Buffalo - September 2, 2014 - We as fans can be a tad bit unfair to young professional athletes.
Sure, they’re rich at a young age and have no “real” responsibilities, playing a game for a hefty paycheck and living the night life when they aren’t at the rink.
But it’s easy to forget the pressure that some of these youngsters are under. Franchises and entire cities are depending on them to live up to their potential and hoist the town up on their shoulders, making their team and their town relevant again. Such is the pressure Mikhail Grigorenko faces.
While it might be slightly exaggerated that the entire city of Buffalo is weighing down on the young Russian, it’s clear that he’s come in with a boatload of expectations. Since being taken 12th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft, the Sabres’ faithful have had their hopes high for young Mikhail. He was their most lauded prospect in ages and had (still has) the potential to be a franchise center. Players with his offensive skills don’t grow on trees and the Sabres have gone a long, long time since they’ve had someone with potentially elite offensive abilities.
But in his short time with the Sabres franchise, it’s been a struggle.
He debuted right out of the gate for the Sabres as an 18-year-old, playing in 25 games with the team during the lockout-shortened 2012/13 season. The results were less than spectacular: one goal, four assists and a ton of questions. He clearly wasn’t strong enough to hold up to the NHL game, routinely getting pushed off of pucks and losing battles along the wall. He looked lost as most teenagers would in the bright lights of the NHL.
Things didn’t improve much last year, with Grigorenko notching just two goals and three points in 18 games before being sent down to his junior club in Quebec. He dominated again in the QMJHL before moving on to Rochester for nine games to finish out the year.
Heading into 2014/15, the expectations have been tempered significantly. He’s no longer expected to be the savior of the franchise, the offensive dynamo who is supposed to step into the lineup as a teenager and dazzle a la Nathan MacKinnon in Colorado.
Instead, he’s expected to spend the year in Rochester, building his strength and adapting to the rigors of the pro game. He’ll be expected to hone his two-way game and prove that his scoring abilities aren’t limited to playing against teenagers. He’ll be expected to improve. Most importantly, he’ll have time.
And for what it’s worth, Grigorenko is aware of how things went and blames no one:
“From past experience I realized it’s probably no one’s fault but mine that I didn’t go into the NHL,” Grigorenko said in July. “If I want to play in the best league in the world, it’s just on me. No one’s going to make me play just because I was drafted in the first round. I just have to go out there and be the best.”
The silver lining for Grigorenko is not only that he’ll be afforded time, but when he finally does make it to the Sabres for good, he won’t be the only kid in town. Sam Reinhart will lead a talented group of prospects that could include Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel who will be ready to take the NHL by storm.
For Grigorenko, it’s not quite do-or-die time, but this season with Rochester will give everyone a big glimpse into the future of the big Russian pivot.
Follow me on Twitter: @2PSBlog