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Panthers top pick Grigori Denisenko thriving overseas, preparing move to North America

2018 first-round pick shining for Russia U20 team

Denisenko
Denisenko (Denisenko)

SUNRISE, Fla. – It’s not that hard to keep tabs on most of the Florida Panthers’ recent first-round picks.

The newest Panther top pick, goaltender Spencer Knight, is enjoying a stellar start to his freshman season at Boston College while playing outstanding for USA Hockey’s U20 team.

2016 and 2017 first-round picks Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett are honing their respective crafts with Florida’s AHL affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds, seemingly on the cusp of beginning their NHL journeys.

But when it comes to the Panthers first-round selection in 2018, Russian forward Grigori Denisenko, few could tell you what he’s been up to since being selected 15th overall, what his future plans are, and whether they include a move to South Florida (or Springfield) any time soon.

If you're wondering any of those things, you've come to the right place.

So on that note, let's get caught up.

Starting with his pro game, Denisenko has spent the last two seasons with the KHL's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, though last season he moved between the KHL, the VHL (comparable to the AHL) and the MHL (comparable to a top-tier junior league).

After a decent showing in the top-heavy Western Conference, Lokomotiv qualified for the 2019 Gagarin Cup Playoffs as a three seed and advanced to the second round before getting dropped by powerhouse SKA Saint Petersburg in five games.

Denisenko was brought along for the ride and played in six playoff games, picking up three assists while averaging 14:21 of ice time.

He saved his best game for Lokomotiv's final one, skating a playoff-high 16:07 and dishing out a pair of assists while finishing with a plus-2 rating in a 5-4 overtime loss to SKA.

Switching gears to international play, Denisenko has looked his best when playing for his country in international competition, though the 19-year-old has yet to crack the roster of the men's national team.

He picked up four points in six games, turning some heads in the process, during the 2016 U17 tournament in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, but it's been his play in the last 18 months that has many scouts thinking he could be an impact player when he arrives in North America.

First skating on Russia's U18 team in 2017-18, then joining the U20 team in 18-19, Denisenko amassed 37 points (19-18-37) in 28 international games, including 9 points (4-5-9) in 7 games during the 2019 World Junior Championship.

While the scoring output is nice, it's his playmaking ability and strong desire to play a 200-foot game that has set him apart from his peers.

Of course, all of these games have come in junior competition, so the talent level and overall size of his opponents is, for the most part, completely different than what he faces in the KHL and will eventually confront in North America.

Last summer, Denisenko skated with Russia's second national team, one step below the squad that represents the country in international men's competition.

There, he faced a lot of players in their early 20's, many of whom also play in the KHL.

One European scout who watched him during that time said he was "absolutely flying" and called his play "very effective."

Grigori Denisenko poses after being selected by the Florida Panthers during the 2018 NHL Entry Draft in Dallas, Friday, June 22, 2018.
Grigori Denisenko poses after being selected by the Florida Panthers during the 2018 NHL Entry Draft in Dallas, Friday, June 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

The knock on Denisenko, especially this season, has been his inability to carry over that consistent, productive game to his play with Lokomotiv.

According to a KHL source, Denisenko missing half of Lokomotiv's training camp due to his playing with the second Russian national team, as well as training with Russia's U20 team, did not go over well with then-head coach Craig MacTavish.

Other Loko players were given opportunities in the top six, and on special teams, that were originally expected to go to Denisenko.

Undeterred, working hard and staying focused, the tide began to turn in the teen's favor.

During his final weeks with Lokomotiv before leaving to join the U20's preparing for the World Junior Championship, it appeared Denisenko was starting to find his footing.

He's only recorded eight points (4-4-8) in 27 KHL games this season, but six of those points, including all four goals, came during a 12-game span just prior to his departure.

Not bad, considering he played on three different lines and was used at both wing positions over those 12 games, something he's probably become used to by now, as he's moved up, down, in and out of the Lokomotiv lineup fairly often during his time in the KHL.

What's the reason for the sudden change in his gameplay? There has been a noticeable difference in Denisenko's skating, especially when carrying the puck.

He appears to be playing with more confidence, and it could very well be linked to Lokomotiv getting some much-needed stability behind the bench.

Three months into the season, Yaroslavl was already on its third head coach.

MacTavish, the former NHL journeyman and four-time Stanley Cup champion, was hired during the offseason, but that tenure lasted all of eight regular season games. He wrote a very interesting article about his time in the KHL (all three months of it), which can be found here.

Getting back to Denisenko, there is belief that the current head coach, longtime KHL assistant Mike Pelino (who actually spent a year behind the Panthers bench as an assistant in 2003-04, a year in which Florida had three different head coaches; oh, the irony), and some consistent playing time is what is helping his 'needs improvement' areas.

His play without the puck, which probably has the most room to develop, has progressed of late, evident by his performance during the 2020 World Juniors. It's a skill that he'll have to continue refining if he's going to play for Joel Quenneville.

On the flip side, Denisenko's high hockey IQ and possession skills could see him thrive in Quenneville's style of play. The young Russian could easily benefit from the controlled, aggressive, defense-first systems.

There is another side to Denisenko's game, one that doesn't get much attention, that Quenneville always appreciates in his players.

As one KHL scout put it, "His body checks can be very painful for the opponents."

That's right, Denisenko, known for his soft hands and offensive prowess, plays with as much grit and potatoes as another left side skating Russian sniper to whom he's drawn early comparisons; Alexander Ovechkin.

When I told another scout that I was initially under the impression Denisenko was more of a finesse guy, he responded, "yes, he can be, but he's also a badass, too."

It will also help Denisenko to play in the same, structured scheme for the same group of coaches once he arrives in North America, whether he's in Springfield or with Q and the Cats.

TURNING HEADS AT 2020 WJC

Denisenko is back in his happy place during the 2020 WJC's, getting top line minutes and power play time at left wing for Team Russia's U20 squad.

Not surprisingly, Denisenko is having another stellar showing while wearing his nation's sweater. Through five games, he has six points (2-4-6) and has been a force in all three zones whenever on the ice, playing a prominent role on both the power play and penalty kill units.

Nick Robertson of the United States and Grigoriy Denisenko of Russia during the 2020 IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic, on December 29th, 2019.
Nick Robertson of the United States and Grigoriy Denisenko of Russia during the 2020 IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic, on December 29th, 2019. (Petr Sznapka/CTK via AP)

He's also been a vocal leader on the bench and has shown that he's not afraid to mix things up when opponents have gotten physical with the 5-foot-11, 180-pound teenager.

It was made clear before Denisenko even stepped on the ice that he would play a prominent role for his team, and he was once again selected as team captain by veteran head coach Valeri Bragin.

It's a decision that was correctly predicted by Florida Panthers Director of Player Personnel Bryan McCabe when he spoke with the Panthers official website shortly before the tournament.

"I saw him in November at the U20 (Four Nations tournament in Helsinki, Finland) and he played very well," McCabe told the website. "He played in all situations. It's just tougher in a men's league, trying to find that ice time. He seemed pretty happy with where his game is at. He's developing as we thought he would over there."

FLORIDA IN HIS FUTURE

As recently as training camp, Denisenko's plan was to play out his KHL contract, which expires after this season, and make the jump to North America. There has been no indication, from Denisenko or elsewhere, that he's deviated from that plan.

It would mean signing a new contract with the Panthers once Lokomotiv's season is over, and, barring an unexpected request to join the team during a potential playoff run, attending training camp in September.

He'll be 20.

Trying to put yourself in Denisenko’s shoes, and imagining what he’ll be going through, is a near-impossible task.

Unless, of course, there is someone already in the Panthers locker room who has traveled down that road before.

Enter Evgenii Dadonov.

The 30-year-old forward was originally taken by Florida in the third round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.

After being drafted at age 18, he returned to the KHL for two seasons before signing with the Panthers and heading across the pond.

He was 20.

"I was young, and it was a new opportunity," Dadonov said recently. "A new, interesting goal. A new country, new culture. It was kind of hard, but at the same time, it was really interesting. I'd want to get that kind of experience."

The perspective Dadonov holds over this situation is unique, as he's actually done it twice.

After his NHL entry-level deal expired, Dadonov, who had recently been traded by Florida to the Carolina Hurricanes and relegated to a new AHL team in Charlotte, choose to return to the KHL instead of seeking a new NHL contract.

During his five-year Kontinental Hockey League reunion tour, Dadonov eventually ended up signing with SKA Saint Petersburg, playing an integral role in the team's 2015 Gagarin Cup title.

With his career resurrected and ready for the next challenge, Dadonov's adventurous 20's came full circle when he signed a three-year contract with Florida in 2017.

After pausing for a moment during his recollection, Dadonov made sure to point out that all situations are different.

Every player handles things in their own way.

Dadonov said, in these instances, it helps if you are somewhat familiar with where you are going, and as he points out, many young players have traveled to parts of North America for hockey tournaments.

Grigori Denisenko puts on a jersey after being selected by the Florida Panthers during the 2018 NHL Entry Draft in Dallas, Friday, June 22, 2018.
Grigori Denisenko puts on a jersey after being selected by the Florida Panthers during the 2018 NHL Entry Draft in Dallas, Friday, June 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

When asked what advice he'd have, not just for Denisenko, but any young foreign player coming to North America for the first time, he didn't hesitate with his answer.

"I would recommend just learning English," he said with a smile. "For everybody, even for young kids, I would recommend learning English. It's going to help you everywhere, not only in hockey. In life."

That begs the question, how much English did he speak when first arriving in South Florida?

"Almost nothing," Dadonov admitted.

Another similarity between Evgenii and Grigori.

As it currently stands, speaking English is an area that Denisenko will need some work.

After being drafted by Florida in 2018, Denisenko spoke to the media through a translator.

He prefers to use Russian when speaking to reporters, but the combination of having multiple NHL veterans in the Lokomotiv locker room, and the team being run by the English-speaking Pelino, has brought him a long way since two summers ago.

As one journalist who covers Denisenko put it, "He knows his English has to improve, and he's quietly working on it."

If all goes to plan, his education might have to be expedited sooner rather than later.


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