While North American junior leagues are only just starting their pre-season training camps, and the pro leagues (ECHL, AHL, NHL) have yet to start anything, over in Russia they've been underway for more than a month by now. They have a number of pre-season tournaments, usually regionally, that acts as their exhibition games for the pre-season.
As such, I've already been watching his five pre-season games, and his first four regular season games. Here's a quick update on what I've seen so far...
First, let's get caught up on Grebyonkin's situation. Last year he looked good in pre-season playing mostly on the third line, but by the time the regular season started he was punted down to their "prospect" spot and played maybe one minute total across the first several games of the season. He was moved up and down between his KHL team, and their MHL (junior) or VHL (2nd tier pro) leagues until finally being loaned to a different KHL team: Amur.
Amur was one of the worst teams in the league last year, but that meant they were willing to play Grebyonkin a lot. That in turn gave him valuable playing time in a big role against KHL competition, which helped him thrive and have a breakout – winning the KHL Rookie of the Year award.
This year, he returned to his main KHL team: Metallurg. They saw a big change on their roster from last season, which most of their top forwards moving to other teams in the KHL or even other leagues across the world. While that was no guarantee that Grebyonkin would get a big role this season, it was an opportunity for him to earn a top role on a much better and deeper team in the KHL.
Through the pre-season, Grebyonkin played on the first or second line and always on the top PP unit. He also got some time on their secondary PK units. He had 5 points in 5 games (2 goals, 3 assists), and he looked great. To me he looked noticeably quicker and more explosive in his skating, which will likely make him a bigger threat off the rush to create scoring chances. His weight was also updated to show him heavier than last year, and he does look bulkier and stronger so far to help him in close quarters play.
FIRST FOUR GAMES
As we saw last year, usually the role Grebyonkin gets in pre-season gets bumped down come the start of the regular season. Where he was top six plus top PP unit in the pre-season, so far this year he started on their third line right wing, on the second PP unit, and not at all used on the PK. But that is a bit misleading as far as how much his team trusts and values his play.
Grebyonkin may have been on the third line, but he's actually been one of the most used forwards at 5v5. In the first game, he had the third most time on ice at even strength among their forwards.
That said, he has looked good. He still looks quicker – in fact in his first game the KHL page clocked him with the highest top speed. I don't know how accurate that is, but I can believe it from what I saw. He had his best moments down low and on the cycle, which you can see in the highlights below.
He did have one shot on net, and another shot attempt that was blocked in a dangerous area. Generally speaking, he'll get his best chances to score himself either being around the net or off the rush. But he did not get anything going on the rush this game – it was pretty sloppy for both teams trying to pass through the neutral zone.
In his second game, it was more of the same up until the third period. He had been bumped up to the second line, and was playing in all situations. He had over 11 minutes in total ice time, with around a couple of minutes each on the powerplay and the penalty kill – it was a very penalty-heavy game. But in the third period, he only played two shifts around the start and then didn't play for the rest of the game.
Watching the game, the switch in the lineup appeared to come in the middle of the second period – right when there were a lot of powerplays given out. He had a shift at the tail end of a powerplay where he did bobble a pass entering the zone, but then skated hard and checked the opponent off the puck to get it back and regain possession. Every even strength shift after that, Grebyonkin had been replaced on the second line by Danila Yurov who is another young prospect but a first round pick by Minnesota. Honestly having watched the game, I think this is less to do with Grebyonkin doing anything to wind up in the doghouse, because I didn't see him make any big mistake. I think it was more that Yurov was playing quite strong while Greb had some minor bobbles, and the coach went with the hot hand.
The good part is that Grebyonkin was also used on the penalty a lot in the game. He was on the second most used pair of forwards, getting over 2 minutes of PK time – all of that came after he was bumped from the second line. He also continued to get time on the powerplay. In fact, he only had one even strength for the rest of the game, after being shifted in the lineup mid-second period.
If there's one criticism I have of Grebyonkin in the second game, it's that he looked a bit sloppy. Bobbling passes, whiffing on shot attempts, that kind of thing. So no big error, but that But he always skated and forechecked hard, played physical on a couple of occasions, and was his usual pesty self on the penalty kill for deflecting passes away.
Here are some highlights from the second game – he's #71 in white.
Grebyonkin was kept on the fourth line for the third game, and it was his best game of the season. He got two really good chances in close to the net, one of which the goalie robbed him with a great pad save. He could have easily had a hat trick from some of his earlier chances. He added an even strength goal off the rush by simply outskating the defense right off a defensive zone faceoff. He later added an empty net goal, showing his coaches trusting him to hold a one goal lead late in the game.
Grebyonkin's better performance was a combination of him simply not being as sloppy with or around the puck – which helped him and his line create more chances instead of giving it away – but also him continuing to skate fast and work hard. If he keeps that up and cleans up his execution with the puck, the points will come.
Here are his highlights from the third game, he is again #71 in white.
The fourth game was confusing, and not just because of Grebyonkin or how he was handled. He started lined up on the third line, and played 7:37 through two periods. He was used a good amount on the penalty kill again, and a bit on the powerplay. It looks like he has lost a regular spot even on the second unit, at least from this game.
But then he once again was not played in the third period, this time at all. I saw him on the bench throughout, so I doubt he was hurt. He was replaced with one of their two extra forwards, who has never played in any game this season and did not play at all in this game until the third period when he replaced Grebyonkin's spot on the third line. And Grebyonkin wasn't bumped down to the fourth line again, he simply was benched.
I should say it was a weird game in general, when it comes to how the team distrubuted ice time – no forward played 15+ minutesThe "top" line played barely over ten minutes, and 40% of it was just on the powerplay. There were a lot of uninterrupted powerplays this game, which seemed to affect the flow of ice time given out to various players. Some of the other kids on the team (Yurov and Kantserov) played some of the most among all forwards, but because they were some of the most used on both special teams (PP and PK).
EARLY SEASON THOUGHTS
It's been a puzzling start to Grebyonkin's season so far, and little of that is coming from his performance. He's been bumped up and down the lineup every game, and twice has been benched for almost (or all) of the third period. But between those two games was his best game, where he was also used a lot in the third period to protect a lead. He's also been given more penalty kill time as each game has gone on, but less powerplay time.
Through it all, I've thought that his play has been pretty consistent. My judgment is that he's been okay – good at times, rusty at times. Neither spectacular nor terrible. Given how many other changes and experimentation Metallurg seems to be doing throughout the forward lineup, I don't think his constant change is usage is mostly due to his play. I think they're just really trying to find who fits where, since they had so many changes to their forward roster this season.
So, the good part of Grebyonkin's play so far has been he has generally looked quicker, more explosive and stronger than last season. He's still a threat off the rush, and he does good work along the boards by cycling the puck. His playmaking hasn't come through as much this season, but he seems to be deferring to others on the ice to do the heavy lifting with the puck compared to last season. In place of that, he's used a lot around the net to set screens, chase rebounds, etc. He's also earned more time on the penalty kill and – when he isn't benched – has been used to protect a late lead with the other team's goalie pulled.
The bad part of Grebyonkin's season is that his execution with the puck has been sloppy (or rusty, whatever work you want to use). He's also been on the wrong end of some sloppy play or bad passes to him – in his skates, behind him, nowhere near him, etc. It has been affecting how good he and his line look as far as generating scoring chances overall, which you could see most easily in the second game. As a team they have been relying on a hot powerplay to generate a lot of their offense.
So a mixed bag so far, but a good if confusing start to the season all things considered. I'm hoping we will see his skill game come out more often, maybe once he gets more confident with the puck and if he can settle into a more regular role on the team.