The last couple of seasons have not been kind to Mikhail Grigorenko at the NHL level.
After the lockout, and his dominance of the QMJHL, only helped to fuel the expectations surrounding the Buffalo Sabres' first 2012 first-rounder, Grigorenko has struggled in his time in the NHL. In 43 games, Grigorenko has managed only three goals and eight points, a far cry from what he was expected to contribute.
After last year's demotion to the QMJHL Grigorenko became the brunt of many Sabres fans' criticisms, with many coming to the conclusion that he would never cut it as an NHL player.
But that could all be a thing of the past.
Despite all of the negativity surrounding the talented pivot, Grigorenko has apparently worked his tail off this summer, having gained 10 pounds and sporting a new attitude that seems to have made all the difference.
With only two preseason games remaining, and the October 9 opener a week-and-a-half away, there is a really good argument that Grigorenko has been the Sabres' best player during training camp. Many have written about the "different" Grigorenko that has shown up in camp, including Mike Harrington of The Buffalo News.
But despite the fans, he is impressing one of the most important people he can: Ted Nolan.
Nolan has been upfront with his praise of Grigorenko during camp, even deflecting the widely held belief that he would be starting in the AHL with the Rochester Americans, as reported by Harrington. Nolan's praise was even more evident after Grigorenko's impressive game in the Sabres' 3-2 shootout loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, saying, via Dhiren Mahiban of Global News that he came to camp, "Willing to earn things and he's had a tremendous attitude from the get go."
In that game, Grigorenko scored a goal in regulation as well as a ridiculous shootout goal, showcasing the skill he has been hyped to have since he was drafted. Nolan also gave him a shot at first-line minutes, playing him for 24 minutes, six seconds, a staggering total for a forward most nights.
While not having quite the same impact in his other two preseason appearances, Grigorenko certainly has left his mark, which begs the question of where he will start the year.
At the beginning of training camp, as the Harrington article suggests, it was a widely held notion that Rochester was about as sure of a thing as possible. With Grigorenko's play and Nolan's praise, the odds of that have lessened considerably.
That, coupled with Grigorenko's ascension to the first line in both practice and games, lends itself to the reality that he has earned a spot on the NHL squad to at least start the season. At the very least, it makes it a conversation, whereas it wasn't before.
But Grigorenko unexpectedly making the team also means that someone must unexpectedly not make the team.
That then begs the question: Who has not had a great camp for the Sabres? Who was the anti-Grigorenko?
As it stands, the easy answer is Samson Reinhart, if only for the ease of sending him back to junior for another season, a la Jonathan Drouin last year.
Reinhart has certainly shown why the Sabres picked him second overall this year, displaying uncanny vision on the ice and a knack for the defensive end of the ice, but he has struggled in other areas. The speed of the game, as with all 18-year olds, seems to be a touch fast for him right now, and the thought of him spending time with Kootenay of the WHL and a month in Canada's World Junior Championship camp may be very attractive to Sabres general manager Tim Murray.
But the Sabres also have nine games to decide on Reinhart before they have to send him down, so that decision may lead to Grigorenko sitting in the press box during that time—something Murray certainly does not want to see.
There are obviously many different scenarios that can play out, but the most likely could be that Grigorenko starts in Rochester to avoid spending time in the press box while Reinhart gets his nine games. After the nine-game threshold is passed, if Reinhart is deemed to need more seasoning at the junior level, Grigorenko could be called up to take his place.
Now, things certainly are not as clean as that in the real world, and if Reinhart does stay, that makes for a mess if Murray and Nolan want Grigorenko up with the Sabres. Any number of things could be considered, including a move to wing for the current center.
Yet, it seems like the key to Grigorenko's fate this season lies in the hands of the second overall pick. If he stays, Grigorenko plays first-line minutes in Rochester until an injury necessitates his call-up. If he goes, the door is certainly opened for him to start in the NHL and show he belongs.
It's obviously not a given, as Nolan could go with a player better suited for a bottom-six role, like Tim Schaller, who has impressed in his time at camp, but Grigorenko certainly has an inside track.
Only nine days until Sabres fans can find out for sure.
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