It seems like Mikhail Grigorenko has been around forever and his junior days must be long gone. Yet he’s still will lace 'em up for Team Russia at the world junior championship in Malmo, Sweden. This is going to be his one last time with the team, though.
“It was partially my initiative to play for Team Russia,” Grigorenko told recently Championat.com. “I talked to the Sabres new management and they told me they want me to go to the tourney. I was glad to hear that. It’s a big honor to play for Team Russia. It’s a good tournament and things aren’t working out for me the way I want them to in the NHL so far. Playing at the world juniors will give me the experience I need.”
Grigorenko played 18 games in the NHL this season for the Buffalo Sabres scoring two goals and three points. The club wanted to send him to their AHL affiliate but since Grigorenko was drafted out of the CHL and is still eligible to play in the juniors, that was not an option. His junior club – Quebec Remparts – had already used up their import player limit, which put Grigorenko in a very awkward situation.
“Obviously, I was worried about it,” he admitted. “But at the same time I realized there was nothing I could do. That was my club’s decision. I was going to practices every day, tried not to think about it and work hard out there. In the end we were able to find a solution that was beneficial for both - the Sabres and myself. They let me play at the world junior championship. They told me to play like a leader and gain experience.”
Sergei Fedotov, KHL TV’s award-winning commentator last season, has high expectations for Grigorenko in Sweden.
“He definitely has to be Team Russia’s leader,” he said a few days before Russia’s tourney opener on Wednesday against Norway. “Perhaps, he’s even going to compete for the MVP title. One of the other candidates for the title is a former third overall pick Jonathan Drouin. Same goes for Connor McDavid – he’s just a 16-year-old, so I don’t think it’s very plausible he’s going to win it but there’s going to be a lot of buzz around him.”
It’s no secret young players aren’t particularly excited to be send down back to juniors after getting a taste of pro hockey. Is arrogance going to be something Grigorenko will suffer from?
“Do you think Grigorenko has a right to be arrogant? The Sabres basically tried to get rid of him for a long time as far as I understand it,” said KHL TV’s play-by-play Andrey Yurtaev. “They were like, 'We need to get rid of him but nobody can take him, what should we do? Ah! Let’s give him to Team Russia!’. That’s pretty much how it went. So I don’t think his confidence is high enough to the point he’s going to be arrogant. It really doesn’t matter that he scored two goals in the NHL.”
While Grigorenko agrees Drouin is going to be one of the top players in Malmo, he suggests someone else to fit the shoes of Team Russia’s top player.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” he told Sportbox.Ru. “It’s going to be [fellow Sabres pick] Nikita Zadorov [the defenceman from the London Knights]. I’m pretty sure he would agree with me. Jonathan Drouin, I think, is going to be second best player of the tourney. I played against him in the QMJHL. He’s very good. I think, he hasn’t played in the NHL only because he still needs to work on his physical game.”
In the past two seasons Grigorenko won silver and bronze medals with Team Russia in Calgary and Ufa. He now has a chance to complete his collection.
“Yeah, I’m missing a medal,” he said with a laugh. “I want to win gold. I don’t want to speak of it too soon, though. We just have to play hard in every game and advance further and further in the tournament. I think we got what it takes to win the gold. Team Russia is always one of the favorites at any tournament. We’ll see how good we really are after the games against Team Finland and Team Sweden.”
Russia plays Finland on Dec. 30 and takes on Team Sweden in fewer than 24 hours later on New Year’s Eve.