When the Maple Leafs drafted Nikita Grebyonkin in the 5th round, not many people really knew much about him. I would know, as when I was writing the article at the time about the pick there really wasn’t a lot I could find from what other scouts have said. Just two short quotes and a highlight clip.
But then I was able to actually watch him during the KHL pre-season, I really liked what I saw and I said at the time that Grebyonkin was a name to watch. Here’s what I said in the concluding section:
I definitely think by the end of this year, he may be ahead of Ovchinnikov who is a year older and seems less secure in the KHL. He simply plays a more physically mature, NHL-ready game even if he doesn’t have Ovchinnikov’s skill.
What has me excited about Grebyonkin’s potential is that he seems like a “small things king”. The positional play, the smart defense, the little stick lifts, the strong board play, the effort and speed to get back on defense, the way he can use his size, strength, reach and skating to cause chaos even if he doesn’t have the most skill.
The small skills I’ve seen make me think he has potential as a depth forward in the NHL, if he ever wants to come to North America. There is a solid foundation of physical assets and skills to maybe make him into another Engvall. Someone who can kill penalties, be a minor offensive threat off the rush using his speed, or hemming in the other team with long offensive zone cycles.
I also put in a poll at the end, asking “Are you all aboard the GREB hype train?”. A solid majority (63%) answered “Sounds intriguing, but I want to see how he does in a full KHL season first”.
Well, now that his first KHL season is over as of late last week, let’s see if my early season hype turned out to be correct.
At the start of the season, it seemed like Grebyonkin would wind up in the same kind of situation as Dmitri Ovchinnikov the year before. His KHL team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, was using him as their extra forward. He would dress for every game, but would either not be played at all or only for a minute or two. After 7 games of that, he was sent down to the MHL for one game, then bumped up to the VHL for four games. In those games he looked dominant, and not long later he was loaned to a different KHL team: Amur Khabarovsk.
Amur was one of the worst KHL teams this season, especially offensively. When Grebyonkin joined he was immediately one of their most used forwards, including on their top PP unit. That was huge for him, and he finished with 9 goals and 26 points in 45 games with Amur. He finished with the most points for U20 players in the KHL. He finished tied for second for U21 players too.
It remains to be seen if Metallurg will keep him around their KHL roster, or send him down to the VHL, for a playoff run. Considering he had missed a couple of games from being banged up, I’m guessing he’ll take the opportunity to rest for now. But at the very least, his regular season is over.
WHAT FUELLED GREBYONKIN’S BREAKOUT?
There are a few strengths to Grebyonkin’s game that I identified in the pre-season that really stood out this year.
First, He’s a good and speedy skater, while not necessarily being the fastest or having the cleanest mechanics. But he is quick and agile, and knows how to use delays, changes of speed and quick cuts to elude defenders. That serves him well on the cycle and also on rush opportunities. It’s those rush opportunities where Grebyonkin generates most of his threat as a goal scorer, since he doesn’t have a high end shot. What he does have is a pair of nifty mittens that can lead to some disgusting goals and dekes in close.
Second, he’s creative with the puck and a strong playmaker. He’s always had a lot more assists than goals, in part because he is able to make creative plays like the highlights below. He has good vision to spot teammates, and his skills handling the puck allows him to create passing lanes with dekes, feints and other forms of deception. It’s why he was used on Amur’s top powerplay unit, mainly in the Marner spot on the point as one of the primary distributors.
#LeafsForever prospect Nikita Grebyonkin burns his own KHL team with this nifty, through the legs pass off the boards to spring his teammate on a partial rush. He gets the primary assist, bringing him to 10 points in 20 games with Amur. pic.twitter.com/a8c4t02of4— More like Nikita GREATbyonkin (@brigstew86) December 19, 2022
The other area of his game that really impressed me in the pre-season, which only increased as the season wore on, was his defensive reads. In the pre-season he was a pretty heavily used PKer by Metallurg, but that’s not something that Amur did once he joined their team. He is still a rookie, so it makes some sense. But I do still think he has some potential there in the future. He has the skating, as I talked about. But he also has good reach to cover a lot of ground, and can make good reads to pick off passes. One of the main ways he created rush opportunities came from turning his defense into an immediate counter-attack offense:
#LeafsForever prospect Nikita Grebyonkin with his second goal of the game, a great defensive read to jump up and intercept a pass, then a slick backhand move through the five-hole. He now has 20 points in 34 games with Amur. pic.twitter.com/7sbsxlDLbG— More like Nikita GREATbyonkin (@brigstew86) January 23, 2023
#LeafsForever prospect Nikita Grebyonkin creates the turnover, fires a crisp cross-ice pass, and then drives the middle to finish the give-and-go for his 9th goal of the season. pic.twitter.com/iGC9QNekPL— Nick Richard (@_NickRichard) February 3, 2023
SO, ARE YOU ALL ABOARD THE GREB HYPE TRAIN NOW?
I’m going to allow myself to feel a bit smug about what I wrote about Grebyonkin during the pre-season. I had not seen him at all before then, but what I saw was pretty exciting. The only thing really holding me back from shouting it from the rooftops was I had been tricked by Ovchinnikov the year before. He’s another Russian prospect who looked good in his KHL team’s pre-season but got almost no ice time with them through the year. And, I’ll say, despite finally getting regular minutes with his team (10ish minutes per game, every game) he never looked as good as I thought he might, not on a consistent basis.
But Grebyonkin was different this year. On the one hand, he was given a bit opportunity in the KHL with a lot of minutes — he averaged 16:39 with Amur, almost double what Ovchinnikov did despite being a year younger. On the other, he has consistently shown more skill and effectiveness all year. He doesn’t just having speed, good playmaking, good puck puck handling and good defensive play, he knows how to use it to have a bigger impact on the game. Ovchinnikov is a speedy and skilled forward, but it’s really looked like he’s struggled to figure out how he can use it as a pro vs in junior.
I can see NHL potential in Grebyonkin. He has all the tools to make at least an interesting depth player in the bottom six. Being big, fast and reliable defensively is the prototype for that. But when can we expect to see him come to North America?
Well, Greb reportedly has one year left on his contract with Metallurg. That means we likely won’t see him in North America until maybe after his season ends next year, at the very earliest. At that point he’ll be 21 years old, at which point he could join the Marlies full time for the season after that. Or he could sign an ELC and get loaned back to a KHL team like Ovchinnikov and Amirov have been. Whether he takes more time in Russia will partially depend a lot on how much the Leafs sell Grebyonkin on his chances of making the NHL roster on any given year.
Honestly? I think he has a good shot of following in Holmberg and Engvall’s footsteps. And it sounds like Dubas may think so too.
Kyle Dubas mentions Minten, Knies, Hirvonen, Grebyonkin, Niemela as guys whose development made them more comfortable dealing picks instead of prospects.— Mike Stephens (@mikeystephens81) February 18, 2023
Has Grebyonkin’s season improved your assessment of him as a prospect?
|A whole hell of a lot||211|
|Not really, I still want to see him in NA first||81|
|Not at all||9|