PITTSBURGH - The story of the 2012 draft so far has revolved around two Russians – one has been given the white hat, the other the black hat. And while it may not be fair that Nail Yakupov has to constantly answer questions about whether he will bolt for the Kontinental League after two years in the Ontario League with Sarnia, at least he's got it better than countryman Mikhail Grigorenko.
For much of the second half of the season, Grigorenko has been picked on by pundits and talent evaluators alike. His stock has slid from being a potential No. 1 overall to a kid many are almost gleefully predicting will slide out of the top 10. But with a punishing sun lording over him and a dozen other top prospects on a boat ride Thursday afternoon, Grigorenko was both chipper and pragmatic about his treatment of late.
“I don't know – some people put me at No. 20,” he laughed. “People have opinions, they don't like me? OK. I'm still listed in their first round, so it's good.”
The knocks on Grigorenko center around his work ethic on the ice – that he may not be engaged every shift. Maybe it's the fact he's a big, high-scoring pivot from the Quebec League, but Grigorenko is beginning to remind me of another draft dropper from last year – Sean Couturier. Like Grigorenko, Couturier came into his draft year as a potential No. 1, but as time went on, questions about his on-ice engagement started to kneecap his status. The Philadelphia Flyers grabbed him at No. 8 – the pick they got from Columbus in the Jeff Carter deal – and all Couturier did was jump straight to the show, where he became a key penalty-killer and Evgeni Malkin's worst nightmare in the playoffs. Couturier got great coaching in Drummondville – first with future Tampa Bay boss Guy Boucher, then with Mario Duhamel – while Grigorenko stars for Patrick Roy's Quebec Remparts. According to the big Russian, Hall of Fame goalies can impart a lot of wisdom about defense, too.
“He's a really nice person, he's helped me all year long,” Grigorenko said. “He taught me how to play without the puck. He taught me a lot of things I didn't know. I'm glad I came over.”
And while the 'Q' has been whipped in recent drafts by the OHL and Western League, Grigorenko is more than happy with the level of competition he faced during his first North American campaign.
“I can't just go out and score 10 goals,” he said. “You have to work hard if you want to score. People say it's the worst league, but we've won the past two Memorial Cups, so maybe we're the best league.”
Once again, he says it with a smile. Perhaps it's because after Friday, he won't have to answer questions about where he's going to go in the draft. Another factor is that he's got his buddy Yakupov and American-born, Russian-raised Alex Galchenyuk (also of Sarnia) to hang out with in Pittsburgh.
“It's really fun,” Grigorenko said. “In Quebec I'm alone, there's no Russian players. When we're together here, we're not talking hockey. Just random stuff.”
Yakupov is already a media darling thanks to his charismatic interview scrums and the consensus No. 1 pick vouches for his compatriot.
“I played with him for two years with the national team,” Yakupov said. “I know him as a person and a hockey player; he's a good guy.”
Unfortunately, Yakupov has been forced to deal with the question of whether he would jump ship for the KHL in the future ad nauseum. It would be a shame to see his personality stamped down by herded sheep journalism, but I still saw the ebullient 'Yak' when he 'Kes-lurked' an interview from a local TV station with a visiting reporter. The 'Russian Factor' questions are clearly exasperating for him, though.
“It's not my deal if you believe me or not,” he said. “I want to play in the NHL.”
Like his world junior teammate, Yakupov is getting a crash course in media this year. Fortunately, they'll both get a chance to prove themselves to doubters on their favorite turf next season – the rink.
OLLI MAATTA TURNING HEADS
Another import who made noise this season was Finland's Olli Maatta, who is riding a wave of good vibes thanks to his 23-point outburst for the London Knights in 17 playoffs games, culminating in an OHL title. We chatted with the sturdy defenseman about his campaign.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.