Friday, October 3, 2014

One more step for Mikhail Grigorenko

Buffalo Sabres forward Mikhail Grigorenko's struggles since making his NHL debut have been well documented. The 12th overall pick in the 2012 draft first hit the ice on January 20, 2013 in a 5-2 Buffalo win vs. Philadelphia. The NHL was beginning it's lockout-shortened season and for him it would be the beginning of a tumultuous journey that now has him on the precipice of making the Buffalo Sabres roster to start the 2014-15 season.

A quick re-cap of Grigorenko's Journey:
  • On January 29, 2013, Grigorenko plays his sixth game for the club as the team decides to keep him in Buffalo instead of sending him back to his junior team, the Quebec Remparts. His three-year entry-level deal kicks in.
  • Is a healthy scratch on February 10, for the second time in the season (the first was to prolong the decision on his staying with the team.) Up to that point he had played in 12 games scoring one goal and two assists while posting a minus-2 rating. The team was 5-7-1 at the time.
  • He plays in two of the next four games, the team goes 1-3 and on February 20, 2013, long-time head coach Lindy Ruff is fired. Ron Rolston is named interim coach.
  • On March 16, former Sabres GM Darcy Regier sends Grigorenko to Quebec for their playoff run in a move he says "Is driven by what is best for Mikhail and best for his career.”
  • Grigorenko returns to Buffalo for three games after Quebec is eliminated from the Memorial Cup. He finishes the season with one goal and four assists in 25 games. He also played in two playoff games for the Rochester Americans. It was a lost year on his entry-level contract for the team to which Regier replied, "It was an experiment."
  • Grigorenko starts the 2013-14 season with the Sabres under Regier and head coach Ron Rolston. He plays in 15 of the team's first 20 games before Regier and Rolston are fired on November 13, 2013. He had two goals, one assist and was a minus-3 to that point. The team was 4-15-1 at the time.
  • Pat LaFontaine is hired as President of Hockey Ops and Ted Nolan becomes interim coach. Grigorenko plays in three games before the team tries to buy some time by sending the 19 yr. old to Rochester for a two week "conditioning assignment." The CHL cries foul, citing an agreement with the NHL and the team must make a choice--the NHL or the CHL.
  • He plays three of the ensuing eight games for the Sabres.
  • On December 5, 2013, Buffalo loans Grigorenko to Russia for the World Juniors, buying the team more time.
  • Russia wins the bronze medal, Grigorenko leads the team with five goals and eight points in seven games.
  • The Sabres decide to send him to Quebec on January 11, 2014. Grigorenko refuses to accept the assignment.
  • The following day he apologizes and on January 13, 2014, he reports to Quebec. In 23 games he scores 15 goals and adds 24 assists for the Remparts.
  • After Quebec is eliminated from the Memorial Cup, Grigorenko heads to Rochester. He plays in nine regular season games registering four assists as well as five playoff games where he was held off the scoresheet.
  • Grigorenko arrives at Sabres Develpoment Camp in July bigger and stronger. He now weighs in at 219 lbs. The coaches and staff take notice.

What the coaches have also been noticing in addition to his conditioning, is Grigorenko's improved skating and compete-level. The tumult and lack of maturity that plagued him over the course of a 15-month stretch to begin his pro career (or try to begin it) has given way to stability and self-confidence. Grigorenko seems to have put away his childish ways and is ready to take the next step this season.

The question Nolan, Sabres GM Tim Murray and the coaching staff need to answer is, where?

The fact that Grigorenko is in the last year of his entry-level deal shouldn't come into play. It is what it is and the past two seasons should be considered nothing more than water under the bridge to the new regime in place. At the end of this season he'll still be a restricted free agent, and a two or three year bridge-contract may be easily attained. Especially if he feels wanted and feels as if he's been treated right.

What it comes down to is dedication from the player, his performance, and what's best for his long-term development.

Grigorenko has always had the skills, but his will, rightfully or not, has been in question. He seems to have put a big exclamation point as to his dedication by coming into camp in the best shape of his life. That gave him more confidence which is something we've witnessed on the ice as he looks like a completely different player.

This is the "reset" that Kris Baker of had been talking about when the team sent him to junior. It was a large, bitter pill Grigorenko had to swallow in accepting that, but he did it, he's much better for it, and he's making Nolan's final roster decision very difficult. “In modern hockey, you know pretty well who’s on the team before camp starts,” Nolan said. “But there’s always that one that makes that decision tougher.”

Grigorenko may be the "one" that Nolan's talking about, but with that being said, Nolan also mentioned something about Grigorenko directly after his best game to date, "He’s been really good, making some really good plays. So the biggest thing right now is keep seeing him do it. It's consistency."

And the best place for him to become consistent might just be in Rochester.

Although there might be a collective groan coming from fans who see Grigorenko in a Sabres uniform this season, especially while looking at a roster lacking in depth and skill, he still needs seasoning.

The AHL affords players the opportunity for continued development outside of the "bright lights" of the NHL where mistakes are magnified on a continental basis. Grigorenko is still learning how to consistently play the game hard without worrying about making mistakes. And in Rochester he'll be able to do that in a winning environment as the Amerks are an up-and-coming team. No matter what people might think about this off season, the Sabres will struggle this season.

He also hasn't been exposed to the rigors a full 82-game professional season yet. Nor has he had the "luxury" of being with one coach for a prolonged length as he's not played more than 43 games under one coach since being drafted.

And I keep going back to what long-time Amerks announcer Don Stevens had to say about development.

He contrasted Grigorenko's path to that of fellow 2012 first-rounder, Zemgus Girgensons.

Of Girgensons, Stevens said, "He was allowed to come into his own in the pro game at his own speed. He wasn't pushed into a negative situation, but was put into a situation where he was allowed time to grow as he needed to.

"You've got to develop these young players level per level which is much more advantageous to them."

Grigorenko has earned a long look this preseason and with Patrick Kaleta out, an extra roster spot has opened up. The Sabres have one more preseason game before the rosters need to be trimmed to 23 players and it's not too far-fetched to believe that Grigorenko has the inside track on a spot because of his attitude and what he's been able to accomplish thus far.

Should he land that spot, good for him. And should he end up in Rochester, from a step-by-step, long-term perspective, it might be even better for him.

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