Hype Man

Mikhail Grigorenko is the most exciting Buffalo Sabres prospect since the last guy fans were excited about.

There’s a genuine buzz surrounding this 18-year-old center to the point where his jersey sold out on the first day of training camp.

That “Grigo” is a player worth getting jazzed about isn’t exactly news if you’ve been paying attention.

This week’s training camp is the second time fans in Buffalo have been able to see him in a Sabres uniform since he was drafted in June. The first was this summer’s development camp, where he was also very impressive.

Grigorenko didn’t disappoint in Monday night’s intersquad scrimmage. He rang one puck off the crossbar, narrowly missed on a breakaway opportunity, had a few good shots and roused the crowd to loud cheers before his attempt in the shootout. If nothing else, WGR’s Paul Hamilton liked what he saw. As Hamilton notes, Grigorenko is already keeping linemate Ville Leino on his toes:

Grigorenko skated very well, which also created offensive opportunities. He came hard down the left wing side and found Leino in the right circle, but it looked like the winger didn’t expect the pass. If Leino’s going to play with this kid, he’s going to have to be a lot more attentive to detail than he was last year.

Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. As Buffalo News columnist Jerry Sullivan was quick to point out in his Monday column, Grigorenko might not even make the team. Not because he isn’t good enough but because the Sabres don’t have the room and, from Sullivan’s perspective, they already have players they like more.

The Sabres signed veteran center Jochen Hecht, who’s been with the franchise since 2003, to a one-year deal on Sunday and Sullivan seems to think that the veteran’s presence means Grigorenko won’t have a fair shake at sticking with the big club.

The Hecht signing could mean that Grigorenko is ticketed for another year in juniors. That would be typical of an organization that becomes infatuated with its own players and is often too slow to elevate promising young players to the parent team.

That, of course, assumes that the Sabres front office is unwilling to put its best players on the ice, assuming that Grigorenko proves to be one of the team’s best players during this week’s training camp. Lots of assuming there.

However, what if Grigorenko impresses enough in his five-game tryout that the Sabres decide they need to have him on the team this year but they want to keep Hecht, too, as a reliable depth player? I don’t think I’m naive to believe that the Sabres would figure out a way to make that situation work.

It doesn’t have to be this either/or proposition that holds with the popular narrative of an underachieving core group of players.

Sullivan doesn’t come right out and say it, but his column reads as if Grigorenko and Hecht can’t be on the same roster because one would be stealing minutes from the other.

Why would Ruff take a gamble on great when he can settle for reliably average?

Why? Because as Sullivan said, Ruff is “under fire” (although it’s not exactly clear from whom) and he needs to win now. To me at least, that sounds like it would be a point in favor of trying something different, especially in a 48-game season where fresh young legs will be invaluable come April.

Grigorenko’s performance in the first public workout of the season isn’t going to quell the hype. If anything, by the time you’re reading this, you’ll probably have read some posts or articles, watched some highlights or listened to a few radio segments about how good he was.

Yes, there were some bright spots and he did have me leaning forward in my seat a little bit every time he made a rush up the ice, but he’s still a young developing player.

The stars of the NHL are emerging at young ages. Teenagers have shown that they can be forces to be reckoned with. Maybe Grigorenko is one of those teenagers. The talent is certainly there. The Oilers considered drafting him first overall in June.

Or maybe he’s a player that’s going to need room and time to develop into the best player he can be.

Sullivan says that Grigorenko is too good to spend “another year” in junior when, in fact, he’d only be spending the rest of this year there. If the Sabres send him back down to Quebec City, the odds are pretty good that they’d be doing it in his best interest.

Defenseman Tyler Myers stayed in the WHL for an entire season after he was drafted by the Sabres. He won the WHL championship in 2009, finished second in the Memorial Cup and stuck with the Sabres after his try-out the following fall. Then we went on to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie that season.

Myers also needed a Toni Lydman injury and a Mike Weber two-way contract to open the door of that opportunity. So, yes, maybe luck comes into play as well.

The comparison to Myers’ season is inevitable, but Myers’ situation is a best-case scenario.

Myers also showed that the experience of being “the guy” on a great junior team can prove invaluable. Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier is very aware of that and and made it clear when asked about Grigorenko last week that they are looking at his services in the long term.

“I don’t look at Mikhail as a one-year player. I look at him playing here 15 or 20 years, hopefully,” Regier told the media. “And the decision we make needs to be based on that more than a small contribution for the balance of the year. But it doesn’t mean that he can’t do that [make the Sabres this year].”

Grigorenko is an elite player at his age level and has the potential to be one of the best players in the game. He slipped to the Sabres at 12 and after a lockout and a bronze medal-finish at the World Junior Championship, here we are. He’s in camp and making a name for himself.

The noise and chatter aren’t going to die down anytime soon, at least not while he’s still in Buffalo. Now are we all seeing shades of Mario Lemiuex? No. And that’s probably for the best.

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