Mikhail Grigorneko is projected as a top 5 pick for the NHL Entry Draft, and in this humble observer's opinion, is the only player worthy of challenging the amazing Nail Yakupov for the #1 overall selection. Making the case for anyone besides Yakupov is a challenge, maybe even a futile one, so the fact that Grigorenko could be in the same conversation as him is quite an accomplishment (and for the record, it's not just me that thinks so). Grigorenko made a huge name for himself in international tournaments, including off the radar ones like the Ivan Hlinka Memorial and the World Junior A Challenge. The Quebec Ramparts decided to make a pitch for Grigorenko and selected the 17 year old centre this past summer in the CHL Import Draft, and Grigorenko eventually accepted the offer. The split separated him from his MHL and Russian national team linemate, Nikita Kucherov, who was selected in the second round of the NHL Entry Draft and was seen by many as at least equal in ability to the Russians playing in the OHL that were drafted ahead of him in the first round.
Last year in the MHL, Grigorenko posted 35 points in 43 games, while the one year older Kucherov posted 58 points in 41 games. The MHL is a bit different than the CHL, as it allows players up to the age of 22 in the league, so it is harder for 16 and 17 year olds to post points. In fact, Grigorenko was the only 16 year old to score above more than a point every two games, while Kucherov's 1.41 points per game blew away the U18 competition (with Grigorenko finishing 5th in that group). At the World Junior A Challenge last November, Kucherov and Grigorenko proved the most dangerous duo in the tournament, finishing 2nd and 5th in scoring (and 1st and 2nd in points per game) against competition that was at least a year older than them. Later that year, they annihilated the competition at the IIHF U18 Championships, with the scoring board going Kucherov, Grigorenko, then Yakupov. While Ivan Hlinka stats aren't readily accessible, I do recall Grigorenko finishing ahead of Yakupov in scoring for the 2010 tournament, despite Yakupov being about 7 months older (an age gap that is more significant for every year before age 18, and still significant at this point).
The two have a lot of history together, and in the Subway Super Series, an annual event that gets a Russian team of top U20 players on a tour of Canada against Canadian U20 CHL All-Stars, they get to rekindle that magic they've had together despite being on different continents for the 2011-12 season. Kucherov has been trying to establish himself in the KHL, while getting some games of absolute domination in the MHL as well, while Grigorenko is battling phenom Nathan MacKinnon for the QMJHL rookie scoring lead, and outpacing all his U18 competition to boot. Grigorenko leads his team in scoring, and is in the top 10 in league scoring as well, despite playing for a team that is relatively defensive minded and in the toughest division in the entire CHL (the Remparts are getting outshot on the season, in the bottom half of the league in shots per game despite being ranked the top team in the country by Buzzing the Net). Grigorenko is having a heck of a year, even if catching Yakupov for the #1 spot might be too much to ask.
As for the tournament itself, it began with a curious game on Monday in Victoriaville, Quebec, in which the Russian team was outshot 42-12 but won 2-0. Kucherov was the most dangerous Russian player, being sprung fro 3 breakaways, although he shot wide on two of them. Bodgan Potekhin and Kirill Rassakov scored the two Russian goals, while Sergey Kostenko was brilliant in his shutout effort. Team QMJHL was down arguably their top two forwards in Jonathan Huberdeau (who really is the top Canadian forward, period) and Michael Bournival, both out with injuries. Louis Dominigue, the goalie partly responsible for Quebec's strong play so far, will start in goal in front of his hometown fans, and against his teammate Grigorenko, tonight in Le Colisee in Quebec, the former NHL home of the Nordiques and IIHF World Championship host site. Dominigue is being highly considered by the Canadian WJC team, and has proven to be the top goalie in the QMJHL so far this year.
The series was shockingly won by the Russians last year, who in the past had often sent some lesser known players to gain experience. That strategy changed last year under Head Coach Valery Bragin, although in typical Russian team fashion some of the better talents seem to be excluded in favour of players the coach is more comfortable dealing with... and yes, that's a long way of explaining that Kirill Kabanov isn't even making one appearance in this tournament, perhaps a sign he won't be considered for the U20 team by Bragin. Expect to see a number of these players on Russia's U20 team in Alberta this holiday season as Russia looks to defend their gold medal: Kucherov, Nikita Gusev, Maxim Shalunov, Nikita Nesterov, and Efim Gurkin seem good bets in particular, as well as several of the CHL players who will play in one of the games. In the game in Ottawa vs. OHL Selects on Thursday the 10th, Yakupov will join the team along with Alexander Khokhlachev, Valdislav Namestnikov, Andrei Pedan and Ivan Telegin in what should be Russia's strongest lineup of the tournament. Later, when the tournament heads out west, star WHL goaltender Andrey Makarov of the Saskatoon Blades will get a shot.
And, of course, the CHL teams have to be favoured. The tournament is a tough travel schedule for the Russians (though this year seems to be the most favourable in recent memory), and the CHL teams are often stacked with talent. Top talent like Ryan Strome, Mark Schiefele, Dougie Hamilton, Mark Visentin, and Brett Ritchie will suit up in at least one of the OHL games, while the WHL teams feature Quinton Howden, Jordan Weal, Brendan Gallagher, Ty Rattie, Duncan Siemens, Alex Petrovic, Dylan McIlrath, and Tyler Bunz. With what happened in last year's series, and more improtantly, the U20 World Championships in Buffalo, this series promises more excitement than in year's past.
But tonight, for me at least, is all about the Grigorenko-Kucherov reunion. Here's the remaining schedule, with all games on Rogers Sportsnet in Canada:
|1||Nov 7||Victoriaville, QC||QMJHL vs. Russia||RUS 2, QMJHL 0|
|2||Nov 9||Quebec, QC||QMJHL vs. Russia||7:00 PM EST|
|3||Nov 10||Ottawa, ON||OHL vs. Russia||7:00 PM EST|
|4||Nov 14||Sault Ste. Marie, ON||OHL vs. Russia||7:00 PM EST|
|5||Nov 16||Regina, SK||WHL vs. Russia||8:00 PM EST|
|6||Nov 17||Moose Jaw, SK||WHL vs. Russia||8:00 PM EST|