Who could have imagined that when the Buffalo Sabres drafted Mikhail Grigorenko, with the 12th overall selection in the 2012 NHL Draft, that his career would be such a roller coaster ride. Grigorenko was handed a roster spot in the beginning of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, but was eventually sent back to juniors. Grigorenko was then spoon-fed a roster spot to begin the 2013-14 season, and eventually got sent back to juniors again, when the Sabres announced Ted Nolan as the new head coach to replace Ron Rolston.
However, after being sent back to juniors, Grigorenko matured and became an offensive threat down the stretch for the Quebec Remparts in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the Rochester Americans in the American Hockey League. In 23 games with Quebec, Grigorenko scored 39 points, and in nine games in Rochester, Grigorenko had four assists, but showed his improvements in his play and got people talking about his change.
During the offseason, Grigorenko was given a simple task from coach Nolan: get stronger and come ready to earn your spot.
“We had a good talk (before) departing last year,” Nolan said. “We talked about having a good offseason workout, coming to camp in shape and trying to compete for a job.”
“I worked really hard this summer. My conditioning got real better. I got really stronger. I feel a lot stronger on the ice, better in battles and stuff,” Grigorenko said.
The 2014-15 season is expected to be a turning point in Grigorenko’s career. Grigorenko begins the season with AHL eligibility, due to his age. Grigorenko can look forward to going down the I-90 to Rochester to develop with the Amerks, if he does not make the Sabres roster.
After a strong development camp, where he was arguably the best player, Grigorenko continued to show his improvement and has been one of the more pleasant surprises during training camp. Grigorenko has played well with the puck, winning battles, and making plays that he has not made in past years. Grigorenko’s overall game has improved leaps and bounds from what we have seen in two years in the Sabres organization.
“Every time I skate, I try to skate my hardest,” Grigorenko said. “Every time I pass, I try to make a perfect pass, and every time I shoot, I try to score. Same thing in the game. I take faceoffs, I focus on this faceoff. I need to win this faceoff, and after I think about other stuff.”
Even Ted Nolan has been impressed with Grigorenko’s performance in training camp over the past few days. Nolan has said that he “looked tremendous” in practice and that it was “the best he’s ever seen him skate and pay attention in practice.”
The competition for a starting spot in Buffalo is a bit tougher than past years for Grigorenko, and everyone else, in the Sabres organization. The depth at center for the Sabres includes proven NHL talent in Tyler Ennis, Zemgus Girgensons and Cody McCormick. The Sabres drafted Sam Reinhart with the second-overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, and could fill another center spot in Buffalo. Other players who could play center in Buffalo include Zac Dalpe, Torrey Mitchell, Matt Ellis, and Brian Flynn.
Even with Grigorenko playing well in training camp, his road may lead to Rochester no matter what due to the circumstances. Reinhart is most likely going to get his ten games in with the Sabres before having to be sent to juniors or waste the first year of his entry-level deal. Grigorenko’s only chance to play with the Sabres on opening night and to stay with the organization is if another center gets injured, or if a center is moved to wing to make room for Grigorenko.
If Grigorenko is indeed Rochester bound, he will not stay there the whole year. With the way Grigorenko has performed in training camp thus far, Grigorenko may be one of the first players the Sabres will call-up when needed. Grigorenko’s offensive skill can be perfected with enough time in Rochester, and if he can perfect those skills, he could be an offensive threat in Buffalo.
And what if Sam Reinhart plays his ten games and gets sent back to Kootenay in the Western Hockey League? Who could you replace Reinhart with if the Sabres send him back to juniors? Why not give Grigorenko a chance? Reinhart is penciled in as a third line center for the Sabres for the time being with Marcus Foligno and Chris Stewart. If Reinhart leaves, Grigorenko would be a perfect fit for his replacement in the third line center position. It would give him a couple of players with offensive talent to play alongside him and help him continue to grow as a professional hockey player.
Grigorenko sure wants to play in the NHL, and he realizes that in order to play in the NHL you have to earn the right to play in the NHL.
“They always say that the best guys get a job,” Grigorenko said. “Hopefully, I’ll be the best guy for a job. I’m trying to do that. I just want to do my best and do everything I can every day.”
Grigorenko may have to spend some time in Rochester to start the season, but at some point in the 2014-15 season you will see Grigorenko back in blue and gold playing for the Sabres. Only this time it will be a new and improved Grigorenko, quite possibly the player we have been patiently waiting for.