Grigori Denisenko, Loko Yaroslavl (MHL)
Position: Left Wing
Age on Draft Day: 18.0 Years Old
Height/Weight: 5’10.75, 172 pounds
2017-2018 Stats (Including Playoffs): 43 GP, 14 G, 15 A, 38 PIM, +10
NHL Central Scouting: 7th (European Skaters)
Craig Button (TSN): 13th
Corey Pronman (The Athletic): 13th
ISS Hockey: 18th
Future Considerations: 18th
Scott Wheeler: 42nd
Canucks Army: 49th
As far as I can tell, only two players from the MHL (Russia’s top junior league) have ever been drafted in the top-20 of an NHL draft; Andrei Vasilevskiy in 2012, and Denis Guryanov in 2015. Grigori Denisenko could very well become the third.
Denisenko in many ways encapsulates what one would expect from a skilled Russian left winger. He’s a very good skater who changes direction with ease. He takes very quick steps and can reach a pretty high gear in straight lines.
Denisenko is a strong stickhandler of the puck. Combined with the speed, it makes him a pretty good player to have carry the puck down the wing and create zone entries.
Inside the offensive zone, Denisenko’s stickhandling again stands out. He almost looks like a lacrosse player cradling when he has the puck, constantly moving it. This keeps keeps defensemen and goaltenders on their toes because it becomes a waiting game, of sorts. He continually changes the angle and is always at the ready to make a play. Here is one example which I believe shows this ability (look for #14).
That passing play is a nice transition into a look at his vision. I’ve read mixed things about Denisenko in terms of his tendencies. Hockey Prospect described him last summer as “more of a shooter than a passer.” Corey Pronman of The Athletic called him a “high-end playmaker” in March while noting anything in particular about his shooting tendencies or ability.
Can Grigorenko shoot the puck? Yes, he can. The velocity of his shots isn’t particularly much to write home about, but he has a quick release that can surprise goaltenders from distance.
But from what I saw in my viewings, Denisenko’s playmaking abilities were what stood out. At the 5 Nations Tournament in February, Russia’s powerplay largely ran through Denisenko along the half boards. He has tremendous vision and threads passes across the slot for dangerous one-timer opportunities.
Defensively, in my viewings he looked like a typical 17-year-old winger. On multiple occasions I saw him use his speed to get back and prevent an immediate counter-attack. Do I anticipate him winning the Selke Award in 10 years? No, probably not. But I anticipate people giving him a hard time on the basis that he’s a short, skilled Russian. Like most players his age, he needs to bulk up and there’s work to be done in terms of the intricacies of defending within a structure. But I did not notice any particular blown coverages and most certainly did not see lazy efforts.
The big problem with Denisenko, though, is inconsistency. He ranked eighth among U-18 forwards in points-per-game, below players who will not be drafted in the first round, if even top-93. In fact, he had the same stat line - nine goals and 13 assists - last season, but in three fewer games. The counter-argument is that Denisenko played on the champions, who were stacked with talent. Thus, reduced playing time definitely took its toll on him.
In my viewings of him at the 5 Nations Tournament, inconsistency plagued him as well. He was extremely good against the Czech Republic, but in other games he showed flashes of ability followed by many nondescript shifts. He did not play for Russia at the U18 World Championship in April without much of an explanation.
Grigori Denisenko won't play at the U18 Worlds although he's healthy and wants to go to Chelyabinsk. Something is wrong between him and Hockey Russia, but he doesn't comment that— Igor Eronko (@IgorEronko) April 10, 2018
For the sake of transparency, I will acknowledge less certainty about Denisenko than other prospects due to lack of intel on my part. I only saw him play four games at the Five Nations, which is competitive but not nearly as intensive as other tournaments, and bits and pieces of him in the MHL Final. If in five years my rankings of, say, Noah Dobson and Joel Farabee prove laughable, then I just straight up failed. With Denisenko, though, I might become a victim of ignorance; whether that mean ranking him too high or too low.
I’m not going in blind either, though, and so from what I’ve seen I am comfortable ranking him as a top-20 prospect in this draft. He’s extremely raw, and the “Russian Factor” is in play; it may take him a while to become NHL-ready, and he may end up staying in the KHL for some time. It could become a reason that Denisenko could fall to the end of the first round, perhaps even into the second. The Rangers have a good track record with Russians, and with all of their picks and prospects they can afford to wait for one player if necessary.
I think Washington Capitals fans would call the four-year wait for Evgeny Kuznetsov to develop and make the jump to North America well worth it right about now.
What Others Have Said
Corey Pronman, The Athletic:
While I realize he might not be the sexiest draft pick — he doesn’t have huge numbers, plays in a distant league to NHL fans and hasn’t appeared in the World Juniors or a major showcase event — in my mind, he’s made a very strong case that he’s a top prospect in the 2018 NHL draft.