Edmonton, AB - Mikhail Grigorenko has it. 'It' being the incredible on-ice ability that helped him collect 40 goals, 85 points and a +35 rating last season, and the ambition to match and surpass production en route to bigger and better things in the world's best league.
Just as Nail Yakupov lit up the OHL in his rookie campaign, Grigorenko did the same with the QMJHL's Quebec Remparts. It was a nice step, but the 18-year-old sees a grander stage within a stone's throw.
"I want to play in the NHL (next season)," he said, stoutly outlining his short- and long-term plan as edmontonoilers.com spoke with him over the phone Tuesday morning. "I hope I'll be ready, I think I am, because it's really the only goal I have for next season."
It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, since Grigorenko and others (such as Yakupov) have navigated their way across the sea and into the North American limelight for that very reason. The NHL is the goal, and making it requires commitment, dedication and everything in between.
Grigorenko has that, too.
"It's the best league, it's the best game and it has the best players," he said, noting the NHL's selling points. "It's always been a dream of mine to play (in the NHL), because hockey means so much in North America and in Canada especially."
The 6'3", 200-pound Russian is an elite, playmaking pivot that's in the ilk of Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin and Ottawa's Jason Spezza -- sizable centres who command space and attention by driving the net or locating an open man for a tap-in.
While Malkin and Spezza serve as a comparison, Grigorenko looks up to someone else when it comes to modeling his game in another's shadow: Ilya Kovalchuk, who was chosen with the No. 1 overall pick in 2001, ending a 39-year period in which a Russian hadn't been picked with the prestigious selection.
Alexander Ovechkin was the next to go No. 1, in 2004, when the Washington Capitals' selection preceded Malkin's punch card to Pittsburgh in the very next spot.
"It says a lot about the Russian program, in that we've got some very good players developing and are about to come into the NHL," Grigorenko explained. "I look up to guys like Kovalchuk because he's such a great leader and is such a team player. He can also make some great plays and score goals, so I like him."
In many ways, he's a similar player to his idol. He's a goal-scorer at heart, a sniper even, but his ability to protect the puck and utilize his vision is what's allowed him to become such an elite-level passer. Combine that with a dominant build, slick, sure-handed mitts and speed to burn (even though he's not as explosive as others), Grigorenko could very well be the summer's most valued acquisition from a point-scoring perspective.
Grigorenko's pride in the Russian program is clear and it was on display during the 2012 World Junior Championship. Scoring a pair and adding three assists in six games, Grigorenko helped his club bounce the host nation in their own building -- a moment he and his teammates will never forget.
"It was a really good game," he said, sounding up with an obvious thrill. "It was an amazing game for us. We were up 6-1 and we stopped playing a little bit, but we won the game and that's all that matters now. It was an amazing experience for everyone and such a proud moment for our country."
Canada scored in quick succession to make it a 6-5 game, but another couldn't be tallied in the remaining 5:43 to send the game to overtime. In the end, Russia had to settle for a silver medal as Sweden cashed the only goal of the championship game 10:09 into extra time.
"It was a really good season for me, personally," Grigorenko said. "I had a great regular season in Quebec, I had the chance to play at the World Juniors, Subway Super Series and Top Prospects Game. We didn't do very well in the post-season (dropping a seven-game series to the Mooseheads), but I can't say enough about the experience."
Grigorenko is slotted in at the No. 3 slot behind Yakupov and Ryan Murray on NHL Central Scouting's list of North American skaters. Still, the Khabarovsk product is up against a bad rap; his character and compete level have sometimes been questioned, but he's not concerned about another's opinion.
Just like it's always been, Grigorenko's summer will be dedicated to reaching the next plateau in a promising career -- in whichever city he happens to land.
"I think I have to work harder, play with more grit and be tougher to play against. The NHL is such a physical league, so I need to get better so I can handle it. If I do that and work as hard as I possibly can, I know I'll do well." -- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow @ryandittrick