Thursday, October 28, 2010

My take On Grachev Development and Recall

Fourteen months ago when the Rangers were set to begin camp the hottest name among Ranger prospects for many fans was Evgeny Grachev.  The then 19 year old winger was coming off a season with the Brampton Battalion of the OHL in which he scored 40 goals and had 40 assists in 60 games.  On that team and many games on the same line he had the luxury of playing with other top prospects Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche and Cody Hodgson of the Vancouver Canucks.  The talk was how he was the next great hope for a scorer for the Rangers, how he could come in the NHL right then and score 20, even 30 goals as a rookie.  Personally I never believed that to be the case if he had come in last year.  
In fact I had rooted for him to go back to Juniors and get another year of coaching from a great player developer in Stan Butler.  There were so many other aspects of Grachev’s game that were not ready for the professional ranks in terms of the work ethic, the understanding off to fully use his body and the consistency that another year in real development would have been very good for him.  Instead Grachev had a good camp and legitimately played close enough to make the squad and so instead of doing what was best for him and sending him back to Juniors, the Rangers kept him here and sent him to Hartford.  For me Hartford is becoming a place where talented prospects and very good preseason performers seem to go to regress, but more on that later this evening.
Once Grachev was sent to Hartford fan expectation was still based on the prior season in Junior and he was expected to immediately dominate the AHL and force the Rangers to have to call him up by mid-season.  That simply did not happen.  Grachev struggled in the transition, the flaws in his game were exposed majorly and once he lost his confidence based on the poor results he never did regain it the rest of the year.
Coming into this season many fans were down on Grachev because of the disappointing season he had in Hartford.  I too was disappointed in the statistical issues he had but not surprised by the other problems he had in adjusting to the professional level.  Part of the problem, and I have spoke of this before, is the expectations a fan has for a player many times is created based on statistics and what numbers they expect X player to put up whether they are reasonable or not and if X player fails to reach that bar they are a disappointment, failure, bust.  The context of him being a 19 year old who was moved a year too early to the professional ranks don’t play into it at all.
Part of the expectations problem, and I am guilty of this as well, is that in trying to provide a sense of context for last season’s struggles some of us used the comparison of Grachev’s struggles as a 19 year old in Hartford to those of Artem Anisimov as a 19 year old in Hartford.  Both struggled in year one, but the difference in statistics that we didn’t point out was that towards the end of his first year in Hartford Artie was showing signs of making adjustments and working through the struggles in a way Grachev was not.  Without providing that full context, again those who hadn’t already written Grachev off were expecting him to make a similar to leap to Anisimov’s second year in the AHL.  What they miss in that sort of assumption, which I was never personally suggesting is that they are different personalities.  What I was suggesting in showing the numbers is that one year does not make for a lost prospect nor does it mean improvement is not possible.  The pace for each player obviously differs and some of it is based on the pure hockey skills and the rest is based on other non-hockey aspects of the person.
During the preseason this year, the frustrating thing for me with Grachev was not a skill based problem, but that he seemed less involved than even last year during the preseason.  I hate to use it but the fire as some refer to it didn’t seem to be there for someone who came into camp saying if he played his game he would make it tough on the management to send him down.  There didn’t seem to be any sense of urgency to prove he belonged and maybe that was largely due to trying to recapture the confidence he lost last season to believe he belonged at this level.
Early in this season in Hartford the results have not been there for EG as he has 1 goal, 1 assist in 9 games but all reports are he has worked hard to improve his overall game which is a positive sign.  That said, I don’t see this move as being a positive one in his development as it is seems like they are once again rushing him trying to recapture the belief he lost last season and have him play with confidence again. 
The only place I can see him fitting into the lineup that is not on the 4th line right now would be if they moved Prust back down and Grachev slotted in at 3rd line RW.  In that position the gamble has potential to pay off for him at this level even if it is just for a couple of games watching the work ethic, preparation and getting NHL instruction to show him truly what it takes to be here.  If he is going to play on the fourth line even if it is a more skilled version of it, the amount of time and chances he will get wont do anything to further his on ice development or confidence.  This kid needs to be developed into a power type offensive player not a checking/energy line guy. 
One interesting middle ground for a few games might be to even out the ice time some while lessening the burden on Stepan who has hit a bump the last few letting him play with Grachev and EC/Prust on the 4th line.  This gives Torts the opportunity to see what White can do in a more offensive setting, reward Boyle for his strong play and as I said relieve pressure from Stepan who said himself last night was the first time he really felt like a rookie.  As an added bonus Grachev and Stepan have some chemistry from their time together at Traverse and the rookie camp so maybe it is a shot in the arm of confidence for both of them.
My focus for Grachev the rest of the year is not going to be about the statistical results but the process in which he is developing in terms of playing a complete game, playing hard every night, building and maintaining confidence, using his body effectively.  One thing that I think would help him in his development as we have seen with Dubinsky this year to an extent is to define his role, his position and LEAVE him there.  Another thing would be to pair him with a guy that you want him to emulate in terms of the way he plays, it will push him to meet that level of energy, effort and style of play while also allowing him to think less and have his natural talents relax.