For the past seven seasons, Colorado Avalanche fans have become conditioned to seeing the team's young, high-drafted talent get immediate and significant playing time in the NHL. Matt Duchene at 18-years old was slotted in the Top-6, Ryan O'Reilly was a 3rd-line center in his draft year, Gabriel Landeskog earned a Calder Trophy on the 2nd line, and so did Nathan MacKinnon in 2013. More than any team in the NHL (save maybe Edmonton), the Avs are willing to throw their top talent in the deep-end and make them swim. So, why the kid gloves with offseason acquisition (and former No. 12 overall pick) Mikhail Grigorenko?
The short answer is the Avs are in a better position to bring up young talent more slowly. Unlike 2009-2014 where, yes, the team made two playoff appearances, but were mostly suffering from poor roster construction and a dearth of top in-their-prime players, the 2015 iteration looks headed in the right direction. Colorado can still be frustratingly inconsistent from game to game, but the young talent pool is now far deeper, and they should be in contention for a playoff spot again for these final 30 games. Mikhail Grigorenko isn't getting the same opportunities as other young players have recently simply because the Avalanche don't need him to. They actually have good Top-6 players to write on the lineup card.
The 21-year old Russian has dutifully filled some thankless roles on bottom lines this season, playing as little as seven minutes per game at times. Naturally, his production isn't anything to write home about -- just 14 points (3 goals and 11 assists) in 44 games played. But does that tell the entire story? I would argue no. Grigorenko, in his short time on the ice, has been a steady and productive player for the team and looks to have the ceiling of an important contributor moving forward. Let's consider some evidence:
- "Per 60" stats can be a little misleading in smaller sample sizes (like Grigorenko's), but let's use them as a conversation starter. Did you know he's 7th on the team in Points Per 60 Minutes, sitting just behind team leaders like Duchene, MacKinnon, and Barrie? This stat is even more remarkable when you consider Grigorenko gets close to zero power play time. In 5-on-5 situations, he's 2nd on the team in Points Per 60 Minutes, behind only Duchene.
- The Avalanche are a poor possession team, but relative to his teammates, Grigorenko is (barely) a positive possession player in his first full season in the NHL at Plus-0.46 CF%Rel 5-on-5. Considering the boat anchors he's been asked to center this season on the bottom lines, this is quite a feat. As he matures and grows into more significant roles with the Avalanche, his production should increase.
- When asked to step in on top lines, his production soars. Of Grigorenko's 14 points this season, 9 of them have come when on the ice with Matt Duchene and/or Nathan MacKinnon. Another assist was to Carl Soderberg. When 71% of your scoring is done on your meager time in the Top-6, that's a pretty good indication of what kind of players compliment your game. Players of that caliber make anyone look better, but Grigorenko more so.