If Mikhail Grigorenko was able to collect frequent flier miles last season, he’d be in line for one heck of a vacation.
With the lockout delaying the start of the NHL season by almost four months, Buffalo’s first pick (12th overall) in the 2012 Entry Draft returned to the QMJHL to kick-off his whirlwind tour with the Quebec Remparts. Grigorenko ripped off 50 points (29+21) in 30 games with the Remparts before heading home to represent Russia at the World Junior Championship. Six points and a bronze medal later, it was back to Quebec in January for Grigorenko where he played a pair of junior games before making his way to Buffalo to prepare for the lockout-shortened Sabres season.
The highly-touted rookie skated in 22 games for the Sabres, highlighted by his first career NHL goal against Toronto on January 29. But with his ice-time dwindling and confidence seemingly in disarray, Grigorenko was returned to junior on March 15. He didn’t waste any time getting back on track. In his first game back with the Remparts, Grigorenko lit up the Rimouski Oceanic for four points (1+3) in a 5-3 victory. After scoring 14 points in 11 playoff games, Grigorenko was recalled to Buffalo on April 16.
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While he was held pointless in three games to finish the season, Grigorenko recorded 10 shots on goal and averaged almost 14 minutes of ice time per game. (Grigorenko also played two AHL playoff games with the Rochester Americans.) Despite being held off the scoresheet to end his first NHL season, Grigorenko said those games were an important part of his maturation process.
“Last year was a good experience with those 25 NHL games. This year I’ll go and already know what it is, and how to play. Those last three games I played in the NHL were really good, and they were different from the beginning of the season. I’ll just keep working hard and get better and better every day.
“I still need to work on my work ethic. Those last three games I played pretty good, so I know that I need to be more consistent, and play good hockey every game. Sometimes what happened last year was that I’d play one game really good, and the next game you wouldn’t even see me. I’ll need to make a really big adjustment this year.”
When you talk about NHL, it’s like to go somewhere, like … the moon or something. It’s just something really crazy and you always think about it. You just dream about the NHL - Mikhail Grigorenko
It wasn’t always this tough for Grigorenko. Growing up in Russia, it was apparent at a young age that he was going to be a highly skilled player. Hockey came easy to Grigorenko, and he spent much of his youth traveling across the country to play the game. But even as a child, he knew where he wanted to be.
“In Russia, for every kid, NHL is all the best players. When you talk about NHL, it’s like to go somewhere, like … the moon or something. It’s just something really crazy and you always think about it. You just dream about the NHL. I’m pretty sure every kid in Russia wants to play in the NHL. You don’t want to play in the second or third best league, you want to play in the best league. And NHL is the best league.”
Grigorenko knew the path he wanted his career to take, and he made the necessary steps to begin the process to follow in the footsteps of his idols like Alexander Mogilny and Pavel Bure. That meant moving to North America to play junior hockey.
“I always wanted to play in the NHL, and I knew it would be a good step for me. Russia has really good hockey. If you want to play in the KHL you need to stay there and play in Russian juniors. But if you want to play in the NHL you need to play in Canadian juniors. I decided that I wanted to be an NHL player, and I needed one or two years to get ready in juniors.”
Just like any teenager moving to new surroundings, Grigorenko knew there’d be a learning curve in involved in moving to Quebec. However in this case, it was more about how he’d be able to adjust off the ice. On it, he’d simply let his natural abilities take over.
“I think it was pretty much what I expected. I kind of know that I’d come here, and be going for a big role on the team, playing 20-25 minutes of ice time. But probably the biggest challenge was learning the language. I knew that on the ice I would probably not have a lot of problems. I just needed ice time and a little adjustment for a few games, and everything went well.”
Life was good for Grigorenko, who was named the QMJHL’s Rookie of the Year in 2011-12 with 85 points in 59 games. He was succeeding at hockey and slowly learning the English language in a predominantly French-speaking part of Canada.
But with success come expectations. Being drafted 12th overall and coming to a team like Buffalo that was looking for an offensive injection from a young star thrust Grigorenko in the spotlight. When he wasn’t able to create offense in the NHL like he did in junior, Grigorenko became frustrated. In many ways, last season served as a wake-up call for the 19-year-old.
“I think I became more of a grown player (last year). Maybe in my first year of juniors, I was playing more like a kid. I didn’t really care about small details like playing defensively and in a system, doing what coach wants you to do,” he explains. “Last year I became very good defensively, I was working a lot on my faceoffs. I probably didn’t improve that much on my offensive skills, but my work ethic is better than before. Now I realize that I need to work really hard, and play good defensively before I can have the puck and create something offensively.”