It seems crazy to think of this as a make-or-break season for Mikhail Grigorenko. After all, he’s just 20 years old and has played only 43 NHL games. But he’s coming up on the final year of his entry-level contract and decisions need to be made, both by Grigorenko and the Buffalo Sabres.
Large portions of Grigorenko’s first two seasons have been wasted. Can he build his game this year in the AHL or, perhaps in Buffalo? Or is this the last year before he looks at some money and maybe the KHL in Russia? The first step to a change this year was an attitude adjustment.
“From past experiences, I kind of realized it was probably no one’s fault but mine I didn’t stay in the NHL,” Grigorenko said prior to the team’s development camp scrimmage Tuesday night before an announced crowd of 8,725 in First Niagara Center. “If I want to play in the best league in the world, it’s just on me. No one’s going to just let me play because I was drafted first round. I just need to go out there and be the best.”
It was a stark admission, the kind of self-accountability Grigorenko’s critics said he never had in his first two seasons after the Sabres made him the No. 12 overall pick in 2012. Thus far in his NHL career, he has just three goals – and far more games as a healthy scratch than as a real contributor.
So the 6-foot-3 Grigorenko dramatically ramped up his summer workout regimen to be get ready for this year. He’s put on about 10 pounds, pushing his listed weight to 219, in workouts taking place mostly in his junior hockey home of Quebec City that are focusing on his explosiveness on the ice.
“That’s probably what I need the most, just being more explosive and faster on the ice,” he said. “I felt pretty good on the ice these first few practices, felt pretty confident in the battles and pretty strong too.”
“I think he’s got to keep doing what he’s doing. I thought he’s been good all week,” Rochester coach Chadd Cassidy, who has been running the camp, said after the scrimmage. “I think he was really good with the puck tonight and way better without it than what we’ve seen in the past. And he was that way at the end of the year in Rochester, excellent for us.
“He needs to make strides, and we’ve got to keep in perspective that he’s still a young kid. He’s been through a lot. I thought he had a good game tonight. ... He’s got the right perspective coming into camp. He knows there’s a lot in front of him and a lot he’s got to earn. I’ve been really happy with his attitude and work ethic in practice.”
Grigorenko centered University of Minnesota standout Hudson Fasching and likely Rochester teammate Dan Catenacci in the scrimmage and the line had a couple of strong shifts in the game even though it did not score in the Blue team’s 5-1 loss to the White.
It wasn’t the kind of dominant performance in a prospect scrimmage you might hope for, but Grigorenko was far from invisible on the ice either, too often a trait of his first two stints in Buffalo.
On one third-period rush, Grigorenko cut inside defenseman Brady Austin to get a good chance in the slot but shot wide.
Grigorenko said he’s taking a simple approach on what his game needs to encompass to improve.
“Probably just think less,” he said. “Go out, just want the puck. Go and win every single battle, just want the puck. I guess I’m an offensive player. So I just need to score goals, just bring that offense. If I don’t score goals and have points, I guess no one needs me on the team.”
A major issue unique to Grigorenko is the number of coaches he’s had to play for.
Just in Buffalo, there’s been Lindy Ruff, Ron Rolston and Ted Nolan. There was Cassidy in Rochester at the end of last season. Patrick Roy and others in Quebec. And Russian coaches at the World Junior Championships. Not much continuity there.
“It’s pretty tough learning new strategies and stuff,” he said. “Some coaches like you more, some coaches like you less.
“You have different roles on each team you play for. I was lucky enough to get all the coaches that I had, they are really nice to me. I thought every single coach that I’ve had tried to help me, help me to be a better hockey player and better person.”
What team Grigorenko will play for this season will be a key question, just as it has been for the last two years. But now that he’s 20, he can spend a whole year in Rochester, where he played the final nine games last season after his junior team was eliminated in the playoffs.
It certainly would have helped Grigorenko last year to be able to play in the AHL.
“It’s going to be good for me just to play against men,” he said. “We know for sure this year I’m going to be playing against men. I’m really excited for this year. I’m pretty sure I’m going to get way better than I did last year.”