Mikhail Grigorenko is returning to the NHL. The big Russian center has signed a one-year contract worth $1.2 million for 2020-21 with the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team that has proved it can win as a collective this season.
Grigorenko's professional path has been winding to say the least, but at just 25, he already has a wealth of experience to draw upon.
Originally a highly-touted draft prospect who was, at one point, considered one of the top options for the 2012 draft, Grigorenko slid to No. 12 and was snapped up by the Buffalo Sabres. The import had been excellent for the QMJHL's Quebec Remparts during his draft year, then spent the next two seasons bouncing between the Sabres, Remparts and AHL Rochester.
The youngster's offense never translated to the NHL in Buffalo and defensive play was also an issue. Needless to say, that combination doesn't look good on a resume and in 2015 he was sent to Colorado as part of a package in a blockbuster deal that saw Ryan O'Reilly head to the Sabres. In two years with the Avalanche, Grigorenko couldn't provide anything more than tertiary scoring with Colorado, so he headed back to Russia where he found immediate success.
Grigorenko won an Olympic gold medal in 2018, while helping CSKA Moscow to the Gagarin Cup final in the KHL, ultimately losing in five games to Ak Bars Kazan. Last season was even more successful on the domestic front, with Grigorenko putting up a team-high 52 points in 55 games and CSKA winning the Gagarin Cup, sweeping Avangard Omsk in the final. Grigorenko was a beast in those playoffs, leading the league in goals (13) and points (21). He was named a first-team all-star for his efforts that season, too.
So what should expectations be in Columbus? We've seen players bounce between the KHL and NHL before and the results have been positive recently. Alexander Radulov and Ilya Kovalchuk (once he got to Montreal) are two high-profile examples and while Grigorenko never had the track record of those two, he's also coming back as a much younger man.
Based on his contract, Grigorenko is not expected to be a star in Columbus and that's for the best. His size and skill are obvious assets and he can help on the power play - where the Blue Jackets struggled mightily this season.
Now, skating has never been a strong suit for Grigorenko and the NHL has only gotten faster over the years, so that is a concern. Under coach John Tortorella, Columbus has always been a well-conditioned team and Grigorenko will have to prove himself quickly in that regard. But according to ace Columbus beat writer Aaron Portzline of The Athletic, Grigorenko had talks with current Columbus defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov and former Blue Jackets blueliner Fedor Tyutin about the franchise before he signed, so he clearly knows what he's getting into.
At one year and $1.2 million, there is practically zero risk in this deal. The Blue Jackets have some prospects pushing up from below (Liam Foudy for example), but this move will not gum up the pipeline. If anything, the internal competition will help next year's training camp battles.
Grigorenko has already had two shots in the NHL and this third team will be the most crucial. But he could have stayed in Russia and enjoyed bigger paychecks and a great career against lesser competition - instead, he wants to prove he can hang with the best in the world. And that's a pretty good sign.