June 21, 2018

Grigori Denisenko – The Little Ball of Russian Hate

Grigori Denisenko. Photo: Lokomotiv Yaroslavl

Picking the best player available is a common strategy during the draft. But what makes a player “the best available”? Is it talent? Attitude? A combination of both?

With Grigori Denisenko, the talent is absolutely not a problem. Quite the opposite. If we’re talking about raw talent, probably no other player eligible for the 2018 draft is on par with him – obviously excluding the first four or five top ranked players. It’s also hard to say that Denisenko has attitude problems. However, he has a few question marks for some of the decisions he has taken in the past

An electrifying player with violinist hands and great skating abilities, Denisenko has often seen his penalty minutes increase more than necessary. Mostly due to misconduct and match penalties. He recently missed the U18 WJC, allegedly due to a game misconduct he received during the MHL playoffs. The coach of the team wasn’t sure if he wanted a player on his roster who is prone to take penalties that could hurt his team in a short-term tournament.

But team’s shouldn’t be too alarmed by that. Draft-eligible players are just 18 years old, and in some instances even younger. With time, maturity will usually run its course and thus teams will probably be more than willing to take a little risk with such a talented player.

Recently, the Russian prospect visited the NHL Combine to participate in the tests. As it often happens, the young athlete was almost overwhelmed with the sheer number of things to do during the short trip to Buffalo.
“It was interesting [at the Draft Combine],” Denisenko told Igor Eronko of nhl.com/ru in June. “[The Combine] was a huge experience. I got asked a lot of things, like what is my parents’ occupation, what I do in my free time, what are my strong and weak parts in my game. There were a lot of psychological questions. The strangest questions I have been asked was if I preferred cats or dogs. The most interesting was when I was shown an autobus, and asked if it goes to the left or to the right. Later, my friends told me that it was some kind of a children’s tests, but I haven’t given a reply.”

At the combine, Denisenko didn’t show great results as he’s one of the smaller players out there. At 5-foot-9, 172 pounds, Denisenko doesn’t have a big frame, but NHL teams will certainly value the fact that other players, before playing hard against him, have to catch him first. His speed, agility and maneuverability help him in withstanding bigger guys, and his great technique and nose for the net make him a threat whenever he is on the ice.

Denisenko’s ability to make plays – even in small spaces – is something special. Even if he tends to overplay the puck sometimes, and has mostly showed the kind of game that suits junior hockey better than pro hockey. He still has little pro experience, as he played only a handful of games for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl this season, but he had a very good showing. With Lokomotiv down in a playoffs series against KHL powerhouse SKA St. Petersburg, Yaroslavl coach Dmitri Kvartalnov decided to shake things up shuffling the lines and giving top-6 minutes to the organization’s top young guns: Denisenko and Nikolai Kovalenko (son of Andrei, a former NHL forward). The move was a good one, as Lokomotiv started to give fight SKA, who had to battle for every inch of ice, even if the course of the series didn’t change. That said, the two players gained invaluable experience that will help them to play even more pro hockey next year.

One of the most talked-about characteristics of Denisenko is his lack of size. Denisenko has a good idea on why we see more and more small players in  modern-day NHL.
“Maybe because they are more talented?” he answered Eronko. “Your height isn’t important if you have a big hearth and you hate losing. In this case it’s not important if you’re big or small. Of course, if you need to face Zdeno Chara, that’s kind of a unique case. But smaller players can beat those giants using their smarts. And usually they have better coordination.”

Denisenko seems to have clear ideas. And he doesn’t look scared to play and face more serious competition. If he manages to keep his head on his shoulders and mature a bit both on and off the ice, Denisenko can become the next undersized star in the NHL.


Alessandro Seren Rosso alessandro.serenrosso@gmail.com
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