To say Mikhail Grigorenko has had an unusual career trajectory would be an oversimplification.
The former 12th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Grigorenko struggled to live up to the billing of his draft stock, and was traded from the Buffalo Sabres to the Colorado Avalanche in the Ryan O'Reilly blockbuster. Two seasons later and still just 22 years old, he became a free agent after the Avalanche chose not to extend a qualifying offer to the then-pending RFA.
Grigorenko returned to his native Russia to play in the KHL where he's played for perennial powerhouse CSKA Moscow for the past three seasons. He found his game, and on Monday agreed to terms with the Blue Jackets on a one-year, one-way contract worth $1.2M for the 2020-21 season. According to GM Jarmo Kekalainen, he's been on the Blue Jackets' radar since 2018.
Grigorenko has played a ton of hockey since his return to Russia. In 2018, he helped OAR (Olympic Athletes from Russia) capture the Gold Medal at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics, and his CSKA Moscow team lost in the Gagarin Cup finals. A season later, Grigorenko was a force, leading CSKA Moscow in regular-season scoring (17-35-52 in 55 games). He was named playoff MVP after tallying 13-8-21 in 20 games as he led CSKA Moscow to become Gagarin Cup champions. He parlayed his eye-opening playoffs to a spot on the 2019 World Championships, where (unlike at the Olympics) some of the NHL's biggest stars were also rostered.
Kekalainen raved about Grigorenko's versatility to play all three forward positions and play both special teams, particularly his ability on the power play. He isn't the only one to be excited about Grigorenko's prospects. The Athletic's Corey Pronman, a notable talent evaluator, ranked the 6'3, 190-pound forward #2 on his list of the top free agents from college hockey, major junior, and Europe.
He’s shown the past few years that he can be very effective at both the KHL and international level. Grigorenko is a highly skilled and intelligent player, and has a very good shot. His ability on the power play is clearly NHL quality due to how many plays he can make. He’s always had the skill and vision, but his first NHL stint didn’t work out due to a lack of speed and physicality in his game. I still think his speed is rather average and he’s not a great defensive center, but he’s been more effective in the middle of the ice and making plays around the net. I think he can still be a middle-six NHL forward next season, but I understand why some may be quite skeptical of that claim."
Last week, we released a 'State Of The Union' piece on the Blue Jackets organization for both centers and wingers, and my conclusion is that the club has a surplus of NHL-caliber forwards. What a problem to have, I know, but I would be shocked if at least one forward (probably more) isn't traded this off-season. The alternative options are to try to sneak veteran players to AHL Cleveland via waivers or stash players like Alexandre Texier, Emil Bemstrom, or Liam Foudy, all of whom will still be waivers exempt in 2020-21, to the AHL.
Consider the below table of forwards in the organization that could/should be in the NHL in 2020-21:
Some of this will work itself out naturally. Jakob Lilja and Devin Shore may not be offered qualifying offers, Brandon Dubinsky may go on LTIR, etc. But regardless, most NHL teams carry 14 forwards, and so management will have its work cut out for them this off-season.
Grigorenko is a nice insurance policy down the middle of the ice, who, like Pronman mentioned, could slot into a middle-six role. As we projected on our center SOTU, Texier-Foudy at 2C-3C may be too large an ask in 2020-21, and Boone Jenner is a natural winger that has been playing center out of necessity. This would allow their young center prospects more time to get more acclimated to the NHL (remember, Pierre-Luc Dubois started as a 4LW), while giving a veteran player like Greigorenko an opportunity to show himself well at the NHL level. If he does, he'll be able to cash in for a nice payday after his one-year contract ends (Hell, they could even trade him this off-season, though that seems unlikely). If he flops, the Blue Jackets can easily move him into a lesser role with no long-term repercussions.
Grigorenko's versatility at all three forward positions, inexpensive contract, and opportunity to play in a variety of roles give the Blue Jackets plenty of flexibility moving forward. How the Blue Jackets proceed with their overabundance of NHL-caliber forwards is a situation worth monitoring.