Forwards Grigori Denisenko (Ranked #14) and Vitali Kravtsov (Ranked #18) are the consensus best prospects coming out of the Russian KHL system this year, and while they’re both offensive-minded wingers, the skill sets they employ differ in a few ways. What separates the two Russians from each other, and what attributes put Denisenko slightly ahead of Kravtsov in my mind? We’ll explore that today in lead up to the 1st Round of the 2018 NHL Draft, where both players are expected to be selected.
What Denisenko Does Well
When I watch Denisenko, what I see is a playmaker and a play driver. Grigori not only wants the puck on his stick, but he makes the players on his line better with the plays he opens up for them when the puck is on his stick. He does this in a number of ways, the greatest is his hands and the poise he has when the puck is on his stick. Look at the way he settles down a frantic play here as he controls the puck in the slot, corrals it along the boards, and walks the zone to slow down the play and set up a controlled play in the offensive zone for his team (#14 in Red):
Denisenko is not just a crafty skilled player though, he’s also a tremendously hard worker and commits himself on both sides of the puck. I’ve often seen him commit to the backcheck and force turnovers, and naturally employs that work ethic to the forecheck as well. I particularly like this play where Denisenko gets in hard on a defender and puts him in an uncomfortable spot, steals the puck, and is able to slip away from pressure with his hands before setting up a play in front (#14 in White):
On a similar note, here’s a situation where Denisenko is able to transition a good defensive play into quick strike offense. Denisenko takes a good angle to the puck carrier after a faceoff loss and in turn is able to block the shot from the point, at which point he beats the opposition to the puck and is able to force a penalty shot. On the penalty shot, he comes in slowly and methodically and is able to pick his spot on the Czech netminder (#14 in Red):
This awareness can make him an excellent penalty killer at the next level, with the quick strike ability that could make him a shorthanded threat. This also makes him a dual threat on special teams, as most of the offense on Russia’s powerplay at the U18 Five Nations tournament ran through Denisenko along the halfboards. He possesses excellent vision and often has the poise not to force plays that aren’t there. I particularly like this play on the powerplay that he made when playing for his MHL team, Loko Yaroslavl. Denisenko curls up along the halfwall and is able to work his way into the circle; he never stops moving his stick along the way as he quickly surveys the zone and feeds across a perfect pass for a goal (#14 in White):
Denisenko in my eyes is purely a playmaker, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable as a goal scorer as well. I love this goal he scored for Yaroslavl, as he is able to come down the wing on the rush and cut to the middle, changing the angle on the goalie and quickly shooting back against the grain. Note that Denisenko isn’t exactly a blazer down the wing, but he creates his separation with the agility in his skating and quick stickhandling as he beats the opposing defender inside (#38 in White):
Denisenko can be noted as a capable goal scorer, but the pure goal scorer comes in the form of his counterpart from Chelyabinsk.
What Kravtsov Does Well
If Denisenko is the playmaker, then Kravtsov is the sniper between this pair of Russian forwards. Kravtsov is among the elite goal scorers in this draft, and owns one of the best shots in this class, where I would place him either 6th or 7th among his peers. His shot has everything that you look for when evaluating its potency for the next level – accuracy, power, and release. His ability as a goal scorer isn’t merely based on his shot, though, as he’s a very intelligent offensive player and is able to find soft spots on the ice to receive feeds and let loose his shot. I loved this snipe against Salavat Yulaev, as he recognizes an overplay by the defender on the puck carrier and is able to slip behind him into open ice. His teammate hits him with a pass in the circle and the puck is off his stick before the Yulaev defenders can scramble back into position, going off the crossbar and in past the goaltender (#74 in White):
On this next play we see some more of the same, as Kravtsov starts this play as the puck carrier and eventually finds himself alone for a feed after slipping through a gap in coverage. Kravtsov is a relatively basic playmaker, but that isn’t to say he has basic hands, as he’s actually a very good stickhandler with the puck on his stick. In particular on this goal, we see Kravtsov touch the puck along to a teammate, and he recognizes the opposition converge on the puck carrier as he quickly bursts into a seam behind the defense and anticipates an incoming pass as he turns towards the play. Kravtsov’s teammate hits him with a pass, and he seamlessly turns the puck on his blade into a shooting position, stickhandling back and forth to make the goaltender uncomfortable before he quickly releases the puck through the goalie’s five-hole (#74 in White):
This next goal is a thing of beauty, and is one of the nicer goals I saw by a draft eligible all year. I find Kravtsov to be a faster straight line skater than Denisenko, and in turn this can make him a more dangerous goal scorer on the rush and particularly coming down the boards. Remember those high-end hands I was referencing earlier? Well they’re on full display here. Kravtsov comes streaking down the boards with the puck, putting pressure on the defender and putting him in an uncomfortable position. As the defender comes over to try and cut him off, Kravtsov effortlessly slips the puck through his own legs back up to his stick and makes the defender miss, all that’s left is a quick pull to his forehand in front of the netminder to open him up and Kravtsov slips it five-hole. This goal came in a KHL playoff game as well, so there’s that too (#74 in White):
The intelligence, shot, and hands makes Kravtsov among the better goal scorers available in this draft, and his production speaks well to his projection as well.
It’s very difficult for a 17 year old to stick on a KHL lineup, and in turn it’s rare to get the production and role that Kravtsov got this year on Chelyabinsk. This year for Chelyabinsk, Kravtsov put up 4 goals and 7 points in 35 regular season games for a point per game of 0.20. Kravtsov, in the role he played as a 17/18 year old, does not have many direct comparables in this regard, and some of his closer ones speak pretty kindly to his projection. Evgeni Malkin played for Metallurg Magnitogorsk at the same age, and posted a PPG of 0.35. Evgeny Kuznetsov played for the very same Traktor Chelyabinsk as Kravtsov at the same age, and posted a PPG of 0.23. Anton Slepyshev at Kravtsov’s age played for Novokuznetsk, and posted a PPG of 0.18. There aren’t many direct comparisons to make for Kravtsov, which speaks to the rarity of what he achieved this season for Chelyabinsk, and that figure of 0.20 does not include his playoff totals, where he posted 6 goals and 11 points in 16 games, performing as one of the Traktor’s best players in the postseason as an 18 year old.
If the statistical projection of Kravtsov is exciting, then the production of Denisenko is underwhelming to say the least. Save for 4 scoreless playoff games in the KHL with Lokomotiv, Denisenko spent the entire season with the team’s junior club, Loko Yaroslavl, and with Russian junior squads. A player with Denisenko’s talent I would like to see produce at a point per game pace at minimum playing in Russia’s junior league, but Denisenko was only able to produce 14 goals and 29 points in 43 games between Yaroslavl’s regular season and playoffs. It was an admittedly trying season for Denisenko, and players with his production in their draft years generally have dicey projections. However, when I watch Denisenko play and then look at the stat sheet, the numbers don’t seem to line up when I consider Denisenko’s talent and his ability to control a shift.
So, if the production is stacked so heavily in Kravtsov’s favor, that begs the question…
Why Denisenko over Kravtsov?
Throwing out production, it comes down to the talent and skill sets I see in their games. Denisenko is the line driver, Kravtsov is the finisher, and I tend to favor guys that create opportunities for not only themselves but also for their teammates. Don’t get me wrong, I think Kravtsov has that ability to create for his linemates, but he does so in a more basic way, where as Denisenko is able to drive play with his hands, skating, vision, and intelligence. Offense runs through Denisenko when he’s on the ice, where on the flip side I often see Kravtsov as the quick strike player that can finish opportunities.
As illustrated earlier, Kravtsov possesses intelligence and hands, but he processes those attributes in the mind of a goal scorer, whereas Denisenko processes the same attributes in the mind of a playmaker. Denisenko looks to create for his teammates, and in turn I believe this not only makes Denisenko a dangerous offensive player, but it also makes his linemates better offensive players, which is an ability I’m not sure Kravtsov has at the time of this writing.
Denisenko is the driver, Kravtsov is the finisher, and I’m always going to favor the driver.
This should not be read as an indictment on either player, but more so a look into what I’ve seen from both players and why I give the slight edge to Denisenko. At the end of the day, I like both of these players enough to place them firmly in my 1st Round.
If the question were, “which player would YOU select,” my answer would be both. I would take both of these players on my NHL roster in a heartbeat, but I would hedge my bets on Denisenko being the bigger driver of offense between the two players.