Thanks to the recent success of New York Rangers prospect Anthony Duclair, many fans are speculating (or worrying) whether or not Duclair is like Evgeny Grachev -- a high-flying juniors prospect who fizzled out at the professional ranks.
If you need a reminder, Grachev burst onto the scene as an overage in the OHL way back in 2008, scoring 40 goals and adding 40 assists for 80 points in 60 games. Fans immediately heralded Grachev as the next coming, and with YouTube highlights that would make your head spin, it was hard to blame them.
But something happened when Grachev made the jump to professional hockey. Suddenly he wasn't as fast, strong or explosive. His ability to muscle his way into the tough areas of the ice betrayed him, and he was ineffective around the blue paint (which is exactly where he was breading his butter in the OHL).
Take a look at Grachev's professional stats to this point in his career (yes, he's still playing hockey):
Look at that drop off! From 80 points in the OHL to 28 points in 80 AHL games. At the time, it was written off as Grachev acclimating to North American hockey. Well, the next year (38 points in 73 games) was only a minor improvement. At the time, I was a sportswriter in Connecticut. I got to watch the then Connecticut Whale some weekends, and I remember being underwhelmed by Grachev in his second AHL season. He wasn't acclimating to the North American game, he simply didn't have it at the professional level.
The Rangers traded him the next season, and Grachev continued to underwhelm in St. Louis before migrating to the KHL. His numbers this year are equally unimpressive. Simply put: He was a bust.
So what makes this any different than Duclair? Well, Duclair has had much more success in his junior career, none of which were overage years. But that's not exactly tangible, since many players put up fantastic numbers in the QMJHL and then have underwhelming careers in the NHL.
Here's the biggest difference between Grachev and Duclair: Their linemates. When Grachev put up 80 points in 60 OHL games he was playing on a line with top-prospect and current quality NHLer Cody Hodgson. Also on that team (and a player who saw more than a little time with Grachev) Colorado Avalanche star Matt Duchene.
Name one player who played with Duclair in last year's massive effort where he scored 50 goals and 99 points in 59 games. Go on, I'll wait.
Duclair was 6th in the QMJHL with 99 points last year. The next closest teammate? Adam Erne with 62 points. Erne was a 2nd round draft pick (selected 33rd overall in 2013 by the Lightning), taken 47 picks before Duclair was. Not exactly a player projected to be Duchene or Hodgson (especially at the time).
The other difference? Duclair's game the past five preseason games is exactly the way he played in the QMJHL last year. And while his preseason point-per-game pace was against teams who were also playing a mix of veterans and kids trying to make the cut, we still saw him play the game the same way and find success. He's always in the dangerous areas of the ice, and he's always making something happen.
Outside of the points, he's impacted games in other ways as well. Defensively, he's more responsible than I think anyone realized he would be; while his speed not only helped draw penalties but it also helped him transition the puck in the neutral zone. This is a big deal, and it's something I've attributed to Kreider before (although in different ways). Sometimes success in the NHL isn't about what you can do when things are going right, but what you're doing when you're not putting the puck into the back of the net. The final two preseason games Duclair was held scoreless. He was not invisible, though, continuing to impact the game in other areas of the ice.
Do you ever remember Grachev doing that at the AHL level, let alone in the preseason? I sure don't.
The important thing with Duclair -- especially since there are reports he's going to start the year in the NHL -- is to temper your expectations. He's not going to put up a point-per-game pace in the NHL this year. It's simply not going to happen. Nor should you expect 30 goals, or 60 points or, really, too much at all. Hell, he might not even spend the entire year in the NHL.
You should be very, very excited about Duclair. He's the biggest prospect the Rangers have had in their system since Kreider. His offensive ceiling is through the roof, and he's going to be a special, special player for the Rangers. We just can't expect all this and more from him in his rookie year, especially as a 19-year-old acclimating to the professional game.
As we've seen most recently with Kreider and J.T. Miller, sometimes this process takes some time. And while I do have more faith in a younger kid figuring it out under Alain Vigneault rather than John Tortorella -- sometimes these things take time and the Rangers fanbase isn't always the most accommodating to that need.
I don't doubt that if the reports are true (Duclair making the team) he's going to get his opportunity. Will he line up with Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis on the top line like Evan speculated? Maybe. Even if the lines don't match up that way, I would have to think he's going to see top-six minutes/power play opportunities. This isn't Miller grabbing the third-line center opening and never letting go; this is a kid who might have been the Rangers best player this preseason. Veterans included.
The regular season does have a funny way of sorting out the preseason flare-ups from the true NHL players, but I'm confident Duclair has shown enough to prove he isn't the former. We'll see, of course.
I also think we'll see Duclair isn't Grachev. Not even close.