Mikhail Grigorenko has been by far the most interesting prospect to follow this draft season, and from the day he gets drafted onward he will likely be one of the most debated players of the 2012 draft class.
Following the IIHF Under-18 Championship in the spring of 2011 where both Grigorenko and consensus number one 2012 prospect Nail Yakupov played, Grigorenko had an eye-popping performance on a scouting and statistical level, considering he was an underage player scoring four goals and 18 points in seven games. Yakupov scored six goals and 13 points in seven games in that event as well although he wasn't an underager. Following the conclusion of that tournament, I polled several scouts on whether they thought Grigorenko or Yakupov was the better prospect. While my sample size wasn't 50 scouts or anything, I thought I got a decent number of opinions and the results were pretty much split, with a slight lean to Grigorenko. While Yakupov at that point had just finished ripping the OHL to shreds in his rookie year, Grigorenko wasn't exactly a prospect who came out of nowhere. He's played beyond his age group for many seasons and is someone who in the early portions of the 2010 draft season I heard from Russian scouts overseas he had what it takes to go first overall in 2012. When I took that scout poll, the opinions were not based purely on that Under-18 tournament.
I believe Grigorenko is the clear second-best prospect in this draft, and in some draft classes, he would have the talent level to be a first overall pick. The interesting thing about following Grigorenko's story is the timelineI feel at least some in the industry would have been on board with such an assessment, but slowly trailed off. It's not even a for-sure thing Grigorenko will be a top-five pick come draft day, although if he fell beyond that range, I would be surprised.
When I talked to a handful of head scouts during the first months of the draft season, the general feel I got for who they would rank first overall was between Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko and that Alex Galchenyuk would have been in that discussion if he didn't have the season-ending injury. I normally do not like to reference other rankings done in the public domain for reasons that should be obvious for someone who publishes their own rankings and reports. However, someone like Bob McKenzie's rankings, whose method relies on polling NHL scouts, serves as an additional useful source to aid this column. When McKenzie polled scouts about Grigorenko in February, he was ranked second. When he polled them again in early April, he was ranked second. When Central Scouting released their mid-terms in January, their director Dan Marr called Yakupov and Grigorenko a 1A-1B situation.
So this is the situation for a prospect that scouts have been following for years. NHL sources I talked to around mid-season felt he was a top-two or top-three prospect; NHL sources Bob McKenzie talked to felt that way at mid-season and even in the spring; a prominent NHL-funded scouting service felt that way at mid-season; and based on my own observations, I felt that way as well. So why isn't Grigorenko a 100% sure thing to go in the top three now?
It was around roughly February or March that I started getting a lot of people contacting me on Twitter asking about Grigorenko's character and on-ice work ethic. I'm not exactly sure when this issue started to take off, but it snowballed pretty quickly from the start of the spring to now. This was not news to me, as I had been well aware that Grigorenko's on-ice work ethic was a hole in his skill set. When I polled scouts at various points as I mentioned in this column, whenever I asked them to talk about his skill set, they would mention he's not the kind of player to go 100% every shift; yet despite that, they still talked about him in a glowing fashion. One head scout who had him as a top-three prospect said, "He may only be going at 75%, but he's still clearly the best player on the ice."
There are many top prospects who get selected high who have holes in their skill sets. For example, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins's size/physical game was a concern, John Tavares's skating was a problem, and Victor Hedman wasn't the most physical defenseman out there. It is okay to have a weakness, as long as the full picture of a player despite his weakness is still filled with high-end tools. I find, though, that fans and even scouts tend to get very worried when the weakness is intangible-related, more so than if a player has a hitch in their skating stride, or is too small, or is horrible defensively. I would also hope that people, when hearing about an intangibles issue, would react the exact same way if the player was of North American descent, although I'm quite aware in today's environment that certain individuals won't.
Players can succeed without being NHL average in the on-ice work ethic department. Output is equal to a player's talent level plus their on-ice work ethic, and generally, Grigorenko's output has been great. If one area isn't ideal in terms of its strength, it really depends on how deficient it is, not the fact that there is a deficiency. In that equation, a player can do well if they work hard and have a minor skating issue, but their talent level is raised way high because of great puck skills, size, and hockey sense. The same principle applies to work ethic: if there's a deficiency, how bad is the deficiency, because a deficiency in itself isn't the end of the world. Based on my own observations and scouts I had heard from for just about most of Grigorenko's prospect career, the deficiency in that area was noted, but it was noted to not be a gaping hole that sucked the elite prospect status out of him, but just a minor weakness. A weakness that did not nullify his elite-level puck possession skills and the plays he could make with the puck and the passes he could make. Not to mention the fact he skates well and has a great frame.
But here we are in mid-June, weeks away from the draft, with Blue Jackets, Canadiens, Islanders, and Leafs fans consistently expressing me their concern about taking Grigorenko. They have built this concern for one reason or another, and of course it isn't a universal feeling, but it is a significant one. It was around of the time of the QMJHL playoffs that these issues really started to escalate, though. Grigorenko's production fell off slightly in the second half, which may or may not have been because he was nursing an ankle injury suffered around the time of the World Juniors. In the second round of the QMJHL playoffs versus Halifax, his team the Quebec Remparts went up 3-0 and ended up losing the seven-game series. He did not play well at all during the series. But Grigorenko was diagnosed with mononucleosis, which started surfacing around Game 6.
It was around this time that I heard from an NHL scout who had watched Grigorenko around that time say, "Grigorenko would be the #2 prospect to me and a slight chance for #1, but he lacks the effort level to be a franchise level player." In fairness, this was not a scout I polled before, and he said he didn't believe a player can be a star if their effort level is a question mark at all.
I'm not going to try and start pinpointing when the intangible questions really started, or how much his second half of the season and more specifically the second round of the QMJHL playoffs has played into Grigorenko's perceived value. It is clear that there was an effect at least because I would not bring up an issue like this unless I felt the chatter in the hockey community has been played up to the point where what I'm saying wouldn't be news.
There are two major issues left in this debate I have to hit on. First is Grigorenko's on-ice work ethic: how bad is it and how much should it affect his stock? Being below average in that area matters, and in fact if that area of his game was fine, I would have said Grigorenko would have been the number one draft prospect in 2012, maybe even the clear number one. With a player of his size, normally I'd say he projects as an easily high-end physical player, but I would only project him around average because he doesn't do that much in the physical game, but his frame should help win a decent amount of battles. As In the Yakupov vs. Grigorenko explanation in my draft write-ups, I considered his intangibles as a minor and not a major issue; it was used as a clear decider against Grigorenko in any close evaluation. I knocked him down a fair amount for this weakness, but even after that, he's still a heck of a prospect.
The other issue I need to address is the common rhetoric of, "Well, he's lazy, so he could be a complete bust," and unfortunately I've too often heard the comparison of "He could be another Filatov." The last year or so has not been the best for someone like Filatov's prospect status, and he's steadily approaching "bust territory". A major reason for this was an intangibles/character issue. However, whether it is for Filatov or any other prospect such as Daigle who didn't pan out due to those kind of issues, that doesn't necessarily mean a prospect like Grigorenko won't succeed. The first reason for that is something I've hit on, which is the magnitude of the issue, and as I've said, I believe it is just minor. I've heard scouts say more than that; however, I've really only heard that in the latter parts of the season, and based on what I've heard scouts say about him for years, I don't believe his horrible playoff performance is indicative of the player he usually is and likely will be in the long term.
The second and most important reason is one of sample size. Worrying about Grigorenko not succeeding because of an issue that some other prospects shared is not a really logical conclusion, because many prospects fail for all kinds of reasons. Going through prior drafts, there are always lottery-level busts, and while I'm not excusing a character issue as something that could be a cause of a bust, I just would need to hear a really large number of examples to be convinced it simply isn't just a normal weakness, and a lot of top prospects when drafted have weaknesses.
Wrapping this up now, I'll say this in a more summarized form:
Grigorenko is a clear top-two talent in the 2012 draft class. Based on scouts that I've talked to, my own observations and other observers throughout a good portion of the draft year, this seemed to be a shared thought. Grigorenko's on-ice work ethic problems have never been anything new, yet were never considered anything major enough to truly devalue him. It looked very accentuated towards the end of the season, however I'm skeptical of using that kind of sample to assess a player. It should be noted during an evaluation of him and used as a clear debit, but considering all the other tremendous qualities he possesses, I don't buy the argument Grigorenko isn't anything short of an elite prospect.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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