried and true" rather than put an 18 yr. old in a tough position. In addition, the kid will get much more quality minutes, and will have more time to hone his game, if he gets sent back to junior.

Grigorneko is the most intriguing prospect since Myers back in 2008. Just where this all leads in 2013 is up in the air, but it's great to have hockey back and it's great to have the #1 prospect in the organization be a center.

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