The Titan and the Trainee

Mikhail Grigorenko will play some hockey tonight in Buffalo. Thomas Vanek will probably play, too. The Grigorenko news may cause some to utter nasty French words up in Quebec, but around these parts it’s nothing but good news in the lede for tonight’s meeting with Toronto.

Right now it seems like those two are the most important players on the team. Vanek has carried the offense for Buffalo in its first five games, doing that Atlas thing he tends to do from time to time. Vanek got hurt on Friday and came back to score the team’s only goal. When he wasn’t on the ice against the Hurricanes, there was no offense to speak of.

tumblr_mhcoefaJFV1qz6f9yo1_500Before his absence on Sunday, Vanek had been on ice for all 11 of the Sabres’ goals, with points on nine of them. That’s about as good as one player can perform in four games. Ruff was so satisfied with his offensive play he could barely criticize him for a three-penalty performance on Friday night. Only after calling him “awesome” did Ruff address my question about the penalties in postgame.

The thing about Thomas Vanek is that we know way too much about him at this point. Remember that gigantic contract he signed in 2007? He’s got two years left on that deal. He’s been on the Sabres for eight years now. I know more about Vanek than I know about most of my extended family. If you’re not on my bowling team or we’re not Facebook friends, you’re a relative stranger compared to No. 26.

Familiarity has a lot of consequences. We know his bad habits and his moods. We know he can be streaky and often gets visibly frustrated. I think I’ve seen Vanek swear more than I’ve seen my parents swear. All that experience watching Thomas Vanek–through good streaks and bad ones–makes it clear to Sabres fans that they need him right now. He’s playing too well to miss games while the rest of the team is struggling. Vanek needs to be Atlas, because we all know he can be for at least a little while longer.

Grigorenko is a different kind of problem, something that the decision to keep him here only resolves slightly. He’s in Buffalo for good, but now he has to start making a tangible difference for this team.

tumblr_mhdccnRGJ31qz6f9yo1_500I think he will, but right now Grigorenko is still a relative unknown to Sabres fans. We’ve seen five games with the Sabres and clamored for more. Maybe you saw highlights of his time with the Ramparts, or caught a few games in the World Juniors. Most have loved what they’ve seen, but it’s so tough to translate that data into reasonable expectations.

The problem Grigorenko represents for Sabres fans is that we have no idea where his potential is. Right now, it’s limitless. He could win the Calder. He could center the third line all season. He could score 20 goals and be a real scoring threat on a playoff team, or simply play 12 minutes a night and learn what it takes to play in the NHL. Our base understanding is that he deserves to be on the Buffalo Sabres. With that decided, the next step is figuring out just what role he’s ready for.

Let’s hope Grigorenko is ready to do the former. Atlas could always use a lifting partner.