Darcy Regier, former general manager of the Buffalo Sabres, rolled the dice on Mikhail Grigorenko when he drafted the Russian phenom with the 12th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft.
Grigorenko was considered by many to be a potential Top 3 pick that year, so when Regier found him still sitting there at the #12 slot, he saw the rare opportunity few teams ever have to snag a potential superstar from the middle of the NHL Entry Draft.
Perhaps to hedge his bets somewhat, Regier then quickly swung a trade with the Calgary Flames in order to select current Sabres’ forward Zemgus Girgensons. So far Girgensons has been everything Buffalo expected, and then some. He’s driven, tenacious and skilled. But just like hundreds of other NHL players, his offensive ceiling is not nearly as high as Grigorenko’s.
Which brings us back to the subject at hand.
For all of his capabilities Grigorenko still slid a dozen spots down the chart in Pittsburgh that day, and of course there were reasons for that. The first cause for hesitation was one that now comes to NHL GM’s before drafting (or trading for) skilled Russian players; their ever-present option to simply return home to play for the same, or similar, big bucks in the KHL.
The second reason is more conventional. While Grigorenko’s on-ice talent is inarguable, his work ethic has been at times called into question.
In Juniors Grigorenko flat-out dominated while playing for NHL Hall of Famer Patrick Roy and the Quebec Remparts, but he couldn’t come anywhere close to that production during his few opportunities in Buffalo.
To be fair, the Sabres didn’t exactly give him the type of line-mates one might expect a gifted rookie to receive when a team is trying to see what a player’s got. Indeed, numerous hockey fans, myself included, scratched their heads at the sight of Grigorenko skating regular shifts alongside the likes of enforcer John Scott.
However he did make some progress late last year playing for Buffalo’s AHL affiliate in Rochester, and now finds himself at the Sabres’ development camp. He’s also playing for an entirely new regime than the one which drafted him. And at 20 years old, he can certainly still be considered a top prospect.
But the time to showcase his abilities is now. Whether he wants to stay in Buffalo or play elsewhere, he needs to demonstrate to new GM Tim Murray and head coach Ted Nolan that he either belongs in western New York, or is good enough to allow Murray to get fair market value in return for his services.
Nearly all the recent talk of the Sabres’ upcoming renaissance has come with the almost complete exclusion of Grigorenko from the conversation.
But if he can find a way to present himself as the player he is capable of being, this time at the NHL level, he’ll become a huge asset to a team that has stockpiled an extraordinary number of them already.