If you haven’t figured it out already, 2014-15 is all about the rebuild for the Buffalo Sabres. The wish list for next season is simple: Show that things are going in the right direction and make sure that either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel becomes a Sabre on draft night 2015.
Part A on that list means looking for every sign of progress from young players.
Former first-round picks Zemgus Girgensons, Mark Pysyk and Rasmus Ristolainen each have a good chance of making an impact. Those three have shown enough to feel confident they will take the next step this season.
It is unclear whether second overall pick Sam Reinhart or former first-rounder Nikita Zadorov will be in the NHL – we may have to watch their progress from afar – but both are easy to be high on at the moment.
Two highly rated prospects, however, have major question marks around them: Mikhail Grigorenko and Joel Armia. Should we expect either or both of the two ex-first-round selections to make an impact next year?
If you asked this question three-fourths of the way through last season, there would have been have consensus vote of zero confidence in either.
Grigorenko struggled in the NHL, registering only three points in 18 games. When he was sent back to juniors, the Russian forward spent a few days trying to decide whether to pursue other options. The situation was starting to lean toward him being the next Marek Zagrapan.
Going back to March, Armia had been underwhelming. His scoring production was mediocre and reports from Finland cropped up that he might be interested in going back home.
In between then and now, however, things happened with both that should have fans feeling much more confident than they did while there was still snow on the ground.
For Grigo, it was his 14 games in the AHL. He came from another dominating performance in junior, where he scored 39 points in 23 games. That means jack. But when he arrived in the AHL with the Rochester Americans, he showed significant progress.
On night one, he posted two shots on goal and a pretty assist. More importantly, he flashed signs of playing a 200-foot game.
“I thought he was really good,” head coach Chadd Cassidy said after Grigorenko’s Amerks debut. “He was positionally really sound, he looked like he was comfortable playing the way that we wanted him to play, he was moving his feet all night and he was really good with his loose puck battles.”
The Amerks’ coach even began using him on key defensive faceoffs.
In 14 total games, he only posted four assists, but the progress in the all-around game was enough to feel positive Grigorenko is listening to instruction and taking steps forward. Remember, he is 20. Many mid-first round picks do not make their debut in the NHL until age 22 or later.
Armia is a little farther along in his development, spending the last two years since being drafted playing in the Finnish League. His first go-round in North America was so-so – until the playoffs.
Playing alongside veteran Kevin Porter, the Finnish forward took off. He scored three goals and three assists after only netting seven goals during the regular season.
Armia’s two-way play was never poor, but his inconsistent efforts were concerning. However, when the playoff lights were on, he stepped up. It may have been his “Girgensons moment,” where a strong post-season series gave him boosted confidence going into the next season.
So what are the expectations for 2014-15?
If neither plays in the NHL this season, that’s OK. Both need more work before they are ready to play in the NHL every night – and at this point, the organization is not pressured to push them into The Show as they once were with Grigorenko.
But they need to produce in the AHL. They need to score. They need to be dynamic. They need to show the Sabres that they deserve to be believed in.
Does that mean there won’t be bumps? Of course not. There could be a healthy scratch along the way. There will be mistakes and inconsistency. That is all part of growing up. What the Sabres need to see is the playmaking and scoring ability that got both players drafted in the first round.
And they will receive the chances to do so. If they both start in Rochester, you can expect top power play minutes and playing in all situations.
They will be given the things they need to grow and show the Sabres that they did not make mistakes with two first-round picks.
Will Armia and Grigo do it? At least the end of last season should make us feel more confident. Now it’s all about what the individuals carry it over and do with their opportunity.