"Everybody who plays hockey wants to be the best and not everybody can be, but we all try real hard and I want to be like those Russian players in the League. Those guys are some of the best players in the League and the world."
-- Evgeny Grachev
Before you answer, keep in mind the player is currently starring at the five-day Prospects Tournament here at Center I.C.E. Arena this week.
He's New York Rangers forward Evgeny Grachev, who has certainly opened some eyes.
While the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Grachev may never reach the level of those Russian superstars of the NHL, it wouldn't come as a shock if the 19-year-old forward is someday linked to his childhood heroes.
"Everybody who plays hockey wants to be the best and not everybody can be, but we all try real hard and I want to be like those Russian players in the League," Grachev told NHL.com. "Those guys are some of the best players in the League and the world."
Fact is, it appears as though Grachev is on a fast track to stardom -- he's certainly mastered the English language pretty well. He never even reported to his Ontario Hockey League team in Brampton for the start of training camp. Instead it's likely he'll begin the 2009-10 campaign in Hartford, the Rangers' American Hockey League affiliate, or else earn a spot right out of the main camp that begins Sept. 12.
"I'm trying to not think about it," Grachev said. "I just want to get ready and work hard in camp and we'll see what happens. When I got here, I saw the guys and how the organization worked. I want this to be a part of my life."
Rangers assistant General Manger Jim Schoenfeld considered Grachev the most improved player within the organization. That's nothing to get too excited about, however, according to the native of Khabarovsk.
"I'm confident," he admitted. "My game changed in confidence a lot because last year, at first, I didn't really know what to do and I think I was going too hard at times. Sometimes, I might not have been going hard enough and then there are times when I needed to stay calmer. Gaining experience like this in Traverse really helps."
Grachev, who was interviewed by 20 teams at the NHL Combine in 2008, was drafted by the Rangers in the third round, with the 75th pick. Not surprisingly, he enjoys the physical side of the game.
"I'm probably not the greatest skater, but when I have a chance to hit a guy, I'm trying to hit him," Grachev said.
In his team's 4-1 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers on Monday, Grachev showcased his muscle and maneuverability with the puck on the way to scoring his first goal of the tournament.
"Once again, he dominated the game with his size and strength, and was rewarded with a well-deserved goal that demonstrated these attributes," Rangers Director of Player Personnel Gordie Clark said.
In his first season with the Brampton Battalion of the OHL in 2008-09, Grachev received the Emms Family Award as the league's Rookie of the Year after finishing with 40 goals and 80 points in 60 games. He also sported a plus-48 rating, the fourth highest total in the league. He also helped Team Russia win a bronze medal at the 2009 World Junior Hockey Championships in Ottawa.
Hartford coach Ken Gernander is getting a look at Grachev while coaching the Rangers' prospects competing in Traverse City, and likes what he sees. He's had the big Russian alongside Kingston's Ethan Werek and Ryan Bourque of the USA National Team Development Program for much of the week.
"I'm not going to tell you where he fits in the system because that'll be determined in the main training camp," Gernander said. "I think he's shown himself very well here in the first two games. Everybody can see he's got size and he's a big guy with some skills. He skates well and I think he's someone who shows a lot of promise. Hopefully, he pushes for a job at training camp."
His initial season in the OHL last year obviously did wonders for his confidence, as evidenced by his play at the prospects tournament.
"He played last year in the Canadian junior leagues, so I don't think rink size has been an issue at all," Gernander said. "I think the North American style of game doesn't affect a guy with his size. In fact, it probably suits his game better than the wide-open Olympic ice back home."
For Grachev, watching his brother play hockey back in his hometown was his calling card to eventually picking up a hockey stick and giving it a go.
"My brother used to bring me over to the rink and I started skating with him," he said. "In America, I really don't feel any pressure -- I feel comfortable here. I hope to use this tournament (in Traverse City) to get into game shape and get ready for main camp. I want to try and help my team win every game by playing my best."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com