When Mikhail Grigorenko was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres back in 2012, most fans figured that the team got a steal with the #12 pick. After all, Grigorenko had been a consensus top-five pick for most of the 2011-12 season thanks to his elite offensive skills, and only dropped before the draft thanks to bogus group-think. He and Zemgus Girgensons were supposed to be a potential 1/2 combination at center for the next decade, but I think we all know how that turned out.
While Girgensons continued to shine and impress at every level, Grigorenko's unique age and talent situation meant that there was no good place for him. He was too good for the QMJHL, but not ready mentally and physically for the NHL. A desperate Darcy shuffled him back and forth between the two leagues in a manner both unfair and irresponsible to Grigorenko's development.
What followed was an avalanche of backlash against the young Russian. While most fans realized he was placed in an unfair predicament, our patience only goes so far on the internet. The last straw for many came last season when Grigorenko refused to report back to the Quebec Remparts - but what at first looked like a petulant teenager taking his ball and going home instead turned out to be a young man taking some time to ponder his future with an organization that had mishandled his development at every turn.
Grigorenko ultimately decided to return to Quebec to finish his season, and after a short stint in Rochester at the end of the year, dedicated himself in the offseason to getting stronger, working harder, and playing tougher.
For anyone who's watched him this preseason, the early results of that hard work are paying off.
Since camp opened a few weeks ago, Grigorenko has been earning praise from all corners of the hockey world. He's gotten top line minutes - leading the team with 24:56 in their last game - and performing well in that role. Even Ted Nolan has been impressed, saying, "He did the right thing this summer by working himself into better shape. He came into camp with a real positive attitude, wanted to earn things versus just [being] given things."
As nice as it's been to see Grigorenko finally start to realize his potential, he's still obviously a ways off from being an every-day NHLer. Regardless of what happens the rest of this season, however, there's a lesson in his journey of patience. Players that jump right to the NHL at age 18 and are successful are very few and far between, and many of the best players in the league needed a few years in minor league hockey to continue to grow both mentally and physically.
Good plan for Sabres fans: From here on out, pretend you just met Grigorenko tonight. 20 is age of normal mid-1st round pick playing FT pro— Matthew Coller (@MatthewWGR) September 29, 2014
It's a lesson we can apply not only to Grigorenko, but to Sam Reinhart as well. While they're not the exact same prospect, both players share man of the same talents - vision, playmaking skills, incredible hands - and the same weaknesses, mainly that they need to continue to fill out their frames, improve their skating, and learn to play against grown men rather than the teenagers of the junior hockey teams.
Sabres fans have had a long, rocky journey over the past nine years, falling from surprise Cup contender to the league's basement. That journey is coming to a close, but it won't be this year. Whether it's with Grigorenko, Reinhart, Ristolainen, Zadorov, or any other prospect trying to learn to be a professional athlete, remember that the beginning of their journey doesn't always lead them down the path they'll ultimately take.
Enjoy watching the kids grow this season, but don't jump to conclusions if they aren't world-beaters right away. Grigorenko's journey shows that sometimes, you just need to give them time to figure it out.