• 2009-10 Hartford Wolf Pack Watch
By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
Evgeny Grachev had only been in North America for a few days when he first showed up at the Madison Square Garden Training Center to attend the Rangers' 2008 Prospect Development Camp.
A day earlier, on June 21, Grachev had been selected by the Blueshirts in the third round of the NHL Entry Draft at Ottawa, and he was all smiles as he came down to the Scotiabank Place floor and pulled on a Rangers jersey for the first time.
Now, 24 hours later, the Russian teen-ager was at the MSG Training Center, skating alongside other young Rangers prospects.
Reporters at the Development Camp were eager to meet Grachev. As a highly-rated forward prospect from Russia’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl club, he was ranked by NHL Central Scouting as the No. 9 European skater and was considered the draft's No. 24 overall prospect by the staff at Independent Scouting Service. But the 6-foot-4, 220-pound native of Khabarovsk, Russia, was surprisingly still on the board in the third round, where the Rangers happily selected him at No. 75 overall.
As he prepared to speak to the media for the first time in New York, Grachev stood alongside friend and former Yaroslavl teammate Artem Anisimov
, who had just completed a season with the Hartford Wolf Pack. Grachev was still new to English, but it didn't stop him from declining the use of an interpreter.
Grachev didn’t understand all of the questions in English, but there was one he wouldn’t let go past him. Asked if he had a favorite NHL player, Grachev was quick to answer.
|At age 19, as he approached the 2009-10 season, Evgeny Grachev elected to jump to the AHL with Hartford rather than return to Brampton of the OHL. |
"Malkin," he said, referring to Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Evgeni Malkin, who would go on to lead the NHL in scoring and win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP the following season.
After saying “Malkin”, Grachev paused. Before the next question, he flashed a wide smile and spoke again.
"I want to be Malkin," he said.
In Malkin, Grachev might have the perfect NHL role model. Like Malkin, he had to overcome daunting barriers in his native country to reach North America, and his passion for hockey -- and lifelong desire to play in the NHL -- are what got him there.
Malkin had to wait two years in Russia before making it to North America and signing his first NHL contract. Grachev was far more fortunate. Within three months of his draft day, he had signed with the Blueshirts and begun his North American journey with Brampton of the Ontario Hockey League.
He would go on to win OHL Rookie of the Year honors in 2008-09 with 40 goals and 40 assists in 60 games, capture a bronze medal with Russia's 2009 World Junior Championship team, and then make the jump to the AHL with Hartford at age 19. He was the youngest player on the 2009-10 Wolf Pack roster and one of the youngest players in the American Hockey League this past season.
"There's no question in my mind he's going to be a top-six NHL forward down the road," said Kevin Maxwell, a Rangers pro scout and former NHL player who watched Grachev at Hartford. "... I think he's going to be in that 25 to 30 goal range and possibly 60 points.”
To fully appreciate what it meant for a talent like Grachev to come over within months of being drafted and be on the cusp of an NHL career two years later, one has to understand what he had to overcome.
Since the International Ice Hockey Federation's former transfer agreement with the NHL expired several years ago, it has become harder for players to leave Europe, particularly Russia, where youth stars often sign multi-year contracts with their club teams. The red tape associated with signing high-profile Russians has clearly prompted some NHL teams to avoid drafting these players, even when they have greater pro potential than the more readily available North Americans. The proof is in the numbers.
|Evgeny Grachev turned heads during his six-game NHL preseason stint with the Rangers in September 2009, scoring a goal and adding a pair of assists. |
In 2000, under the former transfer agreement, 21 of the top 100 drafted NHL prospects were taken from Russian club teams. Amid fears of contract disputes such as Malkin’s, the number declined steadily. By Grachev's draft year, there were only six such Russians in the top 100. Last year, there were three.
This steep drop-off is why a player such as the late Alexei Cherepanov, a top-five talent in 2007, was still available to the Rangers at No. 17. It's also why Grachev went at No. 75, prompting Gordie Clark, the Rangers' Director Player Personnel, to refer to him as “potentially one of the best third-round picks ever made”.
When it came to Grachev, the Rangers had done their homework. They knew that he was determined to leave Russia for North America as soon as he could. Soon after drafting him, they also discovered that it might be possible for him to come over right away.
Upon entering major-junior hockey, Grachev moved from center to left wing with the OHL’s Brampton Battalion in 2008-09. He went on to become the first Rangers prospect to earn OHL Rookie of the Year honors, leading all first-year players in goals and points while placing fifth overall in the OHL goals race and fourth overall in plus-minus with a plus-48 rating.
He arrived at the Rangers training camp last September and nearly earned a spot on the opening-night roster after an outstanding showing at the Traverse City (Mich.) Prospects Tournament and some head-turning preseason performances with the Blueshirts.
In six preseason games at left wing, Grachev registered a goal and two assists. He was used as a top-six forward his first three preseason games, turning in some highlight-reel plays. He was particularly impressive when skating with fellow Russians Anisimov at center and Enver Lisin on the right side.
Grachev gave a taste of his remarkable scoring ability in the final preseason game at Washington. After leading a 3-on-1 rush up ice through neutral zone, he moved to the right side and rifled a wrister from right circle past Capitals goalie Semyon Varlamov.
|During his lone season of major-junior hockey with Brampton in 2008-09, Evgeny Grachev took time out to win a bronze medal with Russia at the 2009 World Junior Championship tournament in Ottawa. |
He ended up as the final player cut from the Rangers' training camp roster. Ten days later, he was back up with the Rangers in Washington, ready to go if Ryan Callahan
couldn't play through a minor injury. When Callahan managed to play, Grachev was returned to Hartford and spent the rest of the season with the Pack, where he immediately went on a four-game point-scoring streak.
As an AHL rookie, Grachev had some shining moments, including five multi-point games and three two-goal games. He earned No. 1 Star honors four times, including a 3-2 victory on Jan. 16 at Providence, when he scored at 7:18 of the first period for a 1-0 lead and later delivered the game-winner at 3:19 of overtime.
His other two-goal games came at home on Oct. 25 vs. Worcester and Jan. 2 vs. Bridgeport. He also had back-to-back multi-point road games on Nov. 6 at Providence and Nov. 7 at Bridgeport.
Rangers pro scout Maxwell was able to see Grachev at his best.
"On one goal I saw him score, he got a step on the guy, dropped his shoulder and drove to the net and used his reach to beat the goalie and put it in," said Maxwell, "It was a moment that really brought you out of your seat, and I think he's got a chance to do more of that as he develops."
Perhaps Grachev's most impressive statistic last season was playing in all 80 of Hartford's games. During a year that his team was plagued by injuries, Grachev was one of only two Wolf Pack players to appear in every game.
"I think he's just really scratching the surface," said Maxwell. “ … For a kid that young, playing all 80 games is pretty impressive in itself. That just goes to the fact that he is a healthy young man and a strong kid."
With 12 goals and 16 assists, Grachev’s numbers were respectable for a rookie, but scouts believe they might have been better had he been older.
Clark is confident Grachev would have been the talk of the OHL at Brampton last season had he gone back to the major-junior ranks, and Maxwell agrees that starting the season at age 19 was a disadvantage in 2009-10.
"He did have a bit of an adjustment realizing that he was playing against men," said Maxwell. "He was so strong in junior that once he got a step on a guy, he just basically outmuscled him. What we found as the season progressed was that he just needed to get stronger. I attribute that to youth.”
Like Anisimov, Grachev had an opportunity to enter the AHL as a 19-year-old and wanted to do so.
By the end of the season, Grachev was back in the prestigious Hockey News
Future Watch list of the Top 50 drafted prospects playing outside the NHL. His No. 21 overall ranking was a testament to his potential.
"He's not a pure goal-scorer or a pure play-maker, if that makes sense, but he can do both, and I think that's part of the attraction," said Maxwell. "He's really got to work at driving to the net instead of sometimes hitting the blue line and going across it. He needs to go all the way down the wall and try to cut to the net and drive to the net. Once he learns to do that, he's going to become much more effective."
Given all he has accomplished in his North American career so far, it's almost hard to believe Grachev won't turn 21 until next February. He is sure to again be one of the most intriguing stories at the Rangers’ training camp this fall, and Blueshirts fans can expect the determination he has shown since draft day to help him make another impressive run at the opening-night roster.