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Key For Grigorenko: Finding Ice Time

Posted on January 29, 2013 by Chris Ostrander

GrigoIn probably what was the most obvious decision of the season, the Sabres decided to keep Mikhail Girgorenko on the active roster for a while longer. Darcy Regier broke the news to the assembled media at today’s morning skate.

Now that the drama surrounding the decision so many already assumed the outcome of has gone, the time has come to make sure he is firmly in the plans moving forward for the rest of the season. Even in the spirit of matchups, Lindy Ruff cannot sacrifice his ice time and stash him on the fourth line – or the bench – with John Scott and others. From this point forward, Grigorenko should be a vital cog in how the team operates. If that isn’t the plan, then he should have been sent back to Quebec.

Grigorenko’s play has been widely viewed as strong. Outside of two questionable passes on separate powerplays (once vs. Carolina, once vs. Washington), he has been careful with the puck while showing strong vision. His scoring chances have been limited thus far but he has managed to show a nose for the puck and has found himself in better situations to score over the past couple of games. What has really been impressive, however, is his play in the defensive zone.

In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Grigorenko has been Buffalo’s best two-way center through the first five games (somewhat by default). Of course, that isn’t why the Sabres drafted him.

Grigorenko is here to be the big, dominant center the Sabres have been lacking for most of their 40 years in the NHL. As a contender for the first overall pick in June, Grigorenko fell to the Sabres and they pounced on the chance to snag such a dynamic talent. The only problem has been the lack of talent playing alongside Grigorenko.

He obviously isn’t going to settle between Vanek and Pominville, and that’s ok. The same could have been assumed for the electric Stafford-Ennis-Foligno line that carried over from last season. Putting Steve Ott on Grigorenko’s wing made sense to me but Jochen Hecht and Nathan Gerbe don’t’ appear to be the answer for the other side of that line.

With that glaring issue at hand, Lindy Ruff is in a difficult predicament regarding his blue chip rookie. He started solving the problem on Sunday when he jumbled some of the lines to give Grigorenko more firepower. He was still skating with Hecht, but I’d assume that changes once Ville Leino is fully healthy again. It actually might not be a stretch to assume that Leino’s sudden injury threw off the original plans for Grigorenko and his role offensively.

This move can certainly be chalked up under the “Pegula Effect” column as the fear of burning the first year of Grigorenko’s entry-level deal was never a factor for his evaluation. This is important to consider because there seemed to be more caution practiced in previous years when considering who might be returned to junior or kept with the big club. To the former regime’s credit, the only player who was ever seriously considered for this was Tyler Myers and they chose to keep him active as well.

The key here is that ownership doesn’t mind accelerating Grigorenko’s progress to his second contract. Clearly money is not an issue when it comes to free agents and re-signing players. What does need to be considered – as Eric, Pat and I discussed on The Instigator Podcast – is that you also accelerate the calendar in terms of retaining Grigorenko and other young prospects. The only form of caution the Sabres need to practice is with regard to ensuring they’re not in cap jail with other acquisitions when it comes time to give Grigorenko his next contract. Otherwise, management should be commended for seeing Grigorenko as a pivotal member of the roster moving forward this season.

Making the final decision on Grigorenko couldn’t have been as much of a mystery or guessing game that it became with fans, media and basement dwellers alike. He is clearly one of the team’s best nine forwards and gives a team with poor center depth a much stronger set down the middle. While his current lack of offense is indeed frustrating, the opportunity to change that moving forward is now front and center.

Sunday’s line shuffle seemed to inject life into a few different players while also providing the framework to specifically give Grigorenko the help he needs at wing. While it still isn’t ideal, I would say that Nathan Gerbe and Marcus Foligno are each better options for him than what Hecht was providing.

At some point this year Ruff should take the opportunity to place Grigorenko on a proper “second line”. Even if that means moving Tyler Ennis to a wing, it could be worthwhile to put a few more eggs into one basket. Perhaps that would not only free space between the third and fourth lines for a more traditional “checking line” for matchups, but it would have more potent scorers skating together.

There is probably a good chance that something along those lines occurs over the next 43 games as Lindy Ruff has never been shy about shuffling his lines in hopes of finding the right fit and quick chemistry if the team happens to be in a slump.

What has to be avoided is sticking Grigorenko next to the grocery stick on the fourth line and eliminating his ice in the third period of games. There will be matchup issues the Sabres encounter over the course of the year, but Grigorenko is only going to help the team when he is seeing the ice; and helping the team win games must remain as the primary reason he was kept in the NHL.

(Chris Ostrander is the publisher of “Two In the Box”—a well written blog covering the Buffalo Bills, Sabres, Bandits, UB as well as other sports teams and items locally. He’s also an occasional contributor for Buffalo Sports Daily and other blogs that cover Buffalo sports.  You can check out all his articles by clicking the logo below.)

Two In The Box

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