Friday, October 31, 2014

Nikita Zadorov should follow Mikhail Grigorenko's lead

Reprinted with permission from

Regardless of the disaster that is the Buffalo Sabres right now, it doesn't seem as if the organization is looking to take any shortcuts. with player development.

Due to extenuating circumstances, rookies Sam Reinhart and Nikita Zadorov are both on the roster, but were it up to the Sabres, both would be playing in the AHL instead. Unfortunately for these two rookies, just like with Mikhail Grigorenko through the first two seasons of his career, the Canadian Hockey League doesn't afford 18 or 19 yr. olds that opportunity. It's either the NHL or Canadian Junior.

Zadorov's case is a bit trickier as the big defenseman is in a situation where he and/or his agent, Rolly Hedges, believes he should be playing against men, specifically for the club that holds his Kontinental Hockey League rights, CSKA Moscow.

Hedges told Ryan Pyette of the London (ON) Free Press, that Zadorov believes it would be better for his development. 'It’s not that he doesn’t want to play for the London Knights,' Hedges said to Pyette. 'Nikita is 19 now and thinks it’s better for his development — if he’s not able to play in Buffalo — to play in a men’s league.'

Until an agreement is reached by all parties, including the defenseman himself, Zadorov remains in limbo and the wheels on this will only get moving if Sabres GM Tim Murray decides to send him to the Knights.

While three countries with three different hockey leagues are all claiming that they want to do what's best for Zadorov and his development, and while his agent "always" has a client's "best interest in mind," perhaps he should look no further than guidance from his fellow Russian countryman, Grigorenko and how he's came out of the same situation.

As mentioned, Grigorenko spent two seasons in limbo shuffling back and forth from Buffalo to his junior team, the Quebec Remparts, with an ill-fated conditioning assignment to Rochester, a  taste of the World Juniors and a short bout with personal pride thrown in to muddy an already murky start to his career.

When the team wanted him to head to junior after the WJC, he initially declined, then apologized and accepted his reassignment to Quebec. He came into camp this year in prime shape ready to show he could make a difference at the NHL-level. And he did so.

Grigorenko had a real good camp, a solid preseason and showed enough NHL-level play that he looked as if he might be able to make the jump to the NHL. But when the team broke camp he was sent to Rochester.

He was disappointed for obvious reasons, but accepted his assignment to the Amerks and now leads the team in goals with four through seven games. He's also added two assists and is a plus-2. Grigorenko's work away from the puck has taken great strides and is now to the point where he can be counted on to play a 220' game. Plus he's developing great chemistry with 2011 first-round pick, Joel Armia.

Last night was a great example as both players scored to bring the Amerks back from 2-0 deficit vs. the Hamilton Bulldogs. Both were set up by the other while both setup and goals were pure skill, NHL-caliber plays.

Thanks to the Rochester Americans, you can view the highlights:

When it comes to all three players, all of whom were drafted in the mid-latter part of the first round, there's a developmental curve and even though a player may think they're ready for the NHL, they're probably further away than they would like to think.

Both Grigorenko and Armia have already faced hurdles and are no worse for wear. Grigorenko had to deal with the discord and disconnect of the previous regime as well as being a victim of the CHL/NHL agreement. Armia struggled with the adjustment to a new country, smaller ice-surface and a different style of play plus his start was set back by an injury in preseason. Yet, with enough time and the proper coaching they've rediscovered the skills that made them first-round picks to begin with and both have taken it to the next level to start the season.

Same thing goes for Zadorov as he'll be facing his own set of problems.

Sure, at 6'5" 220 lbs. he already has an NHL frame and we all know he likes to hit. Zadorov even displayed offensive acumen last season compiling 11 goals and 30 points in 39 regular season games after being sent down to London. In the OHL playoffs he had four goals and nine points in nine games.

He's still a kid, though, and there's a lot to learn.

When it comes to player development, it's not about NHL size or skill-level or skating ability as players have one or more of those attributes to make it to the NHL in the first place. It's about staying focused and developing consistency.

The Amerks game last night was played before 17,000 fans at the First Niagara Center, home of the Buffalo Sabres. Grigorenko and Armia, as well as others, put on a great show for the home crowd and were joyous in victory. But there's a long way to go before they can do that consistently at the NHL-level.

“It’s not easy,” to keep them focused “because every player in our room thinks they can play here in Buffalo,” Rochester head coach Chadd Cassidy said. “And that’s not saying anything about their team or anything like that. There’s a lot of players in the American league that can play in the National league. But are they ready to be consistent contributors? I would be the first to tell Mikhail and Joel Armia both, they’re not ready, maybe right now, to be a consistent contributor at that level. We’re not going to send you there … until you’re ready to do that. Because it doesn’t do any good for them to come up here and struggle and spin their wheels. We want to make sure they’re ready.

“There’s plenty for them to learn in the American league right now. ... They’ve been good players for us, but they’ve got to continue to grow. It’s a process. It takes a long time and when the time is right for them to be here they will.”

When the time comes, Zadorov will be in that process as well and he should follow the lead of Grigorenko. The CHL/NHL agreement sucks for players like them. But, that's the deal and nothing can be done about it at this time.

Zadorov will have a long, fruitful NHL career ahead of him if develops a proper foundation. Like Cassisdy said, everyone thinks that they can play at the NHL level. That will come soon enough, but for now, Zadorov needs to take it on the chin for the season and do what's best for his long-term, NHL development.

That would be to head back to junior for the rest of the season. Grigorenko did it and he's a much better player because of it.

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