Buffalo Sabres first round selection Mikhail Grigorenko will be fighting an uphill battle just to make the NHL roster in his first year. Not only will Mikhail have to compete with several other young centers on this roster, but he’ll be fighting a recent history of high draft picks that has been rather bleak up to now. As we wait to see how Tyler Ennis, Luke Adam, Mikhail Grigorenko, and Zemgus Girgensons develop, we’re reminded of the Sabres inability to draft and develop top flight centers. General manager Darcy Regier has done a decent job of acquiring pivots via trades, Chris Drury, Daniel Briere, and Tim Connolly to name a few, were all prominent players for Buffalo in the Regier era. The Sabres are hoping Cody Hodgson continues that trend. But as far as Buffalo draftees having an impact down the middle with the big club, the cupboard has been rather bare for some time.
The list is an unimpressive collection of disappointment, obscurity, and potential, but devoid of established talent. Mike Zigomanis (99’, 2nd rd), Jiri Novotny (01’, 1st rd), Derek Roy (01’, 2nd rd), Chris Thorburn (01’, 2nd rd), Marek Zagrapan (05’, 1st rd), Felix Schutz (06’, 4th rd), Tyler Ennis, (08’, 1st rd), Luke Adam (08’, 2nd rd), Daniel Catenacci (11’, 3rd rd), Mikhail Grigorenko (12’, 1st rd), Zemgus Girgensons (12’, 1st rd), and Justin Kea (12’, 3rd rd) are the centers drafted by Darcy Regier in the first 4 rounds since becoming General Manager in 1997.
The one standout from the list above is Derek Roy, taken in the 2nd round of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, Derek managed to amass 427 points in 549 games as a Buffalo Sabre from 2003-2011. His point totals are good enough for 14th in franchise history, and his 266 assists have him ranked 9th most for the Sabres all time. Yet despite these impressive totals, Derek Roy was never the game changing franchise center the Sabres have lacked in Regier’s tenure. In fact the Sabres enjoyed their high watermark of playoff success with Roy when he was on the third line, playing behind Drury and Briere.
Outside of Derek Roy, there isn’t much else to get excited about. Mike Zigomanis re-entered the draft due to a clerical error and never played a game for the Sabres in his 197 game NHL career. Novotny and Zagrapan were colossal failures at the NHL level, with latter being only one of three 1st round picks in Sabres history to never appear in an NHL game (not counting prospects currently in the system). The jury is still out on more recent picks Tyler Ennis, Luke Adam, and Daniel Catenacci. Ennis looks to be the rising star out of the bunch, but the currently unsigned RFA is coming off an injury shortened campaign and hasn’t had that breakout season quite yet.
Comparatively speaking, every NHL team to hoist Lord Stanley’s cup since the lockout has done so with a stud pivot that was drafted and developed in-house. Eric Staal (CAR), Ryan Getzlaf (ANA), Pavel Datsyuk (DET), Sidney Crosby (PIT), Evgeni Malkin (PIT), Jonathan Toews (CHI), David Krejci (BOS), and Anze Kopitar (LAK) have all led the organizations that drafted them to a championship. Second and third line centers are available via trades, but true star power down the middle ala the 8 players listed above is near impossible to procure through a trade. That is why there is so much emphasis on finding standout center talent in the draft, developing it in your system, and reaping the rewards at the NHL level. The Sabres organization is counting on Mikhail Grigorenko to be that elite game changing pivot that can make the entire team better, and have Buffalo poised to be a cup contender on an annual basis.
If that isn’t enough pressure on Mikhail Grigorenko it gets worse. Along with fighting the history of draft failures at his position, Grigorenko will have to battle an even more dismal history of Russian draft choices in this organization.
While the Sabres were once looked at as pioneers for selecting Russian sniper Alexander Mogilny in the 1998 draft, the organization hasn’t had much success since. The Darcy Regier era got off to a decent start drafting enigmatic but talented forward Maxim Afinogenov in 1997, and defenseman Dmitri Kalinin in the 1st round in 1998. Both players underwhelmed in terms of their potential, but they were solid NHL contributers for Buffalo. The Sabres scouting of Russian talent since has fallen on hard times. In 2000, Regier selected Artem Kryukov with the 15th overall pick but despite being a first round talent, the Russian forward never played a game in North America. Since then, and prior to Grigorenko, the Sabres have selected only 6 Russian born players, and only 1 in the first 4 rounds, defenseman Denis Yezhov. Yezhov was selected in the 4th round of the 2003 NHL draft, but like Kryukov he has never appeared in an NHL game.
There has also been a purveying stigma that head coach Lindy Ruff doesn’t get along well with Russian players. Some of that may be the fans and the media reading too much into things, but there was no denying the visceral animosity between Ruff and Afinogenov. Whether that was an isolated incident or part of a trend, there has certainly been a noticeable drop off in Russians selected by Regier and Ruff since 2000. In the 12 years since drafting Alexander Mogilny, the Sabres selected 10 Russian players. In the past 12 years Regier and company have been gun shy drafting only 5 Russians and passing on talents such as Alexander Semin in 02’, Nikolai Kulemin in 06’, and Dmitri Kulikov in 09’.
Every player is their own unique entity unto themselves, but as a Russian born Center drafted in the 1st Round by Darcy Regier, the chips are stacked against Mikhail Grigorenko. Conversely, given their track record, the Sabres brass must have seen quite a bit of potential from Mikhail to go against the grain and select him 12th overall. It will be quite some time before we see whether or not Grigorenko will be the centerpiece the Sabres have needed in the Regier era, but one thing’s for certain, history is not on his side.