Tim Murray has been fast at work in his first days on the job as the new general manager for the Buffalo Sabres. After stating he is likely to remove the interim tag from current head coach Ted Nolan's title Friday, Murray made one of his first transactions Saturday. The new boss shipped 19-year-old forward Mikhail Grigorenko back to the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, meaning the Sabres have now wasted the first two years of Grigorenko's cap-friendly entry-level contract on 43 games and eight points.
Since Grigorenko is still 19 and was selected out of a Canadian major junior league, he cannot be loaned to the American Hockey League. The Sabres bought themselves some time by letting him represent Russia at the recent World Junior Championship, where he helped lead the team to the bronze medal with eight points in seven games.
Now he'll go back to the QMJHL, where he's spent parts of the previous two seasons and a level he has clearly outgrown. Grigorenko is kind of in developmental limbo at this point. He's too good for the QMJHL, but not quite ready for the NHL and isn't allowed to try and prove himself in the AHL yet. All the while, Grigorenko will become a restricted free agent after next season, assuming he plays with the Sabres.
UPDATE: According to a report from Le Soleil in Quebec City, Grigorenko is refusing to report to the Remparts and is currently weighing his options. What those options might be are unclear at this time. Needless to say, this isn't great news for the Sabres and their relationship with the 19-year-old forward.
On Grigorenko, there are indications he won't report to QUÉ. I'm told he doesn't have issues with the Remparts, but with Buffalo's decision.— Kathleen Lavoie (@kathleenlavoie) January 11, 2014
Obviously, it's not Murray's fault that the first two years of Grigorenko's contract were wasted. That's on fired GM Darcy Regier.
A player is allowed to play nine NHL games without burning a year off his contract in a given season. The Sabres kept him around for 25 last season before sending him to Quebec and he's already played 18 this year. Grigorenko showed flashes in both NHL stints of being ready, but has yet to string together enough consistent play to prove he belongs.
Nolan has been adamant since taking over the team that players shouldn't be entitled to spots on the roster and if they're not ready, they should not be in the league. Of course, that now puts the Sabres in a bit of a bind when it comes to Grigorenko's contract timeline and it also may begin to fray the relationship with the player.
As is the case with any player, how they're handled in the first few years of their career can go a long way in determining what they'll become. Grigorenko's first two pro seasons have essentially been bungled at this point. It's part on the Sabres and part on the fact that the NHL's agreement with the Canadian Hockey League to force teams to return their junior eligible players to their junior clubs is becoming less appetizing for NHL teams.
Grigorenko has no business in the QMJHL, a league in which he has averaged over 1.5 points per game in 92 career games. Now he'll go back as a 19-year-old with pro experience and be one of the biggest and strongest players playing against fellow teenagers.
The other factor in all of this is Grigorenko will have options outside of the NHL when his contract expires. The KHL would gladly take one of its native sons back into the fold, which could leave Buffalo with a gaping hole in its pipeline after Grigorenko's contract is up, which could be as early as next offseason.
With the way young players are making their way to the NHL, this agreement between the NHL and CHL seems to be hindering development of a select few players that have outgrown their junior leagues at 18 or 19, but can't get their feet wet in the AHL before being thrown into the NHL grind.
NHL teams invest too much in their assets to be put in such a tight spot when it comes to their development. That said, with the new collective bargaining agreement decided, the NHL and CHL agreement regarding players is unlikely to change any time soon. That puts teams like the Sabres in this kind of position, and worst of all, forces a player like Grigorenko to essentially run in place in his development and it's simply not fair.