The Connecticut Whale practiced at Rentschler Field in East Hartford earlier this week in preparation for their outdoor game on Saturday night against the rival Providence Bruins. Despite temperatures in the 20s and wind gusts that made it feel even colder, forward Evgeny Grachev
bucked the trend by taking the ice without wearing a toque under his helmet.
After all, what's the big deal about cold and wind in the middle of February when you grew up in Russia, a place where the winters have been known to be more than a little cold?
"A lot of the guys had the toques on, but it really wasn't that bad," Grachev said. "It was cold at the beginning, but once we got going and moving around, it felt pretty good out there.
"The ice is in great shape, and we can't wait to go," he added. "It's still a regular game for us. Hopefully there will be a lot of fans out there, a lot of excitement on the ice and a lot of energy. But it's still two points (up for grabs), and it's gonna be a good game."
The Whale and Bruins are set to square off in just in the second outdoor game in the AHL's 75-year history. For Grachev, the experience will mark just one more highlight in a season in which his game is rounding into form at the professional level.
A native of Khabarovsk, Russia, Grachev was a third-round pick by the New York Rangers
in the 2008 Entry Draft and promptly racked up 40 goals and 80 points for the Ontario Hockey League's Brampton Battalion in 2008-09, his first year in North America.
That came while adjusting to a new language and a new style of play -- the latter of which was made somewhat easier by playing alongside former first-round draft picks Cody Hodgson
and Matt Duchene
"I could speak some English, not too much, but I could understand a little bit," Grachev said. "Hockey-wise, we had a great team. It took me a month or so to adjust, but it was a great experience for me."
Grachev turned pro last season and appeared to pick up where he left off in juniors, bursting out of the gate with 13 points in his first 15 AHL contests. But that scoring pace lessened considerably the rest of the way, and while Grachev appeared in all 80 games for the then-Hartford Wolf Pack, he finished with 12 goals and 28 points.
"I had a good start, but then I went a long stretch without getting any goals or points," Grachev said. "It was still a good experience – I was able to learn a lot of things you have to do to be a pro. You have to be a good overall player, get stronger, and also be sure to play good defense. You're going against such great players on the other side, and they can punish you for making a bad play."
Grachev, who turns 21 on Monday, stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 222 pounds, offering a towering presence wherever he is on the ice. Harnessing that size and strength and combining it with the ability to create offensive opportunities has been a work in progress, but he's beginning to show signs of turning the corner.
"He's certainly a strong skater. He has a big shot, and he's strong on the puck," said Rangers Assistant General Manager Jim Schoenfeld, who also serves as GM of the Whale. "He's starting to develop a complete game, which is one of our goals with him. He was a big scorer in junior, and he's worked hard at becoming a more complete player."
Grachev and his coaches both consider him an exceptionally strong skater for someone of his size and build, and he's able to use that ability to get in on the forecheck, finish hits, and press opposing defensemen into making mistakes.
Combining that with an-ever improving shot, Grachev has already topped his rookie-year goal total with 13 through 48 AHL contests this season. His 22 points also are well on track for a career high.
Playing primarily on a line with former AHL All-Rookie forward Tim Kennedy
and ex-University of Michigan standout Chad Kolarik
, Grachev broke out with a 9-goal, 12-point effort in January, including a stretch where he scored 6 goals in a four-game span just prior to the AHL All-Star break.
"I think he's made great strides in the past month and a half here," Whale coach Ken Gernander
said. "All kids develop at a different rate, and sometimes the guys with physical traits such as Evgeny have to work on doing things a little quicker when they get to the next level. They can't rely so much on their physical skills where maybe they were able to get by at lower levels."
To that point, Schoenfeld has observed Grachev learning how to better use his size to his advantage.
"When you can't just outmuscle someone in the corner and bring the puck to the net or you can't just blow by the defenseman because he's smart and strong, you have to think the game offensively, find your time to get open, and learn how to be elusive in the offensive zone," Schoenfeld said.
"That's where we've seen strides -- we've seen his basic understanding of the game, both offensively and defensively, improve almost monthly this season."
Grachev, who enjoyed a six-game NHL call-up earlier this season, earned another recall to the Rangers in the midst of his red-hot January and appeared in games against Washington and Florida on Jan. 24 and 25. While he didn't produce any points in a fourth-line role, the experience meant more.
"It was unbelievable," he said. "I can't say I did anything great out there, but it was still a great experience just to play with those guys and against other guys, get a taste of the big league.
"I was able to learn a lot of things you have to do to be a pro. You have to be a good overall player, get stronger, and also be sure to play good defense. You’re going against such great players on the other side, and they can punish you for making a bad play."
-- Evgeny Grachev
"You're trying to get there, right, and it helped with my confidence and understanding what it's like at the next level, what I need to do to get back."
Grachev has been given additional ice time in recent weeks, getting his first experience as a penalty killer. The results are encouraging for a Connecticut squad that has consistently been among the AHL's top 10 penalty-killing units.
"With his size, he's got a pretty good reach, so he can get in there and disrupt puck possession with that extra reach," Gernander said. "He's also done well just as far as anticipating plays defensively and being strong positionally.
"He's actually become a lot more responsible (on the defensive side). Development isn't always necessarily just about scoring goals and getting points, and I think he's going to have to be the type of player that has to be responsible defensively and bring other things to the game."
For his part, Grachev is embracing the new responsibilities.
"Last year I wasn't getting any penalty kill time, but all the years before that I had been on the penalty kill - for my junior team, under-18 teams, national teams," he said. "This year playing the PK has helped me to improve my defensive game, and it's always nice to get more ice time."
In a Rangers organization that has worked hard to develop its own talent -- including impact roster players like Brandon Dubinsky
, Ryan Callahan
, Artem Anisimov
, Dan Girardi
, Michael Sauer
and Mats Zuccarello
-- Grachev could soon be the next to move from Hartford to Broadway.
"We're hoping that as time goes on, his role will increase as far as being an offensive player in the National Hockey League," Schoenfeld said. "That's why he's in the American League now, to hone that skill, and I think the biggest lesson he's learned is that the level of consistency you play at wherever you're playing is critically important to your advancement.
"He's become a much more consistent performer and a much more competitive player, and we're seeing the results of that in his play."