SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers added another potential stallion to their stable of young talent on Tuesday, signing Russian winger Grigori Denisenko to a three-year, entry-level contract.
Florida selected Denisenko with the 15th pick of the first round in the 2018 NHL Draft.
"Grigori is an exciting, dynamic and highly skilled young forward who has been a top player on the international stage and served as captain of Team Russia at the World Juniors," Panthers President and General Manager Dale Tallon said in a statement released by the team. "We are thrilled for his bright future with the Panthers for years to come."
The 19-year-old has spent the past two seasons splitting his time between Russia’s national junior team and the Kontinental Hockey League’s Yaroslavl Lokomotiv organization.
Denisenko looked at his best when playing with his peers for Team Russia, and in the MHL, which is Russia's top junior league.
During international play, both at the U18 and U20 levels, Denisenko collected 37 points (19-18-37) in 28 games. That includes his standout performance at the 2020 World Junior Championship, where, as Team Russia’s captain, he picked up nine points in seven games and consistently stood out due to his skating and playmaking ability.
Throughout his time with the Russian junior team, Denisenko has almost always had a "C" or an "A" on his jersey, acting as a team leader both on and off the ice.
Denisenko, who turns 20 next month, will need to continue developing those skills while translating his game to North American hockey.
When he'll get a taste of that depends on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has all but shut down the majority of live sports leagues across the globe.
Should the NHL find a way to end the current pause and resume the season, Denisenko would be eligible to play for the Panthers, though that seems like a longshot.
Florida will come out of the break at full strength and with plenty of roster options for Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville. Denisenko has not shown that he can be a consistent performer when playing with grown men, though to be fair, he was never really given a chance to excel.
After spending his first season in the KHL moving between Lokomotiv and its MHL affiliate, the expectation was that Grigori would enter the 2019-20 campaign with a spot in the top six and on the power play.
Neither happened, and he spent the year shuffling between the third and fourth lines, moving between left and right wing.
Denisenko, a right-handed shot, prefers playing right wing and has done most of his damage with Team Russia playing on the right side.
It wouldn't be surprising to see Denisenko get some practice time with the Panthers, should the league resume the current season at some point. Who knows; Quenneville could pop Denisenko in a prime spot and he could take off with some truly skilled linemates.
Remember, Florida’s last two games before the stoppage were two of their best in a long time, and during those games, Sasha Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau were on separate lines. Huberdeau continued his strong season on the newly formed Triple-H line with Eric Haula and Mike Hoffman, but top liners Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov were still looking for a spark.
Could Denisenko be the flame that ignites Florida’s top forwards back into form? It’s possible, but not likely.
Aside from a scenario like that, Denisenko's first chance to play with his new teammates would come during next season's training camp, which, in a normal, non-coronavirus year, happens during September.
Denisenko, who turns 20 in June, has a chance to excel with the deep talent pool Florida has built. In addition to the Barkov’s and Huberdeau’s already at the NHL level, the Panthers have several highly touted prospects also on the brink of breaking into the world’s best hockey league.
Florida’s 2016 and 2017 top picks Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett are being groomed in the American Hockey League and both could find themselves in the NHL next season, and we mustn’t forget that the Panthers have one of the top goaltending prospects in the world in Spencer Knight, who they selected in the 1st round of last summer’s entry draft. Knight was having a phenomenal freshman year with Boston College before the pandemic hit.
Denisenko’s stock has been on the rise since he was drafted, and now we’ll start to find out how big a part he’ll play in the Panthers’ plan to hit the jackpot.