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Ilya Mikheyev worked out so well, Kyle Dubas went shopping for more Russians

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It’s only October, but the rumours of Leafs signings for next year have begun.

Closing ceremony for 2018/19 Kontinental Hockey League season
The 2019 KHL Awards honoured Nikita Nesterov, Ilya Mikheyev, and Mikhail Grigorenko.
Photo by Sergei Karpukhin\TASS via Getty Images

Last summer, when the Leafs signed Ilya Mikheyev to an ELC, he was coming off a spectacular KHL season that got him an award.

CSKA was also represented in the Golden Helmet category, which names the six top players of the past season. Defenseman Nikita Nesterov and forward Mikhail Grigorenko was both included on that roster. They were joined by Salavat Yulaev goalie Juha Metsola, Barys D-man Darren Dietz, Avangard forward Ilya Mikheyev and another Finn from Ufa, Teemu Hartikainen.

The current rumours that Kyle Dubas is in Russia (confirmed by several journalists) have him looking to collect the whole set. Or, at least two more of the set.

One of those names is not a surprise. I was curious why no one was trying hard to bust Mikhail Grigorenko out of the last year of his contract with CSKA last summer. He has been excellent in the KHL — on a top team, to be sure — but he has an intriguing NHL track record behind him — a story of thwarted hopes and dreams, turmoil and egos, drama and melodrama. It should be a movie.

Mikhail Grigorenko

Grigorenko was drafted 12th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 2012. The history of Grigorenko in the NHL is tangled up with the Sabres and their decade of futility. In 2012, they’d just had a poor, but not terrible season. They were outright bad in the lockout year, and then they set about being intentionally terrible for so long that they weren’t really an NHL team for years.

At 16, Grigorenko was playing in the MHL for a year and he also tore up the U18 World Championships to the tune of 18 points in seven games. He then joined the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL in 2011. The other thread to the Grigorenko story, is Patrick Roy. Roy was the GM and coach of the Remparts in those days.

Grigorenko, then listed at 6’2” and 191 lb, was not even close to being the biggest player on the team. He was about average. It’s always been possible to write off his junior points production in the Q to his size. At age 17/18, he had 85 points in 59 games, 40 of them goals.

He didn’t lead the Remparts in points, that honour went to Frederik Roy (then 20/21), son of the man in charge. His story is some other kind of tale, but he played a few games last year in the LNAH, a semi-pro league in Quebec full of players in their thirties who are still not so bad. Also on the Remparts back in Grigorenko’s day was Anthony Duclair, who helped the top line succeed.

The Sabres, entering their downward spiral, thought Grigorenko was ready for the NHL at 18. He looked ready, physically. They played him for 25 games in the NHL in 2012-2013, burning a year of his ELC, then they sent him back to the Remparts where he was even more dominant in 33 games.

The Sabres tried again with Grigorenko at 19, getting into a dispute where they tried to send him to the AHL on a conditioning loan, and the NHL said, no, he’s indentured in servitude to the QMJHL or he’s in the NHL, no in between. Back he went to the Remparts where he performed exactly as he had the year before. Patrick Roy had gone off to put his stamp on the Colorado Avalanche by then, so Grigorenko had a new coach, but Duclair was still on the team dominating the points charts.

Finally, in 2014-15, Grigorenko was old enough for the AHL, the Sabres were the worst team in the NHL, and their AHL team was almost as bad — an achievement for a team that had managed to collect some quality AHL players and a couple of good prospects. The head coach left after that season to coach in the US high-school system, and the Amerks went through seven goalies, most notably prospect Andrey Makarov, who famously left the Sabres in a cloud of disgruntlement and claims of anti-Russian bias, never to return. Grigorenko still managed to be decently productive on that Amerks team.

Through all of that, Grigorenko played a few games every year for the Sabres, while they mismanaged his contract:

Mikhail Grigorenko’s NHL Career in Buffalo

Year Games Goals Assists Points 5on5 TOI/GP
Year Games Goals Assists Points 5on5 TOI/GP
2012-13 25 1 4 5 9:19
2013-14 18 2 1 3 10:17
2014-15 25 3 3 6 13:41

Grigorenko’s ELC expired in 2015, and three years of playing with Marcus Foligno, Cody Hodgson (retired in 2016 due to injury) and Jochen Hecht (in his last NHL year) as his most frequent linemates hadn’t let him show his talent at the pro level. His qualifying offer that summer would be high, and most people had decided he was a total draft bust and not worth it.

In June of 2015, the unsigned RFA Grigorenko was traded to the Colorado Avalanche with Nikita Zadorov and J.T. Comphor for Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn. Grigorenko signed a league-minimum one-year deal in July to play for his old coach, Patrick Roy.

Let’s back up. Grigorenko played in the MHL for Krasnaya Armiya Moskva, the junior team associated with CSKA. CSKA, used to be known to us in North America as the Red Army team; they are the professional hockey organization in Russia. And from that big-city centre of hockey excellence, Grigorenko wandered through the constant drama and turmoil of Roy’s Remparts and the most dysfunctional NHL team of the time.

In 2012, Roy was fined for the fourth time in a period of a year for the following:

Roy laced into QMJHL commissioner Gilles Courteau last Friday, accusing him of placing his own interests and those of the QMJHL above those of players.

Roy said Courteau and the league put pressure on Remparts right-winger Mikhail Grigorenko to play in the Home Hardware CHL Top Prospects Game in Kelowna, B.C., on Wednesday night even though the Russian was injured.

Roy also said Courteau wants to become head of the Canadian Hockey League and that Grigorenko’s participation in the event would help his candidacy.

”What we want is that the young player is able go out there in ideal circumstances and that he can give the best possible performance, but when you have a commissioner who thinks about his future, the kids get forgotten,” Roy said in French.

Grigorenko, who is recovering from an ankle injury, played in Wednesday’s game.

Back in the Roy whirlwind in Colorado, and with the pressure of being seen as Ryan O’Reilly’s replacement, no matter how impossible that was, Grigorenko did surprisingly well on an Avalanche team that had gone from the glories of a PDO-fuelled run to the depths of last place in their division the prior year.

He still only played 11 minutes per game, but he suddenly had a meaningful points rate driven almost entirely by assists. The difference in his production was down to his new linemates: Jarome Iginla and Matt Duchene. In typical Roy fashion, Grigorenko bounced between that scoring line and tours with Cody McLeod and Andreas Martinsen on the fourth line.

The big man who can score was still confusing even his oldest fan in North America. Was he just a depth bruiser? Or did he have some scoring skill? The Avalanche liked him enough to overpay him for another season at $1.3, but Roy quit that offseason just before the start of training camp, and Jared Bednar was airlifted in to preside over the disintegration of the team, loudly and in public.

In 2016-17, rookie Mikko Rantanen was the only member of the Avalanche to score 20 goals. Matt Duchene was getting ready to ask for a divorce, which he did over the summer, and future Maple Leafs defender Tyson Barrie, was in every trade rumour. Grigorenko played with Carl Soderberg and Duchene, and occasionally with Rantanen or MacKinnon. The new coach didn’t know if the big man was a checking line depth player or a scoring line winger either.

In the summer, while the Avs did some more unravelling prior to their big trade with Ottawa, Grigorenko went back to Moscow, to CSKA, and to the place where he was clearly understood. He was 23 and the NHL world considered him a failure.

After a period of acclimatization in his first KHL season, and his first season in Europe as a grown man, he poured on the points for CSKA in the playoffs. In 2018-2019, on the way to winning that award pictured above, he had 17 goals and 35 assists in 55 games. He had 21 points in 25 games in the playoffs, and he hoisted the Gagarin Cup. No one is Russia thinks Mikhail Grigorenko is a failure.

He played on the first line most of the time, often with Wild prospect Kirill Kaprizov, who is now the best player not in the NHL with Nikita Gusev finally over here. No one with CSKA was confused about Grigorenko’s role.

So far in this season for CSKA, he has an astonishing 15 points in 16 games, riding a wave of glory along with the current KHL point leader Kaprizov. CSKA have 14 wins in their first 17 games. It’s easier to be good on a team so dominating than it is on teams riding the wave down in the other direction.

Who is Grigorenko? Is he a scoring winger built like a power forward? Is he a checking line defensive specialist who can’t keep an NHL job? Is he a star, or a good support player for a star?

What if he’s some of each? What if looking at his personal scoring against the competition he faced in junior, the AHL or the top heavy KHL is a waste of time. But what if also getting excited by the prospect of someone who is now 6’3” and over 200 lbs is also misleading. What if he is more like the smaller and quicker Mikheyev than anyone has ever thought when all they did was look at the man or his boxcars.

The difficulty faced by a lot of Russian KHL stars when they try to crack the NHL is that their Russian teams are structured differently, and they often have a kind of “the maid will clean that up” mentality to defensive lapses. Grigorenko is not that kind of guy. He shows some very good defensive results with Buffalo, but I’m willing to disregard that since any decently capable player could look star-like at something on the Sabres in those days. I just want to look at Grigorenko on the less-dreadful, occasionally well-coached Avalanche.

HockeyViz Historical Isolated Impact - truncated by me.

This shows Grigorenko as extremely excellent and then merely very good at defensive impact, coupled with a very good level of offensive impact. The model here is based on a calculation that begins with shots for and against and does the best job possible of removing the effects of teammates, competition, and other less meaningful impacts on results.

Grigorenko seems to be a bit of an odd player for real. He’s genuinely good at driving play, defensive execution and also has some offensive ability. He’s not Gabriel Landeskog, the quintessential power forward who he was on the ice with in Colorado. Maybe that’s why they were unsure of what to do with him. He’s simply not got that level of individual skill offensively. He might not even be as committed to Landeskog’s level of aggression on the ice that rivals Nazem Kadri’s. But like Landeskog, Grigorenko has good defensive results on teams that are generally bad defensively. He also plays centre a lot, and is very good at faceoffs.

The current Toronto Maple Leafs are the team most like CSKA. They have a long history, are a bit boringly staid about it, and they throw money around like they print it themselves. They treat hockey like it’s a business, a serious business. If Grigorenko wants another shot at the NHL, and he wants to bring those defensive numbers and his extra offensive skills along with them, I’m in.

Nikita Nesterov

Riding the CSKA wave the last few years is also Nikita Nesterov who has been on that team (he essentially took Nikita Zaitsev’s old job) since leaving the NHL after unsuccessful stints with Tampa and Montréal.

HockeyViz

I’m happy to say no thanks, even if he is a right-shooting defender. 2015-2016 was the year he played the most with Tampa, and he’d need to be as good as Tyson Barrie or Morgan Rielly in the top half of the graph to make me interested in him on the Leafs. He seems tailor made for CSKA, or it for him. He gets played decently high, the maid will clean up when he drops the caviar on the carpet, and he ends up with a lot of points. He’s worth a chat, for sure, but when Dubas goes shopping, I think he’s looking for better fits than Nesterov.

Ilya Mikheyev really does seem to have been ordered from a catalogue to fit in on the Leafs. I can see potential in Grigorenko too.

The Leafs, in continuing to sign Russian, Swedish and Finnish free agents, are looking to exploit their market advantages, but they’re also creating a team environment that is going to work better for the next European draft pick or free agent. The next kid who comes to camp never having played in North America is going to be surrounded not just by the hometown Toronto players that some people rate above all others, but by guys more like himself. There won’t be a hockey system in the world the Leafs don’t have someone experienced in. There won’t be a corner of the world they’ve left unexamined in a search for players.

Maybe Kyle Dubas has found another hit with Grigorenko. But even if he hasn’t, it’s well worth the effort.