Colorado Avalanche’s Grigorenko and Zadorov Motivated vs Old Team

Nov 19, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Colorado Avalanche center Mikhail Grigorenko (25) skates with the puck in front of Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 19, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Colorado Avalanche center Mikhail Grigorenko (25) skates with the puck in front of Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The Colorado Avalanche face the Buffalo Sabres for the first time since the summer trade that sent Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn to Buffalo for defenseman Nikita Zadorov and center Mikhail Grigorenko.

According to former Colorado Avalanche winger Jamie McGinn, it’s “nerve-wrecking” the first time you face your former team, but players “look forward to these games.”

A lot of the buzz surrounding tonight’s game, including here, has been about the return of Ryan O’Reilly to the Pepsi Center. However, it shouldn’t be lost in the narrative that defenseman Nikita Zadorov and Mikhail Grigorenko are also facing their former team for the first time, and they have just as much motivation to make a good showing — maybe more.

Additionally, there’s another player in the Colorado Avalanche lineup who should have a little extra pep in his step for tonight’s matchup — Matt Duchene. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Nikita Zadorov’s Motivation

colorado avalanche
Jan 8, 2015; Raleigh, NC, USA; Buffalo Sabres defensemen Nikita Zadorov (51) looks on before the game against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. The Hurricanes defeated the Sabres 5-2. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports /

The Buffalo Sabres drafted Nikita Zadorov with their first-round draft pick, 16th overall, in 2013. It’s easy to see why they had such faith in the defenseman — he’s big, skates well and is aggressive as hell. The young man literally likes to hit.

However, Buffalo didn’t do the best of jobs developing the young Zadorov. He did play 67 games over the course of two seasons, but Buffalo did little else to develop him. They didn’t set him up with a seasoned player as a mentor, then watched in seeming disbelief as he made teenager mistakes such as sleeping through an alarm and failing to return from vacation on time. They responded by suspending him both times.

Likewise, the Sabres did next to nothing to develop him as a player. He got little ice time, and most of it was unimportant minutes. They seemed to do nothing to tame his wild mustang instincts, then scratched their heads about why he was still undisciplined and unconfident.

By contrast, Zadorov got slotted right into important minutes with the Colorado Avalanche. When his discipline and confidence started to slip, Colorado sent him to its AHL affiliate San Antonio Rampage for seasoning and lessons in maturity. With San Antonio, Zadorov got a lot of important ice time and started learning how to curb his wild mustang instincts.

Additionally, Colorado has excellent leaders on the blueline, including veterans Brad Stuart and Francois Beauchemin, along with #1 defenseman Erik Johnson. These men are tasked specifically with mentoring young players.

As a result, Nikita Zadorov is skating with a lot more maturity than he did just a few short months ago. He’s going to want to show that newfound discipline off to his old team. However, he may still go Wreck-It-Nikita on a Sabre or two.

MORE FROM MILE HIGH STICKING: 10 Questions About Avs vs Sabres

Mikhail Grigorenko’s Motivation

Center Mikhail Grigorenko has a similar but specific version of his story. He was also a first-round draft pick, 12th overall in 2012. (That’s right, Colorado got two first-rounders plus extra for a couple second-rounders.)

Grigorenko was a scoring wizard in the major juniors, especially when skating for then Quebec Remparts head coach Patrick Roy. However, he struggled with Buffalo for largely the same reasons as Nikita Zadorov. The Sabres burned off the first year of his contract by playing him for 25 games in low minutes on the fourth line before sending him back to Roy and the Remparts.

Buffalo game him even fewer games — 18 — with similarly bad linemates the following season, then repeated the trend over the 2014-15 season. The offensively-gifted Grigorenko was skating with the scrubs of Buffalo — and that’s some low talent indeed. Again, the Sabres wondered why Mikhail was failing to learn properly.

Grigorenko has been faring differently in Colorado. Make no mistake, head coach Patrick Roy has him on a short leash. However, sometimes that leash allows him to stray up to the top line with the likes of Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon. Those are the types of young talent from whom Grigorenko can learn.

Patrick Roy has also taken a teacherly role with Mikhail. He genuinely wants to see Grigorenko succeed, so he gives the young center all the chances. It’s just if his compete level drops, Roy yanks that leash back.

It’s no surprise Mikhail Grigorenko is back in the lineup tonight even though the other sometime-13th forward, Chris Wagner, has been playing well. Coach Roy knows the inspiration that can come from playing a former team. He wants to give Grigorenko the chance to rise up to that occasion.

Matt Duchene’s Motivation

Colorado Avalanche forward Matt Duchene should be in the last phase of having Ryan O’Reilly’s name revolving like a moon around his. The two names have been linked together for the last seven years because the two players entered the NHL via the Colorado Avalanche together as 18-year-olds.

What’s more, Matt Duchene is aware that his is the “structure” on which all other salaries in Colorado are based. Meaning, no player can make more than Matt Duchene. (Though it’s likely Nathan MacKinnon will eventually provide a new ceiling.)

Duchene has the motivation to show the world why his salary was the ceiling that eventually forced O’Reilly out.

Next: Is Zadorov Earning his Spot Back?

A game with a perpetually struggling Eastern Conference team like the Buffalo Sabres would usually not be one to get excited about — except to hope the Colorado Avalanche don’t blow it. (Ahem, Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets.) The Avs aren’t going to blow it, though. There’s plenty of motivation on the team even beyond maintaining the final wild card berth they currently hold. Ask Nikita Zadorov and Mikhail Grigorenko.