The last couple of seasons have not been kind to Mikhail Grigorenko at the NHL level.

After the lockout, and his dominance of the QMJHL, only helped to fuel the expectations surrounding the Buffalo Sabres' first 2012 first-rounder, Grigorenko has struggled in his time in the NHL. In 43 games, Grigorenko has managed only three goals and eight points, a far cry from what he was expected to contribute.

After last year's demotion to the QMJHL Grigorenko became the brunt of many Sabres fans' criticisms, with many coming to the conclusion that he would never cut it as an NHL player. 

But that could all be a thing of the past. 

Despite all of the negativity surrounding the talented pivot, Grigorenko has apparently worked his tail off this summer, having gained 10 pounds and sporting a new attitude that seems to have made all the difference. 

With only two preseason games remaining, and the October 9 opener a week-and-a-half away, there is a really good argument that Grigorenko has been the Sabres' best player during training camp. Many have written about the "different" Grigorenko that has shown up in camp, including Mike Harrington of The Buffalo News

But despite the fans, he is impressing one of the most important people he can: Ted Nolan. 

Nolan has been upfront with his praise of Grigorenko during camp, even deflecting the widely held belief that he would be starting in the AHL with the Rochester Americans, as reported by Harrington. Nolan's praise was even more evident after Grigorenko's impressive game in the Sabres' 3-2 shootout loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, saying, via Dhiren Mahiban of Global News that he came to camp, "Willing to earn things and he's had a tremendous attitude from the get go."

In that game, Grigorenko scored a goal in regulation as well as a ridiculous shootout goal, showcasing the skill he has been hyped to have since he was drafted. Nolan also gave him a shot at first-line minutes, playing him for 24 minutes, six seconds, a staggering total for a forward most nights. 

While not having quite the same impact in his other two preseason appearances, Grigorenko certainly has left his mark, which begs the question of where he will start the year. 

At the beginning of training camp, as the Harrington article suggests, it was a widely held notion that Rochester was about as sure of a thing as possible. With Grigorenko's play and Nolan's praise, the odds of that have lessened considerably.

That, coupled with Grigorenko's ascension to the first line in both practice and games, lends itself to the reality that he has earned a spot on the NHL squad to at least start the season. At the very least, it makes it a conversation, whereas it wasn't before. 

But Grigorenko unexpectedly making the team also means that someone must unexpectedly not make the team. 

That then begs the question: Who has not had a great camp for the Sabres? Who was the anti-Grigorenko?

As it stands, the easy answer is Samson Reinhart, if only for the ease of sending him back to junior for another season, a la Jonathan Drouin last year. 

Reinhart has certainly shown why the Sabres picked him second overall this year, displaying uncanny vision on the ice and a knack for the defensive end of the ice, but he has struggled in other areas. The speed of the game, as with all 18-year olds, seems to be a touch fast for him right now, and the thought of him spending time with Kootenay of the WHL and a month in Canada's World Junior Championship camp may be very attractive to Sabres general manager Tim Murray. 

But the Sabres also have nine games to decide on Reinhart before they have to send him down, so that decision may lead to Grigorenko sitting in the press box during that time—something Murray certainly does not want to see. 

There are obviously many different scenarios that can play out, but the most likely could be that Grigorenko starts in Rochester to avoid spending time in the press box while Reinhart gets his nine games. After the nine-game threshold is passed, if Reinhart is deemed to need more seasoning at the junior level, Grigorenko could be called up to take his place.

Now, things certainly are not as clean as that in the real world, and if Reinhart does stay, that makes for a mess if Murray and Nolan want Grigorenko up with the Sabres. Any number of things could be considered, including a move to wing for the current center.

Yet, it seems like the key to Grigorenko's fate this season lies in the hands of the second overall pick. If he stays, Grigorenko plays first-line minutes in Rochester until an injury necessitates his call-up. If he goes, the door is certainly opened for him to start in the NHL and show he belongs. 

It's obviously not a given, as Nolan could go with a player better suited for a bottom-six role, like Tim Schaller, who has impressed in his time at camp, but Grigorenko certainly has an inside track. 

Only nine days until Sabres fans can find out for sure.

 

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Life hasn't been easy for the Buffalo Sabres and their fans over the past few years, especially during the 2013-14 season. The team's luck was so bad that Buffalo couldn't even win the NHL draft lottery despite having the league's worst record.

The Sabres were unable to draft a potential franchise defender in Aaron Ekblad—someone who they desperately needed—although settling for Sam Reinhart wasn't the worst thing in the world.

To make matters even worse, the NHL went ahead and changed how the draft lottery system will work for the 2015 Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel draft, so even if the Sabres are bowling shoe ugly again, they won't be guaranteed a top prospect.

Based on the summer moves made by general manager Tim Murray, it appears the Sabres are trying to put on a facade that they won't play with dishonor to draft Connor. Only time will tell, but it could be another long year for the Sabres and their fans, especially if they are unable to recoup their losses with a priority draft pick.

 

What We Learned in 2013-14

We learned last season that the Sabres fully embraced the notion that they needed to rebuild, and their on-ice play reflected their goal of acquiring young future franchise talents via the draft.

Over the past few seasons the team has made some high-profile trades to acquire quality draft picks and prospects, but the final dominoes fell last season.

The first flag went up when Thomas Vanek was dealt for Matt Moulson and a first-round draft pick, among other things, only weeks into the new season.

Vanek was set to become an unrestricted free agent, but trading him so early clearly showed that the Sabres were ready to start tanking. 

The Sabres will reap the benefits of the first-round pick acquired for the 2015 draft if the New York Islanders are not a competitive team, but it was pretty sad to see Buffalo deal its top scorer so early into the season.

The team also dealt its franchise player Ryan Miller and with that the team's biggest chance at being competitive. As a whole the 2013-14 season was a mess, and here's some alarming statistics courtesy of Joe Yerdon from NHL.com.

 

Outlook for 2014

With all the moves made by Buffalo over the past few months, the team is in for a long season. A combination of Jhonas Enroth, Michal Neuvirth and Matt Hackett will occupy the crease in 2014-15, and that means the Sabres will lose a lot of games.

Neither goaltender has numbers remotely as good as Miller's were, and that will only help the team in its endeavor toward earning a lottery pick.

In addition, Sabres' blue line is nothing to write home about outside of Andrej Meszaros and Josh Gorges, and that won't help the Sabres' goaltending contingent.

Things get worse up front, as the team appears to be crossing fingers that a top six of Tyler Ennis, Brian Gionta, Cody Hodgson, Moulson and Chris Stewart will get the job done. This is another scenario that is less than ideal for Buffalo, but again we know what the end goal is.

Ultimately this is going to be a rough season for the Sabres. At some point there may be a time in which Ted Nolan tries to let the youngsters have their day, and that could be exciting for fans.

Zemgus Girgensons, Mikhail Grigorenko, Rasmus Ristolainen and others all have the potential to be future stars for the Sabres, but that day is not tomorrow, next week or next month.

Look for the Sabres to finish in the bottom section of the Eastern Conference, somewhere in the No. 13 to No. 15 position. It will all be worth it if McDavid and/or Eichel make their way to downtown Buffalo, but only time will tell.

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Lost this weekend in the euphoria surrounding the other Buffalo team, the Buffalo Sabres' highly touted group of prospects traveled to Traverse City, Michigan, to play in the annual prospects tournament. 

The last two trips have been extremely successful for the young Sabres, having won the championship in 2011 and finished as the runner-up in 2013. Many expected the Sabres to be the favorite coming into the tournament, including Sports Illustrated's Allan Muir.

So with the round-robin portion done, the Sabres sit at 0-3 while getting outscored 15-5 in that span. 

Not exactly what many expected from the group—so is it a cause for concern?

The short answer is, no, it's not. 

The tournament is a huge disappointment, especially with the expectations these kids have on them now as one of the most talented groups in the NHL, but the end result in Traverse City doesn't make much of a difference. 

The first thing to consider is this is the first time a lot of these guys have played together in a game situation against a different team. Sure, they scrimmaged each other in development camp, but that's certainly not the same. 

One of the more common issues for a team that has not played much together is trouble on all aspects of special teams. True to the script, the Sabres allowed six power-play goals and one short-handed goal in their first three games of the tournament, while only managing one power-play goal themselves. 

And while a poor special teams effort is never a good thing, the fact that they struggled with them is neither surprising nor a cause for concern. More time in the system, and with these new teammates, will iron out most of the wrinkles.

Another positive for the Sabres was they were generating chances despite the inability to finish. 

In their 6-1 loss against the Carolina Hurricanes in the first game of the tournament, the Sabres outshot the Canes 35-20. A poor performance by Andrey Makarov and the team's inability to get the puck in the net despite a ton of opportunities led to the lopsided loss. 

Their next game, a 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Rangers, saw them put 37 shots on net, and again only one was able to sneak by. 

The Sabres' 7-3 loss against the Dallas Stars did not see a 30-plus shot effort, but after a slow start the Sabres were able to find some chances. Unfortunately, they weren't enough to shake off three first-period goals by the Stars. 

The chances were there, the Sabres just finished on what can only be seen as a disproportionately low number of them. In an entire season's worth of games, the Sabres would likely have a bit more puck luck than these three games provided. 

And even with the poor team-wide performances, some players stood out in a positive way. Joel Armia was named a standout player by ESPN's Corey Pronman (subscription required), a very encouraging sign after an up-and-down season with Rochester last year. 

While it may also be a disappointment that Sam Reinhart isn't on that list, as with the rest of the team, one tournament will not make or break his season, let alone his career. He should be judged on his preseason and his first nine games—and not on a prospect tournament.

So, overall, while general manager Tim Murray and the Sabres brass are likely not pleased with the result this past week, the Sabres are still on the right track with an extremely talented prospect pool and three first-rounders next year to make it even deeper.

Deep breaths, Sabres fans. 

 

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It's a dilemma Buffalo Sabres fans aren't new to, but it's certainly one that could be hotly debated from now through mid-October. 

What should they do with Sam Reinhart this year?

While on the surface it seems like an easy decision for Sabres general manager Tim Murray and his colleagues, it truly is anything but for a team with two feet in its rebuilding process. 

There are a number of different factors that will go into this decision, but there are three main considerations for the organization. Reinhart comes with huge expectations, especially after being named NHL.com's fourth-ranked prospect earlier this week, but he is a part of the future, which is clearly not this season for the Sabres. 

The first and probably the easiest to answer is whether Reinhart is too good to return to the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League.

This is an important consideration because of the agreement in place between the CHL, which includes the WHL, and the NHL, which essentially prohibits 18- and 19-year-old CHL prospects from playing in the American Hockey League. 

That means Reinhart will be in Kootenay or in Buffalo.

And the reality is that he is likely too good for juniors.

In his third full season in the WHL, Reinhart scored 105 points in 60 games, which was good for fourth in the league. If it weren't for the fact that he is a shoe-in for the Canadian World Junior roster if he stays in juniors, he'd likely be a favorite to top the league in scoring this year.

But is going back to a league where he has been so dominant good for his development? That's the question Murray needs to ponder as training camp inches closer. 

If Murray believes Reinhart can benefit in any way from staying with Kootenay, it seems reasonable, especially given the struggles the Sabres will have on the ice this year, that he'd want him there. But scoring two points a game against players that he is leaps and bounds better than will likely not give Reinhart the step forward he'll need to make the Sabres a Stanley Cup contender. 

Essentially, the Sabres are trying to avoid the Mikhail Grigorenko situation from playing out again. Grigorenko was in a similar spot in that he was close to being too good to stay with Quebec of the QMJHL, but in his second season in North America, he wasn't ready for the NHL either. 

But can Reinhart play in the NHL this season? 

That is probably the most obvious, and most important, factor that will go into this decision. And while you cannot really know the answer until Reinhart suits up, there is some relevant recent history to help guide the debate.

The most striking example was Jonathan Drouin, drafted third overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2013. The Lightning shocked pretty much everyone when they decided to send Drouin back to Halifax of the QMJHL last year after a preseason of everyone fawning over the potential of him playing with Steven Stamkos

Drouin made the most of his return to juniors, scoring a ridiculous 108 points in his 46 games with Halifax and adding a strong showing for Team Canada in the World Junior Championships. 

Drouin's former Halifax teammate Nathan MacKinnon, the first overall pick in 2013, stuck with the Colorado Avalanche last season and started off slowly, but he finished the season tied for Colorado's playoff scoring lead. 

MacKinnon has the ability to be a point-per-game player as early as this season if his development progresses at the level many believe it will. 

Two very talented players, two very different teams for the 2013-14 season. 

So where does Reinhart fit?

He's an excellent puck handler and likely has the hockey IQ to keep up in the NHL, but his skating and his strength may hold him back to start. Let's not skate around the fact that Reinhart will likely be an excellent player in the league for a long time, but if MacKinnon struggled a bit to start, he definitely can, too. 

So, seeing Reinhart is likely too good for the WHL but unlikely to be able to play top-six minutes to start, how does Murray decide?

A third factor that has gone a bit under the radar may ultimately be the deciding one: Reinhart's contract. 

While there's a great argument in regards to Grigorenko and his development, the biggest issue the Sabres face with the young pivot is the fact that he is a restricted free agent after this season. While he has not contributed much at the NHL level, he is still an NHL lottery pick, and those negotiations will likely be interesting, to say the least. 

On a rebuilding team, the ability to push off Reinhart's contract negotiations for another year could be very appealing, especially given his presence is not going to make or break the team this year. 

What it comes down to is Murray doesn't have the external pressures to play Reinhart for anything more than his nine-game tryout period this season like former Sabres GM Darcy Regier had with Grigorenko. Murray can make the decision that makes the most sense moving forward, and with Reinhart's skill level likely being above that of the WHL but potentially not a top-six NHL forward to start the season, his sliding contract could play a huge part in the decision. 

Regardless, Sabres fans will see Reinhart in a Sabres uniform this season, it's just a matter of whether it's for nine or 82 games. 

Also, Reinhart will play in the Traverse City Prospects Tournament starting Friday in Michigan with other Sabres top prospects. Check out the schedule here.

 

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