Welcome back to Forgotten Futures, where we look back at Rangers prospects of the recent past and see what happened, and why their future with the Blueshirts didn’t pan out as everyone hoped. Last time we tackled former goalie prospect Dan Blackburn. today we’re looking up the ice at a prospect that had all the physical and offensive tools to make scouts, fans, and front offices drool, so why didn’t he make the impact he was expected to make?
Today, we’re looking at the forgotten future of Evgeny Grachev.
The 2008 NHL Entry Draft
The New York Rangers entered the 2008 NHL Entry Draft with 6 picks in hand — 20th overall the highest of them — and approached the draft stage in Ottawa looking to restock a prospect pool that had fallen by the wayside through the early to mid 2000s. The Blueshirts kicked off their draft by selecting a smooth-skating offensive defenseman named Michael Del Zotto from the OHL’s Oshawa Generals, in the 2nd round the Rangers snagged a right-handed center out of Shattuck-St. Mary’s and destined for Wisconsin University named Derek Stepan. In the third round, the Rangers held the 75th pick of the draft and had a rather interesting opportunity. The NHL’s ninth ranked European forward was still available, and he fit a need that the Rangers were lacking in — a forward with size and skill — so the Blueshirts pounced on the opportunity drafting the 6’4,” 220 lb. forward Evgeny Grachev out of Yaroslav Lokomotiv.
How did a player with those physical attributes and that highly rated fall into the 3rd round? Well, even in 2008 there was still a strong “anti-Russian” bias among many teams; a fear that drafting a Russian player was a wasted pick because they’re reluctant or are given incentives to never come over to the US, or that they don’t “play the game the right way” or whatever. There’s also the fact that for as good as Grachev was, he only played one game for Lokomotiv in his draft year, spending most of the season with Lokomotiv’s 2nd division (minor league) team where he put up 17 goals, and 20 assists for 37 points in 34 games as an 18 year old (turning 18 in late February 2008).
After securing two highly touted prospects with their first two picks in the Draft, the Rangers felt that they could swing a bit harder with pick 75 and selected the big Russian forward betting on the talent and upside that could develop in time. It also helped that Grachev wasn’t going to waste any time in Russia and instead was coming to North America that very next season...just with the OHL’s Brampton Battalion.
The 2008-09 Season
The 2008-09 season was Grachev’s coming out party. Everything he touched went into the net for the Batallion and the Russian World Junior Team that season, as he put up a 40-40-80 campaign in just 60 games OHL games played. The big Russian also threw in 25 points in 19 playoff games, for good measure. This vaulted his status through the roof and easily cemented Grachev’s status as the Rangers’ top prospect, everyone was singing his praises at the time as the “Next Big Thing” on Broadway but, through the lens of hindsight, we can see some of the cracks.
Yes, without a doubt, Grachev putting up 80 points in a season is a helluva feat but it’s also important to note that he was older than most of the players he was going up against game in and game out and his line was STACKED. In 2008-09, the Brampton Battalion featured a top line of Cody Hodgson, Evgeny Grachev, and some player named Matt Duchene. Hodgson had 92 points, Grachev 80, and Duchene 79 that year in the OHL, a season that led to Duchene being selected 3rd overall in the 2009 NHL Draft. This isn’t to say that Grachev didn’t have the talent — he very much did — but it’s important to note the context of his situation and it’s hard to say whether he’d put up 80 points without Hodgson and Duchene lining up next to him.
Regardless of the circumstances, though, it is undeniable that Grachev’s first season in North America was a monumental success and Rangers fans and brass alike saw big things for the big winger. The Rangers felt that Grachev’s time in Brampton was over, and that he was ready for the Wolf Pack and the AHL.
The Hartford Wolf Pack
After setting the OHL on fire, Grachev found himself high on the Rangers prospect rankings along the likes of the newly drafted Chris Kreider (19th overall in 2009) and Derek Stepan, building up his stock at Wisconsin. The Russian winger was looked at as a future building block for the Rangers and the team felt that all he needed was a couple of seasons in the AHL to get him up to speed of the pro game and he’ll be ready to take Broadway by storm.
With that, Grachev began his first pro campaign in 2009-10 as a 19 year old with the Hartford Wolf Pack looking to pick up his scoring right where he left off in the OHL. Only, it didn’t quite work out that way as through 80 games, Grachev put up 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists) for Hartford as got himself adjusted to the faster pace of the AHL game. A solid, if unspectacular pro debut for the young Russian and it’s probably fair to say going from Matt Duchene to Corey Locke as a teammate didn’t help things.
The next season did see an uptick in production for the Russian winger as he bumped his point total up to 38 points (16 goals, 22 assists) in 73 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale but after hitting 80 points in the OHL just two years prior, falling just short of 40 points can only be seen as a disappointment, though Grachev did earn a NHL call up, getting 8 games for the Rangers in 2010 but didn’t get a chance to crack the scoresheet.
The Rangers would end up trading Grachev to the St. Louis Blues at the 2011 Draft for a 3rd round pick that the Rangers used to select current Wolf Pack captain Steven Fogarty. Grachev managed to play 26 games with St. Louis, notching his only NHL goal along with three assists before spending two seasons with Peoria in the AHL and then bouncing around the KHL where he’s currently suiting up for Omsk Avangard.
So, with all of they hype surrounding Grachev the question remains; what happened? How did he go from putting up 80 points in his only OHL season to barely cracking the AHL? Well, I think there are a number of things you can point to but the most simple might be that the Rangers rushed him into pro hockey before he was ready for it. There’s no doubt that Grachev was a skilled forward but that one season with the Battalion was the highest level of hockey he played and he had the supreme fortune to play on a line with two bona-fide NHL talents, one of which was one of the two best players in the entire CHL (the other being John Tavares who was selected 1st overall in 2009). If the Rangers let Grachev go back to the Battalion for another season, they might have gotten a better look at what kind of player they really had away from a top-flight center. Instead, they decided to fast track him into the AHL and bet that his scoring would just carry over.
Grachev remains a player that a lot of fans, to this day, ask “what if” and wonder what he could have been (probably a very good, if not great mid-six scoring forward) had the Rangers not rushed him into pro hockey.