Colorado Avalanche Forward Mikhail Grigorenko reflects on his first full year in the NHL

Grigo 1st year
Author: Clarence Paller, for
Date: Jun 7, 2016

Recently, I had the chance to speak with Colorado Avalanche forward, Mikhail Grigorenko. I had interviewed him last season (CLICK HERE to read the interview feature) while he was a member of the Buffalo Sabres organization, splitting time between the Sabres and the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League (AHL), and pining for a full-time roster spot in the NHL.

In a year much has changed for the young, skilled forward. He is now feeling more mature, confident and fitting nicely into the Avalanche system after spending the entire season in the NHL. While he has made tremendous strides in his development, he knows there is always room to improve. Drawing from this year’s ups and downs, Grigorenko has his eyes set on next season and to further his growth to become an elite player in the NHL.

“This season has been really good,” said Grigorenko.  “I really like the Colorado organization, from the coaches, players, and training staff everyone has been treating me very well. It was a lot of fun playing this season especially when we were making the playoff push. We have a pretty good team and for me personally there were some ups and downs during the year but overall lots of great experience. I played some first line minutes, some power play time and penalty-kill. Overall, it was a great season and there was a lot that stood out for me including the Winter Classic which was such an unbelievable experience.”

Grigorenko’s role has changed somewhat since time in Buffalo as he explained, “I was splitting time last season between Buffalo and Rochester and didn’t know where I would be from day to day.  So in that regard this year was different. This year I was in Colorado full time, which really helps a lot for peace of mind.  Whether I play on the first line or fourth line, you’re still in the NHL and that makes a big difference. After the All-Star break it seemed like the coaches started to trust me a little bit more. I received more offensive opportunities by getting to play with Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene. It’s awesome playing with them. They are great players. As for me, my goal is to keep improving and get better.”

Both players Grigorenko mentioned are elite NHL talents who taught him a lot of the course of the season.  “When you are playing with such superstars you need to remember what got you into the position to play with them in the first place. Coaches put you with certain players and they don’t except you to play a different way. They like what you have been doing on different lines and that’s what they expect of you when you play with those guys. You need to make sure you keep your confidence level up and stay true to your game. Those guys can do a lot more than most players so you don’t want to over complicate things. The key is to just keep your game simple and work hard when you do get the opportunity to play with them.”

Grigorenko also defined how his game changed this season compared with last year. “At the start of the season it was a little tough but with the more games and minutes I played the more confident I became. You get more opportunities and at some points I was on the power play.” He continued, “When I was removed from the power play and put on the penalty kill it gave me a new responsibility that was crucial for the team. Playing the PK contributed to me building confidence. It makes you feel that you are an important part of the team. That’s what I really like about our team, it doesn’t matter if you play 20 or 5 minutes a game you still feel important because you helped the team. That’s why I think everyone loves playing for Colorado.”

I asked Grigorenko, what areas of his game improved the most and where he still needs to work.  “I feel my speed has improved a lot since last season. I spent the last off-season really working on my skating. This season, I thought my skating got much better and it helped my game a lot. Since the start of season the coaches instructed me to work on puck protection. I worked on that every day over the course of the season. I would stay after practice and would work on protecting the puck in the corners and as the season progressed I felt I got much better at that element of my game. Those are the two biggest things. I still need to work on everything; I feel every player can get better.”

Another difference between this season and last year was the adjustment to being in the NHL full time and the mental toughness required to play night in and night out. Grigorenko delving into his own experience explained, “I think the biggest thing for a young player is that you have to appreciate it a lot that you are playing in the NHL.  You must bring your best effort every night, in practice, in games, in workouts and in anything. Appreciate being in the NHL regardless if you are playing 3 minutes a night or a few shifts a game. You can’t complain because you are in the NHL and you just have to be happy every day and have the right attitude. I think that’s the big difference for me. Maybe that was my problem the first couple years. Back then it was all so new to me and now I feel I am much more mature.”

He also reflected back on how his time spent in the AHL really helped in his development and maturing process as a player. “You learn every day from playing in the AHL about what it takes to be a pro. You can draw from and share similar experiences with other players who are going through or have gone through what you are going through. The hockey itself is a great transition from junior hockey. The level of play is very high. The AHL is challenging because all the things around it such as the tough schedule and grinding road trips.  It’s also challenging when getting sent back from the NHL because there is no time to be upset. You have to play and be good in the AHL. You need to be mentally tough.”

Grigorenko emphasizes, “Because I went through all that, now I know how things work in the NHL and it made me appreciate playing here much more than before.  Everyone dreams about the NHL. Once you get there you have do whatever you can to stay in this league and appreciate whatever role you are given.”

This season Grigorenko also benefited from learning from world class veterans such as Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay.  Grigorenko spoke highly of them by saying, “Both Iginla and Tanguay are exceptional people. Tanguay has won the Stanley Cup and Iginla has won Olympic Gold Medals and both have had outstanding careers. To witness this season when Iginla scored his 600th goal was something really special. To see what they do, how they approach the game, how they train, workout, you learn from them. Jarome is 38, and it’s amazing how great of shape he is in and how hard he works. Iginla is a great example of how you can play in the NHL for 20 years. The key is you have to love the game so much and work harder than everyone else to stay at that level for so long.”

Another often overlooked component that Grigorenko stressed about his success this season was communication with teammates and the great bond they shared. “You talk to your teammates about everything.  Sometimes you learn something just by having regular conversations with them especially with older guys who have been in the league awhile, its great being around them. You learn from everyone in the organization.  We have a great group and at times this season we were really successful. Coach Patrick Roy really pushes us. He is a great coach and knows how to put guys together and make good line combinations. Everyone on the team likes each other; we play as a team, and support each other on and off the ice. There is a great atmosphere in the room. When someone makes a mistake other players cover for them. We are accountable to one another.”

Grigorenko spoke more of the huge influence Coach Patrick Roy has had on his career. “He was the first coach I had in North America when I was playing for the Quebec Remparts. I learned many things from him. He was great back then and right now he is the same way. He is a really fair coach. This season he gave me a chance and slowly he gave me more opportunities. At the same time if he saw I was slacking he would let me know about it. He is really fair and won’t play someone over someone else because he likes that person more. He knows the right buttons to push with every player. With me he knows my potential and sees when I am on the top of my game or alternatively, when I am not playing well or when I need to do something else. He sees all those things and his guidance helps me. He believes in me and I am very grateful to have him as a coach.  Because I played for him in junior, I really understand what he demands from his players and what he wants. That’s why I have been able to find my game in his hockey system with the Avalanche. It is a great fir for me. I am really happy to be here.”

Fellow Russian, goalie, Semyon Varlamov has also helped make Grigorenko’s transition to the Avalanche a smooth one. “I remember when I first arrived in Denver, I has never met him before but right away we became good friends because we spoke the same language. That helps a lot in the transition to a new team. He has been here for awhile and one of best players on the team. He is a great guy and great person. We hang out together all the time. It’s always great to have fellow countrymen on the team.”

After a successful first full year in the NHL with many positives, Grigorenko feels strongly about his improved game and is excited for next season.  He knows the key moving forward is to “play consistent, and be ready for each and every game mentally and physically. If I am able to do that I will get more and more confidence which will ultimately help elevate my game.”

Follow the author, Clarence Paller on twitter @Cpaller10