Well-rounded Grachev poised for big year
Experienced pro closing in on a longer stay in NHL after raising bar in AHL
• Your View: Is This Breakout Year for Grachev?
By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
Evgeny Grachev has been such a strong presence in the Rangers' developmental system over the past three years that it is all too easy to forget that the towering Russian forward is still only 21 years old.
Three years ago, just a few days after he was drafted 75th overall by the Rangers in Round 3 of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Grachev arrived at the Madison Square Garden Training Center for the first of his three Prospect Development Camp experiences. Still learning the English language at that time, Grachev spent much of that week with his friend Artem Anisimov – the only other Russian-speaking player at camp.
In addition to their shared nationality, Grachev and Anisimov had strong ties from back home. Part of the same junior program in Yaroslavl, Russia, they were teammates for a handful of games in the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons before Anisimov crossed the Atlantic to begin his pro career in North America.
Anisimov had gone back to Yaroslavl for one season after his draft year before making that transition, but Grachev chose another route after being selected by the Rangers. He left Yarolsavl to play major-junior hockey with the Ontario Hockey League's Brampton Battalion in 2008-09 and wasted little time establishing himself as one of the Blueshirts' top prospects.
Grachev would go on to not only master English while in Brampton but to dominate the OHL as a rookie in 2008-09. His 40 goals and 40 assists in only 60 games earned him the league's Rookie of the Year honors as an 18-year-old, and by the following year, when he began playing professionally with the Rangers' affiliate in Hartford, he was ranked by The Hockey News as the world's No. 21 NHL prospect in its annual Future Watch edition.
Grachev and Anisimov missed each other as teammates in the AHL, as Grachev joined the Hartford Wolf Pack in Anisimov's rookie season with the Rangers. At age 19, Grachev still had major-junior eligibility, but he was eager to take his 6-foot-4, 224-pound frame to the next level and see how he would fare in the world's second-best league.
|Evgeny Grachev made his NHL debu on Oct. 29, 2010, against the Carolina Hurricanes at MSG. Three nights later he was back at The Garden and played in a thrilling 3-2 victory over the Blackhawks.
"He's 6-foot-4, but men are men, and boys are boys," said Gordie Clark, the Ranger's Director, Player Personnel. "It isn't easy just because you are 6-4 to go into the AHL and have a great year as a 19-year-old, but he was fine in his first year, and I think there's no question that there was a difference in his play this past season with that year under his belt."
Grachev had come so far in acclimating to North America that by 2010 he was able to serve as an interpreter for fellow Russian Mikhail Pashnin at the Development Camp. He was also able to talk about how much he had learned from his first year in Hartford and openly discuss the areas where he felt he needed to improve.
It was clear Grachev meant business in 2010-11, and he started out the season with a bang at his final Traverse City Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich. In the opener against Columbus, Grachev scored the winning goal -- his second of the game -- with 6.1 seconds remaining in a 5-4 win.
He played right wing on the Rangers' top line alongside Derek Stepan throughout the four-game tournament run, scoring four goals to become the Rangers' all-time leading goal-scorer at the highly-regarded tournament. In three trips to Traverse City from 2008 to 2010, Grachev scored seven goals in 12 games -- evidence of just how much he can contribute offensively as he continues adjusting to pro hockey.
Following his impressive performance at Traverse City, Grachev returned to Hartford, and focused much of his early months on the defensive aspects of his game. While his offensive numbers weren’t what he had been used to putting up in the past, Grachev’s game was improving in other areas. An early highlight for Grachev was his call-up to the Rangers which included his NHL debut on Oct. 29, 2010, vs. Carolina at Madison Square Garden.
Jeff Gorton, the Rangers' Assistant Director, Player Personnel, said the organization was pleased with Grachev's performance in his eight NHL games last season, and head coach John Tortorella was certainly impressed with what he had to offer as a 20-year-old
"I thought he did fine, because he was asked to play a role," Gorton said of Grachev. "We talked to Torts about that, and he told us he put him in the role that we had for him. Torts said it was what we needed at the time, and (Grachev) didn't hurt us. He was surprised at his physical play. It has really come. His timing and his hitting were also much improved. Torts even commented on him as a well-rounded player who is now 'getting it.' He's had two seasons of pro hockey and at his age, that is just great. "
|Evgeny Grachev celebrates one of his 16 AHL goals during the 2010-11 season and the first for his team after it changed its name to the Connecticut Whale. This goal came in a 3-0 home win over Adirondack.|
The surge began in a 6-2 home win over Providence that saw Grachev earn No. 1 Star honors with a goal and two assists for a career-high three points. He had one point in each of the game's three periods, and his goal was a power-play game-winner. Four nights later in a 2-0 win at Worcester, he scored a shorthanded goal, bringing him to 12 points at the season's midpoint.
Over the next 40 games, Grachev would go on to score 12 of his 16 goals and 26 of his 38 points for the 2010-11 season -- a remarkable offensive turnaround that included a run of seven tallies in a four-game goal-scoring streak between Jan. 16 and Jan. 28.
There was a two-goal performance in a 6-3 win over conference-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Jan. 16 and his first AHL hat trick in a 5-1 win at Springfield on Jan. 22. Grachev went from scoring three points in December to 12 points in January, and by the end of the month, he was back with the Rangers for games on Jan. 24 at Washington and Jan. 25 vs. Florida at MSG.
Although his torrid January scoring pace dipped slightly over the season's final quarter, it remained well above where he was midway through the campaign. Grachev registered a point in 12 of his last 20 regular-season games and entered the playoffs with a four-game assists streak, adding another assist in Game 1 of Connecticut's first-round series vs. Portland.
Grachev's excellence as a junior player in Yaroslavl, his dominance in the OHL, his repeated success at Traverse City, and his significant role on past Russian World Junior Championship teams were already indications of the NHL player he can become, but the second half of his 2010-11 AHL season might be the best evidence to date.
"He may not have yet gone to the kind of goal production that he’s hoping for, but it's going to be there someday," said Clark. "He had to learn that (defensive) part of it, and we knew he could do it. I think he was just trying so hard at 19 to show that he could score goals that he just kind of forgot about the defensive end."
There's no doubt that training-camp competition for spots on the Rangers' opening-night roster will be intense, particularly at forward where many other prospects are knocking on the door. Grachev's steady improvement and impressive performances in past preseason games will surely make him a key player to watch in September.
Not too many 21-year-old pro hockey players have had the diversity of Grachev's experiences over the past three seasons, and when the breakthrough year happens, it will likely arrive in the same way it unfolded in Brampton two years ago.
"If you just look back to Traverse City when he played with Stepan, you see that if he has someone that's going to give him the puck in the right spots, then this guy is going to score," said Gorton. "He can really shoot a puck. He's got the size, and he's not afraid to go into those scoring areas. That's how I look at him. When he's played with an NHL-caliber center, he scores. So I think his time is coming."