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Too early ?to label Grigorenko

The message was clear even though it wasn't wrapped neatly in an encapsulating quote for public consumption, delivered mostly unspoken with code words and catch phrases, subtle suggestions and body language. The book on Mikhail Grigorenko months before the draft was that he was lazy.

You're not going to hear a general manager or head of amateur scouting or any other so-called expert say as much, but that was the consensus before the Sabres selected him 12th overall last weekend. He has great skill, but … He's a dominant player, but … He could wind up being a steal, but …

But, come on, you know, wink, wink … He's Russian.

Let's stop the nonsense and get straight to the point. Russians have a reputation for relying too much on their skill and underachieving. Alexander Ovechkin is one of the best players in history but in recent years hasn't played like one. We don't need to review every Alexei, such as Yashin, or Alexander, such as Semin, to understand the point.

This much cannot be ignored: Grigorenko had 45 goals and 89 points in 59 games in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season. He was one of the highest-ranked amateurs but tumbled down to 12th after trudging through the world juniors looking less inspired than a bowl of rice.
Was it listlessness or a bad week? We might not know the answers for years. Sometimes, even the best players disappear for reasons absent their control. Sometimes, the puck just doesn't follow them. Or the chemistry isn't right. Or they're not skating well. And sometimes players emerge far greater than they should.

Just ask Mike Eruzione. He turned one goal into a career, into a lifestyle, after he led the U.S. team to Olympic gold in 1980. He's an American hockey icon and never played a shift in the NHL because he wasn't good enough.

The skilled-but-lazy stigma has followed Russians for decades. They're underachievers. It's what they said when Canada beat the Red Army team in the 1972 Summit Series, again when the United States beat the Russians in '80, again in the years that followed when the Cold War ended and another NHL era began.

For reasons not entirely clear but based on more than performance alone, North Americans generally remain skeptical about Russian players. Maybe it's residual effects from another generation. Maybe it's their mystery. Sometimes it's just a hint of discomfort, sometimes more, but it seems more with Russians than other Europeans.

But for every Alexander Mogilny who leaves you awed but begging for more and shaking your head just the same, their birthplace hardly matters. What does matter, particularly in an effort sport, is their desire. That's the case with everyone.

Grigorenko is clearly a talented offensive center, an opinion that's widespread if not unanimous. For better or worse, and probably both, his attitude is certain to change because that's what happens as teenage players turn into men and learn the ways of the league. Time eventually will reveal whether the criticism was warranted.

If you want to discuss how Ovechkin or Semin take numerous nights off — and they do — we'll rewind the tape on the likes of Tim Connolly and Scott Gomez. If you want to point toward Sidney Crosby as a gamer, I'll direct you to Pavel Datsyuk.

We'll see if Grigorenko works out. I would have tried packaging the first-round picks for proven players who come with less risk. It doesn't mean my play is the right play. It's playing the percentages. The Sabres can be blamed for many things but assessing the risk-reward ratio on Grigorenko and taking a gamble isn't one of them.

And let's not forget, since 1989, when Mogilny defected from Russia, there have been numerous can't-miss North American prospects who did so in grand fashion.

Scott Scissons was selected sixth overall in 1990 and played two NHL games. Ryan Sittler was drafted seventh overall out of Nichols School in 1992, ran into injuries and never played an NHL game. Daniel Tkachuk, Brian Finley, Hugh Jessiman and Thomas Hickey could be thrown in the same heap.

All were top 12 picks. All were North American. None played more than 20 NHL games. They are six examples among many.

Funny, but I don't recall anyone saying they were typical North Americans the way you hear "typical Russians'' when discussing their talent or work ethic. They returned home knowing, for whatever the reason, they weren't good enough for the best league in the world. Simply, it didn't work out.

No matter how much has been said about Grigorenko, we know very little about him. He hasn't played enough hockey for us to make an accurate evaluation. What's mostly known is how he played last season, including the world juniors. Maybe he didn't feel challenged. Maybe he wasn't healthy. Maybe he's a teenager who acts like one.

Maybe the experts had it wrong.

Or maybe he is, in fact, lazy.

But who really knows for sure? Nobody.