Florida Panthers Top 25 Under 25: #13 Grigori Denisenko
Shifty, offensive dynamo has a lot to prove in Russia this upcoming season
Slotting in next in our T25U25 is the Panthers most recent top draftee, and someone who seems to confound hockey experts... nobody seems to know how good this kid can be.
#13: Grigori Denisenko
Position: Left Wing (shoots right)
Team: Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (KHL)
Drafted in 2018, 1st Round (15th Overall)
When it came time for Florida’s pick this past June at the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, few outside of the organization’s brain trust could have had any clue who the pick would be. With names like Ty Smith, Rasmus Kupari, and K’Andre Miller left on the board, signs were pointing toward the much-needed defenseman or another Finnish prodigy. Instead, as has been the case a few times in recent drafts (see: Henrik Borgstrom), the Cats made a slightly bolder statement by selecting Grigori Denisenko out of the MHL, the Russian junior league.
Scouts and hockey pundits across the league struggled to rank Denisenko in a consistent spot, though most everybody agreed that he’s a 1st-round talent. At 5’10” and 165 lbs, and known for his slick hands, speed with the puck, and unrelenting creativity, NHL teams lined up to interview and consider Grigori - 29 of them to be exact. Some called Denisenko one of the top-3 most skilled players in the draft, and others likened him to Patrick Kane or even fellow countryman Nikita Kucherov. Lofty comparisons, those are.
So why the fluctuation in draft ranking? As of now, Denisenko leaves a bit to be desired in his own zone. Like many his age and skill level, he is sometimes unenthused to get on the backcheck. He sometimes loses focus in his positioning and defensive assignments. To put it succinctly: Grigori needs to make a concerted effort to improve his game away from the puck; once the biscuit hits his stick, he keeps fans on the edges of their seats and opponents on notice.
Less of a concern but still a point of discussion, some scouts wanted to see more offensive production out of Denisenko in his second MHL season. After an initial 22-point season in 29 games, Grigori put up an identical 22 points this season in a similar 31 games. Though potentially flag-worthy, Denisenko is a young player in a MHL league dominated by older players; and while playing on a Loko team that won the MHL championship, they did not ice anyone that dominated the league offensively. Grigori’s real rise up organizational rankings came after his breakout performance for Russia’s U18 team, posting 11 points in 14 games.
This coming season, Denisenko will play for parent club and KHL team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Expect Grigori to get solid playing time and an opportunity to flash his skills. Playing against men will be a fantastic barometer to help project Denisenko’s long-term potential. With two more years left on his Russian contract, Grigori could find himself in a Panthers sweater to start the 2019 or 2020 seasons (depending on contract flexibility) - well-timed with the potential departures of other top-9 forwards currently under contract with the Cats.
The ultimate question that should be on everyone’s minds is: What do the Panthers really have in Grigori Denisenko? This upcoming year will help answer that along with a number of other questions. It’s clear that Denisenko has all the skills, but he now needs to acclimate to tougher competition, while retaining that beaming confidence with the puck on his stick that makes him such a tantalizing, high-ceiling prospect.
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