This is the first part of a series looking at the players Tim Murray has traded during the tank seasons of the Sabres.
If you polled Sabres fans, it seems obvious that the Ryan O'Reilly trade would have highest approval rating of any of Tim Murray's moves. O'Reilly is leading the team in scoring, looks like the captain of the future and a legitimate top line center. Oh, and he's only 24-years-old. He's arguably the most talented player to play for the Sabres since the lockout. Sabres fans have fallen in love with him, and rightfully so.
That's all before mentioning Jamie McGinn, who is fourth on the team in scoring with eight goals and nine assists.
But the Sabres didn't give up nothing to land the pair of forwards. Nikita Zadorov was seen as a defensive cornerstone, the partner for Rasmus Ristolainen to grow with. He was big, willing to hit and showed a higher offensive potential than most people expected when the Sabres drafted him.
Grigorenko was starting to fall out of favor, but there were some holding out hope that he'd eventually develop after being rushed to the NHL too quickly. There were nights in Rochester that he clearly was one of the best players on the ice.
There was a lot of potential, and the Sabres cashed it in for a player who has already proved his worth. It's very early, and the players that Colorado landed clearly are on a different timetable when it comes to their development. Still, it's interesting to analyze how this trade is beginning to unfold. I find myself checking Hockey DB at least once a week to see how all the players Murray has traded are turning out.
Grigorenko only has one goal, but is eighth on the team with ten assists. He's gotten a chance to play along Colorado's top players, getting the chance to play on the top lines that he didn't get in Buffalo. Still, a majority of the time he's skated on the team's bottom two lines.
Zadorov started the season with Colorado, playing 11 games and notching two assists. The Avalanche were able to do what the Sabres couldn't last year due to CHL/NHL rules - send him to the AHL to develop. He's produced rather well with the San Antonio Rampage, scoring seven goals and nine assists in 25 games.
JT Compher, who is wearing the captain C at Michigan this season, has three goals and 17 assists in 17 games. The pesky winger was tough to part with as well, but with the depth the Sabres had offensively, he wasn't untouchable. Hudson Fasching made Compher a bit expendable.
I talked with Mile High Hockey managing editor Ryan Murphy about Zadorov and Grigorenko's progress and the Avalanche fans' view on the trade nearly 40 games later.
1. Grigorenko's assist numbers have been pretty good. Has he looked the part?
Grigorenko has been asked to play a number of different roles so far this season. Currently, he's the 4th-line center, but he's also played 2nd and 3rd-line center, as well as left-wing on the top two lines. He's slowly earning Patrick Roy's trust, but for now, he's being treated like the young player he is. Immediately apparent are his great hands, vision, creativity, and defensive accumen. He finds great passing lanes and hits players on the tape in stride, occasionally even with his back turned while protecting the puck -- it's remarkable.
Naturally, his point production has fluctuated depending on the line he's playing on. For instance, he didn't look out of place at all filling in for the suspended Gabriel Landeskog with Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene, and that's quite a statement considering how good that line has been. The 4th line hasn't been as kind to him, but he's doing what Roy is asking of him in short minutes. He'll get better opportunities as he develops.
2. Where do you see him fitting into the organization long term?
Eventually, I'd like to see him play left-wing or center in the middle-six, which is pretty good value as the secondary piece of a trade. Right now, his opportunities are limited with Alex Tanguay and Jarome Iginla getting veteran's preference on the 3rd line; otherwise, I think we'd be getting a clearer idea right now of his future potential. By next year, I'd like to see him settle into a defensive-minded 3rd-line role as a left-wing. Something along the lines of what Landeskog does for the top unit.
3. Are you at all worried about Zadorov being sent to San Antonio?
Worried? No, not if he's able to develop his game properly and turn into the top-pairing defenseman the team wanted when they traded for him. General Manager Joe Sakic expressed a desire for him to see a lot of power play and penalty kill minutes, experience he wasn't going to get this season with the big club playing 8-9 minutes per game. Colorado is looking at the big picture. Despite being .500, they're staring up at a very strong Central Division and aren't a complete enough team to compete this season. Zadorov and (10th Overall Pick) Mikko Rantanen were better served playing big minutes with the Rampage.
4. What was his play like before he was sent down?
Probably not unlike what most Buffalo fans were observing last season: flashes of elite talent intertwined with perplexing mistakes. Then again, the Avalanche defense in the early going was just utter cow excrement. It's hard to know if Zadorov's play was a major cause of that or a product of his (smelly) surroundings; but either way, it wasn't working. Reports from the San Antonio media indicate he's still having mental lapses but learning to be more assertive and use his elite physical ability to make plays. I think the Avs would be content to see him finish the season down there and try again over the summer, but an injury could force their hand.
5. Do you see Zadorov as the biggest piece going back in the ROR trade?
That was certainly our perception, as a fan base, when the trade was made -- he's certainly the most important piece. The difference between the Avalanche becoming a consistent playoff team in the next couple of years isn't Grigorenko in a supplementary role, but players like Zadorov and Chris Bigras becoming Top-4 left-handed defensemen. Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie can only do so much on the right side, and Francois Beauchemin should not be relied on to play 25+ minutes a night going forward. The young defensive talent in he AHL is essential to the team's future success.
6. Do you still feel good about this move for the Avs?
This trade will always be bittersweet for Avalanche fans. O'Reilly was a good, young forward who brought a really unique defensive skill-set to Colorado's top lines at a variety of positions. We cheered for him from the moment he surprised everyone and made the team as an 18-year old. Watching his relationship break down with management was very difficult to watch. Inarguably, the Avs would be better this season with O'Reilly. What gives me -- and I'm sure most others -- hope is that the team will be better balanced when it's ready to compete at a high level. That possibility absolutely still exists, but we now realize it's going to take a little time to start seeing evidence.
This would be a fun question to ask again next year. If Zadorov is succeeding in a Top-4 role, Grigrenko is playing tough 3rd-line minutes, and JT Compher is showing NHL upside with the Rampage, then we might feel quite differently!