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I'll forgive everyone for not being all aboard the hype train for Grebyonkin yet, leading to a mere 12th place ranking in this year's T25U25. I know they will be getting first class tickets soon enough. We here at the Cult of Greb practice patience and love for all humans, knowing they will come to love him as we do once they admit the error of their folly and ignorance.
|Age as of July 1||20.4|
The fact is, Grebyonkin is in a quite interesting place as a prospect. There are some reasons to think highly of him, but also reasons to be skeptical. I'm here to write about why I'm all in on him already, and why I think he could wind up being Toronto's second best prospect behind only Knies.
He was a re-entry prospect when he was drafted, so he's a bit older than the usual new prospect added to the pool. He had a tumultuous start to his season, mostly sitting on the bench as an extra forward getting no more than a minute or two when he saw the ice at all. He was then moved up and down the different levels of Russia's hockey system (MHL, VHL) where he always looked clearly too good for the competition. Eventually, he was loaned to another KHL team – one of the worst teams in the league, especially offensively. He was given a top six role with powerplay time right away, and in the end he finished with the most points for his birth year or younger in the league. The stability and regular playing time helped him blossom, and he not only excelled but won the Rookie of the Year award.
That seems great! The KHL has the reputation of being one of the best, most competitive leagues in the world outside of the NHL. But in fact, the KHL isn't as good of a league as it used to be. It's been in decline for around a decade, to the point that it is noticeably below the AHL by some measurements. They've seen a slow decline in imports from among the best non-Russians who want/have to play outside of the NHL or AHL. They still get some, but more and more are now going back to the AHL, Switzerland, Sweden, and so on.
Grebyonkin is listed as a 6'2", 192 lb winger. That weight is a solid increase from last year, when he started the season listed as 183. That's a good sign that he is packing on some muscle to fill out a bit of a lanky frame. It was one of the areas that he needed to work on the most, where he was showing willingness to engage physically. Not that he played a power game where he would throw his weight around, but he showed he could be active and effective on the cycle and in front of the net. His effectiveness wasn't what it could be, however, because he was not as heavy or strong as he could have been.
Greb shoots left, but is often flipped back and forth on both the left and right wing. He's a pretty versatile forward in other ways as well. At times, he was used in all situations last season – top even strength minutes, bottom six checking minutes, top powerplay time both at the point and in front of the net, and on the penalty kill. That's held so far through Metallurg's pre-season, where he's played on the top line at even strength, the top powerplay unit, and on one of the secondary penalty kill units.
Greb seems poised for another big season this year. He's back on his main team, Metallurg. They are a better team and program than the one he was loaned to last year. It is a deeper team, though they lost some of their top players from last season to other KHL teams, the AHL, and other European leagues. This does mean that he'll have a better opportunity to play a bigger role with them this year, on a better overall team than last year. And so far this pre-season, he looks incredible. He looks so much stronger on his feet, and also much quicker and more explosive.
This is also the last year of Greb's contract in Russia. There is a chance that he finishes this season feeling ready to come to North America, after his D+3 season. That would not be unusual – I believe Ovchinnikov signed around the same timeframe and got his first exposure to the AHL. Greb, in my opinion, is already well ahead of where Ovchinnikov is even now, let alone when he signed. He may do that thing where he signs an ELC but gets loaned back to Russia for one more season, but at this point is already pretty close to ready for it in my opinion.
You will see in the voting table below that I ranked Greb 4th. I have him behind Knies, Liljegren and Niemelä [spoilers!]. So I have him ahead of Robertson, Timmins, Holmberg, Woll, Minten, Cowan, and so on. Honestly, if I were to do the rankings again today I'd be awful tempted to put him 3rd ahead of even Niemelä.
There is simply no Maple Leafs prospect I had more fun watching last year than Grebyonkin. I would routinely wake up at 4-6 am start recording streams of his games so I could watch them later, that way I wouldn't miss them. From early last year I got the impression that he was a legitimate prospect with a real shot at the NHL. Nothing he has done since then has made me change that opinion for the negative – I have only felt it more strongly.
In the past I have always liked to bet on a prospect early when I come to really like them. It only comes after I have already seen them enough to appreciate who they are as players. I've done it in years past, with guys like Robertson, Knies, Niemelä, Voit, Tverberg, Villeneuve and a few others. Some of those I've nailed... Knies especially comes to mind.
Greb has come the closest to making an immediate impression on me post-draft that Knies did out of anyone else since I've started doing this prospect stuff. On the one hand, I love him and think he has so many strong elements to his game even if he is not and won't be an elite player. On the other hand, I acknowledge that this may be a learning opportunity for me to not overhype a prospect in the KHL anymore, and I'm not talking about points. But the same could have also been said for the NCAA, and that didn't stop me from loving Knies and betting on him hard.
So I am putting my flag in the ground right now: Greb will be an NHLer, and not just an AHL/NHL tweener. I have him in the group of other prospects who seem more likely to be some kind of NHLer in the future, but who I am also still uncertain over just how good they'll be. There are several reasons why I think this, starting with what I wrote about his last season:
But watching him this pre-season has only instilled this feeling even more, because he added more weight and just looks like he's gained an additional step of speed and showing more willingness to be physical.
Grebyonkin has some real skill. He's not necessarily elite at anything, but he can have an impact in many ways. He's a good playmaker. He's good handling the puck. He is a good skater and can make plays at a high pace. He skates and works hard through traffic and checks. He can work the cycle. He can create off the rush. He can create rush chances. He forechecks hard. He fights in front of the net. He skates hard to get back on defense. He makes good reads on defense to pick off or deflect passes.
The one thing he's really lacking is a good shot. He does not have a very good wrist or slap shot. He mostly relies on dekes or cleaning up rebounds in front – which is why he either plays in the Marner spot on the point on a powerplay, or in front of the net. Adding muscle as he has and working on his shooting mechanics to make him at least somewhat of a threat from near or medium distance would do wonders for his total offensive game.
I've seen some scouting reports say he is not the most engaged physically, and/or that he's not great defensively. In my opinion, from what I have seen that's both true but not quite true. I'm not saying he's a power forward, but I do not think he shied away from potential contact to make a play – and he can hold his own against defensemen trying to push him off of pucks on the cycle or clear him away from the front of the net. Defensively, he will not be Mark Stone but I think he could be a better defensive forward than many other wingers.
That versatility, the skills he already shows, and the improvements he has made and continues to make to his game makes me think that – right now – he already has a good shot of being some kind of NHLer, and potentially a middle six kind of guy who can play a good supporting role. At the very least, I think he will be a Holmberg kind of guy, but I think he could be more of an Engvall/Mikheyev kind of guy eventually. He's still only 20 years old, and has 2-3 more years to make improvements, hopefully under the close oversight and coaching in Toronto.
Here's what the other voters had to say:
dhammm: Twelve months ago, when this pick was announced, my reaction like most people's was a blank stare, and now he’s a prospect to watch in a pool that badly needs it. In his D+2 season, Grebyonkin was a meaningful player in the KHL, and that's huge. It was with a garbage Amur Khabarovsk team, sure, but Grebyonkin still mattered enough to Metallurg Magnitogorsk that they negotiated a transfer to keep him in the KHL. The big question for Grebyonkin before he comes to North America is if he can lock down a roster spot on a competitive Metallurg Magnitogorsk roster, but out of all the resumes of mid prospects in the Leafs' pool, who are all variously slouching towards complementary roles in the NHL, Grebyonkin's pro campaign in the KHL is one of the most significant achievements.
Catch-67: As is probably the case for many readers here, I have pretty much only seen and heard of Grebyonkin via Brian’s gifs and prospect reports. As a result, I also love him. Greb! Is just so fun to say. Beyond that, though, I’ve really been enjoying the kinds of highlights he tends to provide. Creative passing plays, smart behind the net offence, good puck carrying through the neutral zone. I’d love to see Greb really live up to the potential of him in my head, though I suspect that’s still a pretty big longshot, both given how much the KHL has reportedly fallen in skill level and how hard it is to translate success in other leagues to the NHL. Still, particularly within this Leafs’ prospects crop, Greb is a very fun player to dream on.
The Bag: No player Grebyonkin’s age or younger outscored him in the KHL last season. That’s a pretty impressive performance for a 19/20 year old in a pro league, even if the KHL isn’t what it once was. If Ovchinnikov had made a similar impact in his first KHL season, I suspect he’d have been ranked even higher. For a 5th round pick, this is about as good as anyone can expect, and he’s on a more realistic path to the NHL than most.
Cathy: If you compare the points, this guy is Ty Voit only Russian and taller. So what I said about Voit was he needed more to his game than just the passing plays, and it goes for Grebyonkin too. There seems to be some more, and it seems like maybe it isn't just that he's bigger. And that gets him ranked in the middle for me, raised up out of the dregs where the late round picks belong because I can buy he's got something that was overlooked by other scouts. Just not, you know, gonna blow the doors off in the NHL something.
That's what we all think, and now it's your turn! Please line up in an orderly fashion to register for the Cult of Greb and accept your complimentary swag after accepting Greb into your hearts.
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