Who’s No. 1? Yakupov or Grigorenko?
The Daily Courier
With Nail Yakupov a no-show in Kelowna, this is Mikhail Grigorenko’s chance to shine.
Not only can the Russian forward steal the show in the Okanagan, but Grigorenko could potentially steal the No. 1 overall NHL draft position from his compatriot with a strong showing in this evening’s CHL Top Prospects Game at Prospera Place.
Grigorenko, who plays for the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts, is often touted as this year’s No. 2 (or 1-b) draft-eligible prospect behind Yakupov (OHL, Sarnia Sting), but that might change sooner than later. Perhaps as early as tomorrow in the eyes of some scouts, with more than 250 NHL personnel attending tonight’s 17th annual showcase.
Grigorenko, for his part, isn’t getting caught up in the ‘Nail or Mikhail’ debate.
“I just want to play hockey and I will do my best,” Grigorenko said upon his arrival on Monday, adding that he talked to Yakupov earlier in the day. “I asked him to go here, but he said he’s not ready yet. His knee is not perfect yet. He’s a really nice player and I wanted to play against him. I think it would be funny, but I will just play hockey and I don’t care if Yakupov is here or not.”
The two are buddies that go way back, having recently teamed up to help Russia earn world-junior silver in January.
It was in that gold-medal game, a 1-0 overtime loss to Sweden, that Yakupov suffered a knee injury, which forced his withdrawal from the Top Prospects Game. Yakupov was sidelined until this past weekend, when he made a somewhat surprising return, scoring one goal and two points in three games with Sarnia, leading to speculation that he could still show up here.
Scouts would have liked the opportunity to compare Yakupov and Grigorenko in a head-to-head setting, considering they have posted similar statistics while playing in different leagues this season. Yakupov, who is in his second campaign in Canada, has 22 goals and 55 points in just 29 games, while Grigorenko has 28 goals and 64 points in 41 games in his CHL debut.
Both are right-wingers that shoot left, though Yakupov is a more explosive goal-scorer and Grigorenko the superior playmaker. The latter also has a slight size advantage at 6-foot-2 and 192 pounds to Yakupov’s 5-11 and 190 pounds.
That Yakupov is skipping the Top Prospects Game on the advice of doctors isn’t unprecedented. Sidney Crosby did the same in 2005, though he was already the unanimous No. 1 pick at the time.
That isn’t the case this year with the ‘Nail-versus-Mikhail’ theme akin to ‘Taylor-versus-Tyler’ from two years ago, when the Edmonton Oilers picked Taylor Hall over Tyler Seguin in the 2010 NHL draft.
Yakupov is currently No. 1 on Central Scouting’s list of North American skaters, while the International Scouting Service has Grigorenko going first overall.
“It’s not most important for me because I think if you play in the NHL, they don’t care which pick you are,” Grigorenko said. “I want to be No. 1. But if not, I just want to play in the NHL. That’s my dream and I don’t care which pick I’ll be.”
Together, they could be the first Russians to go 1-2 since Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin in 2004, though some WHL defencemen, including Team Cherry captain Ryan Murray (Everett Silvertips), could play spoiler. Especially if Murray can shut down Grigorenko and Team Orr, led by Kelowna Rockets captain Colton Sissons, in tonight’s Top Prospects Game.
However, one game does not make a future career — for better or worse — as Murray can attest to, having been on the ice for at least three Russia goals in Canada’s 6-5 semifinal loss at the 2012 world juniors.
Scouts do put significant stock in how these players stack up against their draft-eligible peers. And Grigorenko admitted his goal was to be the best player on the ice once the puck drops. He’s considered close to “NHL-ready” and appears noticeably thicker than 2011 first overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was at this time last year. However, tonight will be telling as to whether Grigorenko’s on the same level skill-wise.
Regardless, Grigorenko plans to enjoy the experience and have fun, starting with Tuesday night’s skills competition where he was to compete in Shooting Accuracy and possibly the Breakaway Showdown.
“I know I will have some moves, but I don’t know yet what I will do,” he said. “My best skill is play with the puck, maybe not some tricks, but like in the game some stickhandling.”
Grigorenko said not to expect anything like Vladimir Tarasenko’s puck-on-a-string stunt at the Kontinental Hockey League’s recent skills competition in Russia.
For those that missed it, Tarasenko baited the goalie into a deke by appearing to lose control of the puck before reeling it in for an easy goal thanks to fishing line stemming from his stick blade.
The NHL equivalent also had its share of props with Patrick Kane donning a superman cape and Corey Perry whipping out a mini souvenir stick.
“No, nothing like that. I don’t want to have some other stuff, I will have just my stick and my puck,” said Grigorenko, who lists the Pittsburgh Penguins as his favourite NHL team and Ilya Kovalchuk as his favourite player despite his style emulating a bigger Pavel Datsyuk.
Tomas Jurco, a Slovakian forward for the QMJHL’s Saint John SeaDogs, set the bar pretty high with his dazzling dangles at last year’s CHL skills competition in Toronto. YouTube Jurco’s wizardry if you haven’t already.
“He’s pretty amazing . . . probably I will do something like that,” Grigorenko said. “I’m really excited for everything and I hope I will play good.”
Grigorenko has been above and beyond good since coming to Canada to learn the North American game from Patrick Roy, coach of the Remparts.
“He’s a great coach and a really great person. He always helps me on the ice and off the ice too, and I’m really happy that he’s my coach,” said Grigorenko, who has no regrets about the move to Quebec. “I really like it here. I think it’s better than Russia because if I play here it’s better for NHL and I’m getting ready to play there.”