ROCHESTER — After experiencing the NHL twice and getting a taste of the American Hockey League, Mikhail Grigorenko had no doubt he was above junior hockey. But when the Sabres sent him back to Quebec in January, the prospect had a decision to make.
“I could go out there and play really hard and try to score as many goals as I can – or just go out there and chill,” Grigorenko said Thursday as a smile spread across his face. “I chose to go out there and do my best.”
Grigorenko, as expected, dominated in Quebec. He totaled 16 goals and 48 points in 28 games, numbers bolstered by an impressive run of 10 goals and 35 points in the final 17 appearances.
“It still takes some time to adjust because it’s different hockey and a little slower,” the 19-year-old said. “In the NHL and AHL, you don’t possess the puck that much. It’s more skating and passing, but there it’s different. You keep the puck, no one pressures you. At the beginning I was passing and skating, and I wasn’t able to get as many points as I did at the end.”
Buffalo, however, did not send Grigorenko to junior solely for stats. The Sabres didn’t feel the 2012 first-round pick belonged in their lineup, and they wanted him to develop a better work ethic and establish a two-way game. So how was the experience?
“It was better than sitting in the press box,” he said. “I was battling really hard, which is what the coaches mentioned in Quebec.”
With his junior team eliminated from the playoffs, Grigorenko is back in Rochester. He played two postseason games for the Amerks last year, and he made his regular-season debut Wednesday. He had an assist and two shots in a 5-2 win over Syracuse, the Amerks’ first victory in 10 games.
He wants to keep it up for the final eight outings because he wants to be back in Buffalo.
“I’m going to work in the summer and hope this AHL experience is going to help me a lot next year,” Grigorenko said. “I hope to have a good preseason and stay with the Sabres. Every player wants to play in the NHL.”
While Grigorenko looked comfortable and confident leaning against the wall in Blue Cross Arena, a fellow top prospect is still looking to find himself.
Joel Armia, the top pick in 2011 and considered the best sniper in the organization, has just seven goals and 25 points in 49 games with the Amerks. Folks hoped for more during the Finnish winger’s first season in North America.
“He shows signs,” Amerks coach Chadd Cassidy said. “Still needs to build his consistency. He’s just got to keep building it up.
“He’s a confidence player. He’s a guy that when things are going well and he gets rolling, he’ll dominate. He’s just got to make sure that he puts the work in to dominate like that every night. I think that’s what a lot of young players struggle with.”
Cassidy made Armia a healthy scratch recently, and the winger has responded with a goal and three points in the last two games.
“It’s been up and down, but right now I feel pretty good,” said Armia, who broke his hand in training camp and struggled with the injury until January. “I haven’t played that bad after I got my finger fixed. The injury has played a lot of part in it. You couldn’t start the season, and I wasn’t 100 percent healthy.”
In addition to the injury, Armia has had to handle a new country, language, lifestyle and brand of hockey. Like Grigorenko, he’s also had to learn that players don’t get to just play in the NHL. They have to earn it, which is what rookie defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen found out after getting sent from Buffalo to Rochester and working his way back.
“Like any kid, when you get drafted what do you think?” Cassidy said. “I don’t care if you’re first round or seventh round, you think you’re going to play in the NHL. You’re ready.
“I think the best thing for Rasmus was coming here and figuring out not just how hard that league is but how hard it is here. If you can’t do it every night here, you’re definitely not doing it every night there. He had to build that up, and it’s the same with Joel. They’ve just got to learn to do it here every night, and then that transition’s going to be a lot easier.”