Another autumn, another intriguing season ahead for Michal Grosek.
It's the same story again this year for the Buffalo Sabres' left winger, who has never been able to shake his reputation as an inconsistent performer in the NHL. The Sabres have wondered every fall since1996 if Grosek was ready to become a complete player, and this season is no exception.
Grosek is big, tough, strong and still only 24 years old. He knows he still has time to become a finished product, no matter how impatient those around him become.
"I'm not even in my prime," Grosek said. "I'm taking steps. I have to show people I can score and make plays. I have to go step by step, every single year."
The 1998-99 season was a mixed bag for Grosek. Coming off a good playoff in 1998 (six goals in 15 games), Grosek went on to set career highs in goals (20), assists (30) and points (50) in the 1998-99 regular season. The winger still took some off nights, but they were far less frequent than in the past. Then came the playoffs, a triumph for the team but something close to ruinous for Grosek. He had no goals in 13 games and didn't play in the last five games of the finals against the Dallas Stars.
"I look forward to the playoffs," Grosek said. "That's where I want to play. That's when it matters for me. I couldn't do anything. My back was pretty bad. Sometimes that's what happens. You have to learn a lesson from it, and try to do it the next year."
Admittedly Grosek had physical problems throughout the postseason, but coach Lindy Ruff more than hinted at the time that Grosek's play and approach needed adjustments as well.
"It's easy to become disillusioned with players in the short term," Ruff said Tuesday. "I think in the long term, he's got the size and the speed and strength and the aggressiveness to be a very good player for us. From Day One (of Ruff's coaching tenure) we said we wanted to become a bigger, stronger team. He's part of that puzzle. You take him out of our lineup, and we're automatically a weaker team. We hope he regains the form that got him to where he was in the first half of the season."
The physical part of Grosek's playoff problems appears to be cured, for now. He reports a summer of rest has done his back some good.
"I think if I do my exercises every day and take care of it, I shouldn't have any problems," he said. "I have to be careful, especially with my game. I stand in front of the net and get beat up a lot, and that's when it hurts."
Good health will give Grosek the chance to improve his all-around game, but he has to take advantage of it. Ruff believes Grosek has shown some September signs of doing that.
"He seems very determined, and I've been very impressed with how he's played throughout training camp," Ruff said. "He's determined to be more physical while keeping his scoring up. If you look at his stats, he's gotten better in almost every year. Last year was no exception. It was better than his previous season.
"Obviously the playoffs were a huge disappointment. From my point of view, I want him to focus in on the regular season. Hopefully when the playoffs come around he'll have had another better year."
With the regular season arriving on Saturday, Grosek has to get ready to show that he can be more of a constant force on the ice.
"I think I can still be better," Grosek said. "I can get more points if I play every game the same. One game I play very well, the next game I play so-so. I still need to improve. I need to play solid every game."