Mikhail Grigorenko has struggled to meet expectations in his three seasons with the Buffalo Sabres organization. The 20-year-old is restricted free agent this summer and the Sabres have a decision to make on his future with the franchise. As a young player with talent, I expect Grigorenko to return next season. However, it’s time to set the right expectations for the Russian center.
Pressure Out of the Gate
When Grigorenko was drafted 12th overall in the 2012 NHL draft he was portrayed as the future top center of the franchise. Looking back to the Russian’s draft year, he was expected to be a top pick in the pre-season rankings. Grigo’s stocked dropped during his draft year as his work ethic and skating were heavily scrutinized; to go along with an ankle injury and a battle with mono. All those factors resulted in the skilled forward to drop into the Sabres lap at 12th overall.
He was forced right into the Sabres lineup in his lock out shortened rookie season. Grigo’s skating was not near NHL ready and his effort was poor or non-existent on most nights. He was returned to his junior team after 25 games and again was sent back to Quebec the following season after 18 games. This past season, Grigorenko came in with a new attitude and was able to get acclimated with the pro game in Rochester the AHL affiliate of the Sabres. In an injury shortened season, he appeared in 40 games with the Americans, and posted 33 points. The 20-year-old also played 25 games with the Sabres and recorded a career high six points.
The Sabres were desperate for a jolt to the franchise when they selected Grigorenko in 2012. They incorrectly rushed his development and put a lot of pressure on the shoulders of an 18-year-0ld. Buffalo is finally handling the development correctly by allowing Grigorenko to get used to the pro game in the AHL and earn his spot in the Sabres lineup.
Setting Correct Expectations
The Sabres are now headed into a new era with likely Jack Eichel as their new face of the franchise. Grigorenko now likely slots in as the 4th center on the depth chart behind 1st round picks Zemgus Girgensons, Sam Reinhart, and likely future 1st round pick Jack Eichel. Under this new role, Grigorenko has the opportunity to succeed. He can finally play a role on the team in which he doesn’t need to be “the guy”.
I ask this question to fans when thinking of Grigorenko’s expectations for next season; would you take a Josh Bailey season from
Grigo? Bailey was selected 9th overall by the Islanders in 2008. Bailey, like Grigorenko was thrust right into the NHL and had a lot of pressure put on him. Not including the lockout shortened season, in his six full NHL seasons Bailey has averaged 12 goals and 33 points. Bailey has found a role on the Islanders roster that fits him best. The same could be happening for Grigorenko this season. In a bottom six role for the Sabres, a 33 point season is a fair expectation. In 25 games this season, Grigorenko recorded 3 goals and six points. Projected over 82 games, he would have posted ten goals and 20 points. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask for 13 more points from Grigorenko to meet the seasonal average of Bailey
Another important part to remember when comparing Bailey and Grigorenko is the age. Bailey is 25 and beginning to be an important member of his team. At only 20-years-old, the Sabres may be unwise to give up on Grigorenko. He still has the opportunity to develop into a meaningful player on the Sabres roster under the correct circumstances. Next season could be Grigo’s opportunity at his first full NHL season on a team transitioning from the basement to winning games.
If Grigorenko could turn out to be what Josh Bailey has turned out to be for the Islanders, the Sabres should be very happy. As a restricted free agent, the Russian forward could be used as trade bait in the offseason. If he does indeed sign a new contract with the Sabres, fans should not give up on the idea of him being an important piece going forward. Grigorenko is unlikely to be the top center Buffalo was hoping for, but he still fits on the roster in a minor role.