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Nikita Grebyonkin is a name to watch

The Russian prospect you never knew could become a household name by the end of this season.

Juho Olkinuora (45) of Metallurg Magnitogorsk seen during... Photo by Maksim Konstantinov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

When the Toronto Maple Leafs drafted Nikita Grebyonkin in the fifth round this summer, you’d be forgiven if you hadn’t heard of him before. He did not get ranked by any of the main scouting outlets that fans may read around the draft. He was a D+1 overager who played last season in the MHL, and was overshadowed by a top prospect on one of the best lines in the league, along with top prospect who wound up being taken 24th overall in the same draft.

So yeah... not very surprising that the pick seemed like a surprise. Watching past games from Russian teams is not easy, especially in the MHL as a junior league. But he did play in seven pre-season games for his KHL team in August that were aired on YouTube or other replayable streams. I got to watch all of his games and I have come to the conclusion that there may be an interesting prospect in Grebyonkin.

THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT

Position: RW

League: MHL/KHL

Height: 6’2”

Weight: 183 lbs

Birth date: February 5th, 2003

Two years ago, in Grebyonkin’s first year of draft eligibility, he played the vast majority of the season in the MHL. He had a decent 12 goals and 34 points in 54 games, and added 3 points in 5 playoff games. That was actually good for second on the team in total points, and tied for the lead in playoff points. They were not a very high scoring team that year. He also finished tied for 5th in points in the whole MHL for his age group.

This year, he finished third in the MHL for his age group in points — and tied for second in points per game. He had 17 goals and 64 points in 58 games, playing on arguably the best line in the league and in the shadow of a first round pick. But in the playoffs, he led the way for his team with 13 points in 9 games. He didn’t play as many games as others, but his point per game pace in the playoffs was higher than other top picks like Alexander Kisakov (53rd overall), Nikita Chibrikov (50th overall), or Ilya Fedotov (43rd overall) who are all the same draft year as Grebyonkin.

On the one hand, it makes sense that Grebyonkin was eventually drafted given his production is on par with other Russians in his age group. On the other hand, most of those higher Russian picks didn’t have the same totals because they didn’t play as many games in the MHL. Instead, they were playing big chunks of their season in the VHL or even the KHL.

On the other hand, the thing that has me most excited about Grebyonkin as a prospect doesn’t have a lot to due with pure offensive skill or production. So let’s talk about that.

SKATING

There are two things that immediately stand out about Grebyonkin when you watch him: his size and his skating. He’s 6’2” and 183 lbs, so he’s rangy and has a decent amount of muscle on him by now. Since he was drafted and we wrote his initial profile here, his listed weight has gone up by 8 lbs so he’s still bulking up.

He looks a bit like Pierre Engvall when he skates, not in terms of his exact stride or mechanics. I would say that Grebyonkin is not as good a skater overall as Engvall is, but it’s fun to watch a guy that tall speeding up and down the ice. And if you take a look at some of his pictures on Google, the visual similarity to Engvall gets even deeper.

Grebyonkin can be quite speedy, which helps a lot with his offensive game. He can drive transitions pretty well by the look of it using his speed. One kind of play I saw him pull off a few times in the pre-season is carrying the puck up the ice with no support, as his linemates go for a change. He slows up as he crosses the red line, making it look like he’ll dump it in — a safe and standard play to make in that situation, the classic dump and change. Instead, he changes speeds and blows by the defender on the outside, carrying it in deeper and buying time for the fresh linemates to get on the ice to maintain possession.

He used a similar technique — changing speeds — to score his one goal of the pre-season:

His ability to change speeds adds a bit of deception to his puck carrying, and being explosive to get up to speed quickly adds that threat in the mind of defenders. Outside of that, he is also extremely strong on his feet, but also elusive enough to be a menace along the boards during a cycle. Here’s an example where he keeps his feet moving and is able to pivot, stop, cut back enough to keep the defenseman from being able to pin him against the boards.

The strength on his feet showed up a lot in the pre-season when he was on the cycle, able to outmuscle defenders and come away with the puck. Even when there are multiple defenders around him.

PUCK HANDLING

You can get an idea for Grebyonkin’s puck handling in some of the gifs above. I wouldn’t call it elite, but he is able to pull off some close quarters dekes to keep the puck away from defenders. Once he has the puck, it is not easy to take it off of him. The easiest way I’ve seen KHL defenders manage it is by being physical with him and closing space. While he can pull off a move to evade the check sometimes, he’s not yet at a level where he can do it consistently.

Here he shows some good ability to take a pass in his skates and kick it up to his stick. He doesn’t have a lot of room, but is able to get a decent shot off.

Here Grebyonkin goes for a bit of a skate in the offensive zone, using fakes, shoulder drops, curl and drags and using his reach to draw the puck away from a defender so he can get his final pass off for a good scoring chance.

It is important to remember two things when it comes to this. First, that he is a KHL rookie, and still just 19 years old. He’s playing against pros much older than him, and bigger and stronger and more experienced. What I’ve seen from him is that he can hold his own, with flashes of dominance in specific areas. At the same time, the defense of the KHL is far from the NHL, especially during the pre-season.

PASSING/PLAYMAKING

When it comes to generating actual points, Grebyonkin definitely projects better as a passer and a playmaker than a goal scorer. You can see that in the ratio between goals and assists he’s had for all of his seasons on his Elite Prospects page.

Despite that, he’s not a Mitch Marner. He’s not an elite passer that can hit his teammates with passes through the narrowest of gap, at least not that I’ve seen. He’s more able to create scoring chances using his size (cycles) and speed (rushes), then making smart and effective passes, even if they’re not the highest difficulty.

He creates scoring chances for himself and his teammates by creating chaos, either off the rush or on cycle possessions.

In his first KHL game on Thursday, he created a scoring chance by creating a neutral zone turnover, getting to the puck first with his speed, and sending his teammate in alone with a simple backhand pass. Not pretty, but accurate and effective.

He had a few assists in the pre-season, and two of them came off of the cycle. Here’s the best one, off some not so great defense, but he makes a little backhand pass to a teammate right in front of the net, just as he’s about to carry it behind the net.

AWARENESS/INTELLIGENCE

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Maple Leafs appear to have targeted a player who is pretty smart. You can see it in some of the above highlights, in how he creates chaos and manipulates defenders with his skating, positioning, and puck handling. But from what I could see, he seems to have good potential as a two-way winger.

His KHL team used him heavily on the PK in the pre-season, and did a bit during their first regular season game on Thursday — despite being the 13th forward. His size and reach, plus his explosive skating, makes him a menace up high. He can threaten puck carriers and passers, disrupting passing lanes almost single handedly. He also makes smart reads, anticipating plays and stepping up to create turnovers or at least poke it away.

Here’s an example, though it’s hard to see with the quality. He is occupying a dangerous area of the ice. He reads the puck carrier and quickly shoulder checks to see an opponent creeping into the slot undefended. He is able to react in time to deflect the pass away.

He’s also able to use his physical attributes to be more effective defensively. In the one regular season game he’s played this year, he and three teammates were caught below the other team’s goal line as the puck went the other way. Grebyonkin beat all his teammates, and most of the opponents who started higher in the zone, back to his own end. He was able to break up a cross ice pass on what was a 3-on-2 rush. His speed helps his defense a lot.

Here are some other examples, using his long reach and anticipating a pass coming to get his stick in the way. He pulled this kind of play off a lot in a short amount of pre-season games.

I think you could see this getting into the heads of Grebyonkin’s opponents. None of these look like spectacular plays, but the effectiveness lies not just in the passes he breaks up that smaller players couldn’t reach. It’s also in the passes the other team doesn’t even try to make, because they’re worried about him being able to read the pass and reach far enough to disrupt it.

He’s also a pretty capable puck thief. Not at the level of the elite stealers in the NHL, like Matthews or Stone. But he’s strong enough that when he enters a 50/50 puck battle, he is often able to come away with it. He can tie up opponents, push on them with his size to create leverage, lift sticks, and so on. He can also use some finesse and clever stickwork to just.... yoink it away.

SHOOTING

If there’s one area of his game that I have little confidence in, it’s his shooting. That’s not necessarily because I think he has a bad shot... I just think I haven’t really seen it, at all, through seven pre-season games and one regular season game. It may be that he mostly chooses not to shoot very often, and instead tries to pass it more often. It may also be that, just due to a some fluke, he’s never really been in a position to try and snipe a goal so far. I’ve never seen him even attempt a slap shot or a one timer.

Any of the shots I’ve seen him take were in close, off backhands, or he deked the goalie on his one goal. His backhand... could use some work.

OVERALL ASSESSMENT

When we were voting on the T25U25, I wound up ranking Grebyonkin the highest at 18. I was only one of four people to vote him at all, and he wound up not cracking the top 25. I think even now, while I’m not ready to form any hard conclusions on him, I’d be willing to bump him up a few more spots. 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.

The biggest thing I saw from Grebyonkin in the pre-season is him becoming more assertive and comfortable. In the earlier games there would be stretches where he was more passive. He would play it safe, or just kind of float around not doing much. If he tried to explode through checks on a cycle, it wouldn’t have much behind it and he would get knocked on his ass more frequently.

Grebyonkin’s best game that I’ve seen from him was his last preseason game. He had a few dominant shifts in the offensive zone. Most of the gifs I have of him on file came from that one game. It’s why he eventually started getting used on the third line for 4 of the final 5 pre-season games he played, and why he was used more and more as one of their top penalty killers.

He can throw his weight around, and I’ve seen some highlights from the MHL of him crunching players. In the KHL, he’s not finding that going as easily when he isn’t as strong as most of the other players. But I think he’ll get there in time, as he gets older and stronger.

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. If he can improve his offensive skill enough to also contribute a few points too? That’s just gravy.

If you think about it, that’s the same kind of player Dubas has liked targeting with later picks before. I think he’s cut from the same cloth as Ryan Tverberg and Pontus Holmberg, guys who are good skaters and may have a bit of offensive skill but could have greater value for being smart, effective depth guys.

Poll

Are you all aboard the GREB hype train?

This poll is closed

  • 25%
    GREB! GREB! GREB! GREB!
    (98 votes)
  • 63%
    Sounds intriguing, but I want to see how he does in a full KHL season first
    (244 votes)
  • 11%
    I will not punch my ticket, sir
    (45 votes)
387 votes total Vote Now