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Up-to-the minute updates and insights from the Red Wings locker room at home and on the road. By Chuck Pleiness of The Macomb Daily.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Grigorenko's time is now

TRAVERSE CITY -- Where Igor Grigorenko is living come December is one of the most intriguing questions in Hockeytown.

The young Russian might be in Detroit in the early stages of an NHL career, learning about life in North America, picking up the English language bit by bit. Or Grigorenko might be back in the same town in Russia in which he lived before, playing for the same team, comfortable in language and surroundings.

The highest profile player at this weekend's Red Wings prospects camp has an out clause in the contract that he signed with Detroit, May 8. If the team assigns him to the minor leagues for more than three weeks, then Grigorenko may return to Russia, opting out of his NHL pact.

Grigorenko's Detroit contract is a two-way deal, calling for him to earn $858,000 with the Red Wings and $75,000 if he's playing for the Grand Rapids Griffins. In Russia, Grigorenko conservatively would earn $800,000 after taxes. Monetarily, the decision would be an easy one.

But professionally, the NHL is the place to be.

"Everyone wants to play in the best league," said Grigorenko with his agent, Mark Lapush interpreting.

"He will be playing here definitely," said Lapush. "Wait until you see what he does if they put him with someone like (Pavel) Datsyuk."

Grigorenko has the best chance of any of the players at this weekend's prospects camp to stick with the Red Wings. At 24, Grigorenko is the oldest player at the camp. He's also the prospect with the best resume, having played five seasons in the Russian Super League and competed for his homeland in the World Championships and the World Juniors. As a 20-year-old, he skated on a line at the World Championships with Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk.

Grigorenko will be given every opportunity to prove his value this weekend, at the main training camp next week and throughout the preseason. He has the potential to be a scoring-line forward in the NHL for many years to come.

"We'd like to think he's going to be a good player at this (prospects) tournament," said Detroit general manager Ken Holland. "Most of these kids are 18-22. On the other hand, he doesn't speak a lot of English, he hasn't played much hockey in rinks this size. For us, this is a week for him to get adjusted. We're going to give him this entire month to show us what he can do. Then we're going to have to make a decision. We're hoping he'll play his way onto the team."

The upside for Grigorenko teases Red Wings' fans. His potential, however, is mated with lingering question marks.

Four years ago, Grigorenko was in a serious car accident that shattered his leg and eventually had him fighting for his life in a Russian hospital with a fat embolism in his lung. Grigorenko said Friday that he feels that his level of play is back to the same as it was before the accident.

Grigorenko spent his time between lunchtime practice and nighttime game to fill out his application for a Social Security card. In many ways, his life off the ice is more difficult now than on the ice.

"The game feels the same (here as in Russia)," said Grigorenko. "But everything would be much easier if I spoke English."

There are, however, indications that the Russian came to this camp not in top physical condition. One member of the Red Wings' hierarchy confirmed that the club was concerned that Grigorenko hadn't worked hard enough during the summer. The Russian was slow at the end of shifts during the first game of the prospects tournament.

"Before the accident, he reminded me of Slava Kozlov, but better," said Hakan Andersson, Detroit's director of European scouting. "He was similar, but Grigorenko was such a tank. He's still a tank, but he's not totally back to what he was. Doctors say he's fine, but with how nerves work … you can't measure everything."

Drafted in 2001, Grigorenko has long been one of the Red Wings' top prospects. His injuries from the car accident in 2003 set back his development, but in the past three seasons, Grigorenko has had successful Russian Super League campaigns. He finished 18th in scoring in 2005-06.

If he can produce offense in the NHL as he has in Russia, then Grigorenko will be a welcome addition to the Red Wings. But will success come quickly enough for the team and player to wind up married?

"Grigorenko is going to be a big challenge," said Detroit assistant general manager Jim Nill. "He's got an out to go back in November. Our whole thing is give yourself a chance. One or two weeks of struggling … give yourself more than a month. Don't use your out. Now, easier said than done. You can have $1 million tax-free in Russia or make $75,000 in Grand Rapids. But if you want to be an NHL player, just relax and go from there."


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