The Buffalo Sabres 2013 season began with high hopes. A good deal of the optimism came with the debut of highly touted center Mikhail Grigorenko. Grigorenko was among the most talented players in the 2012 draft, on par with number one pick Nail Yakupov. Grigorenko recorded 54 points in 33 games for the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL before the NHL resumed play in January. He seemed ready for the jump.
In 25 games at the NHL level Grigorenko recorded one goal and four assists. He saw his ice time fluctuate from four minutes a night up to 17. In March he was sent back to the QMJHL. He played in his final three games of the NHL season when the QMJHL season concluded. Upon his return interim-coach Ron Rolston had this to say:
"We’re going to see these next three games with Mikhail. He’s got skill. You watch him out there, he’s got big skill. It’s going to be all, just like the rest of them that we ask them every game and every practice, just the compete.
His work ethic draws issues at times but he's not an extremely lazy player, though he's not one who gives it 100% every shift. He's also the kind of player who likes to slow the game down, so some observers perceive that as questionable work ethic. However, he's the kind of talent who NHL sources have described as the best guy on the ice while he's going at 75%.
The pre-draft analysis of Grigorenko mentions work ethic questions, and Sabres interim-coach Ron Rolston mentioned his compete level when he returned from the QMJHL.
Lindy Ruff took a lot of criticism for how he handled Grigorenko in the early going last season prior to getting fired. He drew particular criticism for the lack of consistent ice time and the occasional healthy scratch that he threw Grigorenko's way. This question has come up in the past, but it is still just as relevant today. If a coach is uncomfortable using a player how can a fan base expect the coach to consistently give him ice time?
The easy solution to this problem is to suggest that during training camp the administration of the team should have been able to identify that Grigorenko was not yet ready for NHL action. The bulk of the evidence the Sabres had to work with was his work in the QMJHL at the end of 2012 where he was absolutely dominant. It is important to keep in mind that training camps and the exhibition season were cut very short due to the lockout. The Sabres were forced into a situation where they had to make a critical development decision about a very talented young player with less information that they would normally have.
The information they had was that Grigorenko was a very talented offensive player with some work ethic questions. They also knew that he didn't play much defense. Take a listen to the first few minutes of this interview from January 15th and take note of the efforts Ruff went through to spark Grigorenko to meet his standards. In the interview he mentions how he wants everyone to play defense. He also mentions that he had Grigorenko with Steve Ott because Ott likes to talk and plays with a spark.
Once again, the compete level of Grigorenko is referenced. Ruff attempted to use Ott to drag Grigorenko into the fire. In 235 minutes in his rookie season Grigorenko played with Jochen Hecht for 148. He skated with Ott for 92. It appears that he was trying to prop up Grigorenko defensively while he adjusted to the NHL. As we saw with this post from June 25th. Ruff doesn't like to shield players defensively. He expects everyone to play defense, and in the interview linked above he specifically mentions that fact again.
The main issue with Grigorenko is that his offensive talent was very enticing for a team in need of offensive ability, but the decision making process that led to Grigorenko making the Sabres roster could have been better. The Sabres needed to compromise somewhere.
The compromise Ruff made was to severely protect Grigorenko and limit his ice time. The result is that Grigorenko missed a significant chuck of development time after proving to the coaching staff that he wasn't ready for the NHL. He probably should have been sent back to juniors before his five game tryout was over.
Interestingly enough Ruff is going to get a shot with another young Russian phenom during the 2014 season. Valeri Nichushkin is expected to be on the Stars roster out of training camp next season. The immediate reaction after celebrating the Stars picking up an impact talent was, for me, to wonder how Nichushkin and Ruff would interact given how the Grigorenko situation played out.
The question requires a comparison of the two players before any conclusions can be reached. Three significant differences between the two players stand out. No one seems to be questioning the work ethic of Nichushkin. Nichushkin draws penalties and is known as a physical player, whereas Ruff tried to pull Grigorenko into the action by playing Ott with him. Nichushkin has also been described as a player with a two-way game. The defensive questions shouldn't be nearly as pronounced for him as compared to Grigorenko.
Nichushkin appears to be a better fit for what Ruff wants to accomplish. His defensive ability is going to allow him to fit Ruff's scheme. The fact that he takes the body instead of waiting for contact is also going to lend itself to fitting in with the Stars immediately.
Both Nichushkin and Grigorenko possess tantalizing skill that makes them prime candidates to stick out of camp. The Sabres made the decision to stick with Grigorenko in a very condensed time frame, and it didn't work out particularly well.
He had an advantage over Nichushkin that the Stars are going to need to address if they hope for a succesful rookie season. Grigorenko had already spent a season and a half in North America getting used to the NHL game and culture. Nichushkin has no time in America and will be coming into a significantly different culture. This can be incredibly difficult for a young player. Sergei Gonchar will loom large as a mentor, but it wouldn't be surprising to see the Stars attempt to acquire a Russian forward for him to play with.
Nichushkin is going to face some obstacles in his rookie year, but I don't think Lindy Ruff is one of them. He isn't perfect, but he appears to have handled the difficult Grigorenko situation about as well as anyone could. The Stars will not have a lack of time to fall back on as an excuse. General Manager Jim Nill has already stated that Nichushkin will be in American as soon as possible to begin the process of acclimating to the culture. They are getting on the ball fast and should have little question about whether or not he should debut in the NHL this fall.
If there is any question about how to handle Nichushkin the Stars can take a lesson from Grigorenko. If he isn't going to play at the NHL level, find somewhere for him to play. Another year in the KHL is preferable to limited ice time in the NHL. Players of this skill level don't come along every day. The Stars have to take every sensible precaution to make sure Nichushkin is given ample opportunity to develop.