The Sabres have laid out the plan. It’s up to Mikhail Grigorenko to execute it. No deep thinking needed.
Months before training camp starts, Darcy Regier said his No. 1 pick in last year’s draft will be in the NHL this season and won’t be shuttled back to junior, since he’s too young to play in Rochester. Fair enough. There should be plenty of ice time for the 19-year-old to earn on this club.
But the seeds for a season are sown long before September. And there’s good news to report on that front. Grigorenko has been in Buffalo for more than a month working out and said he plans to spend all summer here. His skating looks smoother and more powerful. His English is dramatically better, too.
When the Sabres’ prospects take the ice for this afternoon’s scrimmage to cap development camp, I want to see Grigorenko look like an NHL player. I want to see a man-among-boys performance, the kind of ability on display that had scouts saying he could have been a top-3 pick in the draft last season.
Asked this week about Regier’s bold proclamation, Grigorenko said it won’t change how he approaches the season.
“I need to be a good player. I don’t think it changes anything,” he said. “I just need to work as hard as I can. If I’m not good enough, I’ll just not play. I’ll make sure I’m good enough for the NHL and hopefully I’ll play on the first two lines.”
The kid has the right idea. He was in a chicken-and-egg pickle last season. He didn’t show very much and the Sabres didn’t use him the right way very much, so how could he get better?
The Sabres scratched Grigorenko five times, played him less than 10 minutes a night 11 times and sent him back to Quebec even though they had already burned the first year of his entry-level contract. He scored one goal in 25 games, none in his last 19.
It was disappointing, especially given the way he looked in juniors and in the World Junior Championships for Russia. There was none of that same jump in his game in the NHL.
“I knew that it was going to be hard, I didn’t know how hard at first,” he said. “For sure, I was expecting more points and goals. But it doesn’t go always like you want. I think it was a really good experience for me.”
How do the Sabres help Grigorenko? Go with the line they were poised to use last year on an every-night basis. That means Grigorenko in the middle with Steve Ott and Ville Leino on the wings.
No coincidence the Sabres moved Grigorenko’s locker last year right next to Ott’s, in the spot formerly occupied by Jason Pominville. Leino is in that corner of the room, too.
The word around First Niagara Center is that Leino is also in the house working out diligently just about every day to get over his hip issues. The stat heads will tell you how by most every measure the Sabres were a terrible puck possession team last year and the eye test agreed. You may laugh and howl buyout-buyout-buyout but there’s no denying Leino’s biggest attribute is puck possession.
Leino can be a beast down low. That would only help Grigorenko.
Having some more Russians in the organization can’t hurt, even though Grigorenko said he had no issues in the locker room last season. Defenseman Nikita Zadorov, Buffalo’s second first-round pick this year, was Grigorenko’s roommate during the World Juniors. Zadorov said Grigorenko has shown him and goaltender Andrey Makarov around town some. “Sushi, good steak house” were the words Zadorov used. You get the picture.
“He looks a lot different to me,” Zadorov said. “He played more than 20 games in the NHL last year and that’s really good experience for him. He’s working hard, trying to do better every day.”
Grigorenko said he has worked hard with Dawn Braid, the noted skating instructor the Sabres have used the last two years. Zemgus Girgensons, Grigorenko’s fellow first-rounder from last year, said they’ve both made big strides in that area. Pun intended.
“The skating is a big part of what me and him have to improve and we’ve both gotten a lot better,” Girgensons said. “I didn’t know that was going to happen when I came last summer but working with Dawn Braid has made me such a better hockey player.”
You have to be careful with Russians. Most of them say they want to play in the NHL but the KHL is always looming, especially if things go sour here. The Winnipeg Jets just found out about that Monday when center Alex Burmistrov – a former No. 8 pick of the Atlanta Thrashers – returned home.
Burmistrov struggled to adopt to the NHL, never getting more than 28 points in a season, and didn’t adhere well to coach Claude Noel’s system. So he bolted. Grigorenko said Ilya Kovalchuk was his favorite NHL player and told me Thursday he thought it was “some kind of joke” that the Devils star is heading for the KHL.
Burmistrov in particular is a cautionary tale for all teams with young Russians. Don’t frustrate them by using them the wrong way. In Grigorenko’s case, that means there should not be a single shift – not one – where he plays with the John Scotts of the world. Those guys certainly have their purpose. Just not on the wings of your hot prospect center.
Today is one step for Grigorenko. Then he’ll get a full September to be ready. There’s the prospect tournament in Traverse City, Mich., to which the Sabres will send a team, and seven NHL preseason games (remember those?).
Grigorenko is staying in the NHL. He’s doing his part off the ice. The Sabres have to use him the right way on it. And ultimately, it’s up to him to start showing what all the hype was about. Don’t wait until September, kid. Start today.