BUFFALO, N.Y. – Two months later, Buffalo Sabres rookie centre Mikhail Grigorenko proved he’s not NHL-ready just yet.
Rather than continue providing him limited ice time in Buffalo, the Sabres elected on Friday to return Grigorenko to his Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team, the Patrick Roy-coached Quebec Remparts.
General manager Darcy Regier refused to call the demotion a setback for the 18-year-old Russian-born player, who was selected 12th overall in the NHL draft in June.
“I think this is an opportunity for him to keep growing and building on his experience here,” Regier said. “It was an experiment. I think there certainly are benefits. He has a very good understanding of what it’s going to take to play in the National Hockey League going forward.”
The move came as a slight surprise, after Grigorenko made the team out of training camp. And he made a good enough impression for the Sabres to keep him on their roster after five games, which is when his three-year entry level contract kicked in.
Grigorenko was never able to find his niche on a struggling team that, at 10-14-3, currently ranks 29th in the NHL. Buffalo is also in transition after coach Lindy Ruff was fired last month.
Relegated to playing on the fourth line, Grigorenko had one goal and four assists in 22 games while averaging 9:44 of ice time, among the lowest on the team. He was a healthy scratch five times, including a three-game stretch from Feb. 17-21.
Regier said he had been considering making this move for a few weeks. And it became necessary when the Sabres had to free up a roster spot to activate forward Ville Leino from injured reserve. Leino has missed the first 27 games with a hip injury, and is set to return Saturday, when Buffalo hosts Ottawa.
Grigorenko, who opened the season in Quebec, will rejoin the Remparts who have one regular-season game left before preparing to open the playoffs next week. The Sabres will have the opportunity to bring Grigorenko back to Buffalo, or assign him to AHL Rochester, once the Remparts are eliminated from the playoffs.
“In the end, he’s got a terrific opportunity to go back to Quebec, be the go-to guy and play 20-22 minutes,” Regier said.
Regarded as a skilled play-maker and smooth skater, Grigorenko was enjoying a solid season in Quebec. He still ranks tied for 66th among the league’s scorers with 50 points (29 goals, 21 assists) in 32 games.
Regier said Grigorenko understood the team’s decision, and expects the player to learn from his first taste of NHL experience.
“He has a very good understanding of what he needs to do, and he gets to go back and have the opportunity to practice and work on those things,” Regier said. “No one gets to go through a career without dealing with a little adversity. And so it’ll build for him as well.
“It will help him.”