Before the NHL staged its annual prospect combine for the 2012 NHL Draft, Grigorenko, a center with the Quebec Remparts, was criticized for a lack of effort. When mononucleosis forced him to sit out the fitness testing, the stock dropped further for a player with as much natural talent as anyone on hand.
The Russian fell to the Sabres, who drafted him at No. 12. Having weathered that storm, and an up-and-down first pro season, he spent much of this summer training with the Sabres in Buffalo.
Grigorenko is forecasting big things for 2013-14.
"Last year was kind of tough. I didn't have a good summer with the mono. I had the draft and so much travelling with the Russia-Canada Summit Series," Grigorenko told NHL.com last week at the NHLPA Rookie Showcase. "I didn't have any routine to stay in training. It was kind of hard."
Grigorenko was a force with the Remparts, starting the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season with a 12-game scoring streak when he collected 24 points. By the time Buffalo's abbreviated training camp got started, Grigorenko was one of its top prospects.
Following a strong performance in Russia's bronze-medal run at the World Junior Championship, Grigorenko made the NHL lineup out of training camp; at 18 years old, he was the League's youngest player on opening night.
But his development with Buffalo was stunted when Lindy Ruff was fired Feb. 20.
"The coach changing was kind of hard for me. With Lindy Ruff, I was doing better and better," Grigorenko said. "Once Ron Rolston came into the team, I needed to do it all over again. I needed to earn my ice time again because it was a new coaching staff. I was doing better and better but finally they decided it's better for me to play in the playoffs in junior."
Grigorenko returned to the Remparts for the QMJHL playoffs and was dominant in their opening-round win over Chicoutimi, scoring 12 points in the six-game series. But his production slowed in a second-round loss to Rouyn-Noranda, and he was called up to Buffalo's American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, where he played two playoff games with the Americans before making it back to Buffalo for the Sabres' final three regular-season games. He failed to score a point but did see his ice time increase on a Sabres team looking to the future.
"The end of the season was a little weird," Grigorenko said. "I was sent back to juniors and then back to the NHL after I played in Rochester a little bit. I played a lot of games and that's exactly what I needed, to play a lot of games. I think next year will be a little easier. I think next season is going to be good."
Grigorenko's hopes for a breakout season in 2013-14 started with a meeting with Rolston when the Sabres coach outlined what he wanted his prized prospect to focus on this summer. The list included off-ice work to expand his lanky frame (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) and a focus on on-ice skills, particularly his skating.
Grigorenko could have followed his previous routine in Quebec, but he committed to Rolston's plan by staying in Buffalo to work with Sabres staff, notably skating coach Dawn Braid. It proved to be a turning point for a prospect once panned for a lack of commitment.
Shots: 31 | +/-: -1
"Just to make the NHL and to hopefully have my spot on the power play, probably be the first- or second-line center, is my goal," Grigorenko said. "To have 50 points would be great for me. If it's 30, I'm not going to be sad. I don't see myself as an AHL third-liner."
Grigorenko may have found the perfect opportunity. The Sabres are in a rebuilding phase entering 2013-14, turning over the team to a collection of young prospects. The process was kick-started last season at the NHL Trade Deadline when the team sent captain Jason Pominville to the Minnesota Wild.
Grigorenko, who turned 19 in May, said he doesn't see the youth movement as a free pass to an NHL job.
"It doesn’t mean just because I'm young I will play hockey. I need to be good," he said. "I'm pretty sure I'll have a good opportunity to show the coaches and everybody that I can create a lot of offense. Everything depends on me."
With 25 NHL games already on his resume, it seems Grigorenko is already starting over in Buffalo. But he's doing so with a very different outlook.
"It's a little different. I'm going into kind of a second rookie year," Grigorenko said. "I'm a rookie with some experience. I think it's good."