Denisenko Has Boom or Bust Potential for Panthers

The Florida Panthers bowed out of the unique 2020 NHL Playoff format with nothing more than a whimper. They succumbed to the New York Islanders and their shutdown defensive system, taking just one game out of the best-of-five series.

With the offseason, however long that may be, looming ahead, it is important to know who in the Panthers’ system may be making the leap to the big club. Not only that, but the prospects in the pool can also impact what happens in the 2020 NHL Draft when it does take place.

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In this continuing series, we will look at the top prospects in the Panthers’ system and see what they may have in store in the future. Next up in the series, the 15th-overall pick from 2018, Grigori Denisenko.

Making His Name

Denisenko jumped onto the radar of draft scouts during his 2017-18 junior season with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in Russia. His 9 goals and 22 points in 31 games would be enough to get him noticed, but it was the potential that he showed on the ice that really caught the eye of scouts.

Grigori Denisenko Panthers
Grigori Denisenko, Florida Panthers, 2018 NHL Draft, Dallas, TX, June 22, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In little playing time during the 2018 World Junior Championship, he managed to post a point per game with four points in just as many games. It is his skating ability and on-ice vision that made him a standout in the tournament.

Heading into the 2018 NHL Draft, Denisenko registered as high as #15 on draft boards, generally falling somewhere in the late-teens and early twenties in most others. There was also the matter of his KHL obligation at the time of the draft, meaning that it would be a couple of seasons before a North American debut would be possible.

2018 NHL Draft

Heading into draft day, there was some question as to just where Denisenko would land. The consensus was that, outside of the top five prospects of the draft, Denisenko may be the most talented player in the entire class.

Given his eligibility, there were thoughts that he could land anywhere from 10th overall to Edmonton and fall as far as the end of the first round. The Panthers grabbed him at 15th overall.

Grigori Denisenko
Grigori Denisenko of Yaroslavl Lokomotiv (courtesy HC Lokomotiv)

Outside of the top 10, where names like Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov, Brady Tkachuk, and Quinn Hughes reside and are currently making sizable impacts, there haven’t been other major names contributing in the NHL.

Scouting Report: Skating

Denisenko has a smooth stride and ranked as one of the top skaters in the entire 2018 NHL Draft class. He has quick-twitch acceleration and very good high-end speed. He utilizes his quick feet with good edgework and great agility.

He’s tough on defensemen, particularly on the rush as he can beat them outside or inside, make a quick move, and weave in and out of traffic with little issue. However, Denisenko needs to get stronger on his skates, which would make him better at board battles and cycling.

Scouting Report: Scoring

Off the rush, Denisenko is one of the best names in the entire draft class thanks to his excellent skating ability. He has the hands to match his high-end speed, making him extremely dangerous in transition. Those hands also give him the ability to navigate congested areas skillfully.

He uses quick dekes and head fakes to play havoc on both defenders and goaltenders in a one-on-one capacity. Denisenko has very good vision, making him dangerous when given space by defenders. He is capable of making tape-to-tape passes to teammates in all areas and has the intelligence to slow play down, waiting for space and opportunity to arise.

As far as his shot, he has a quick release and a hard, accurate wrist shot. Soft hands make him dangerous in tight areas around the net, though he generally won’t get there without the puck, making him more of a perimeter player.

Scouting Report: Defense

It is rare to find a prospect whose defensive game is not a work in progress. He doesn’t really get involved backchecking, choosing to cheat and hope for a quick turn the other way. He’s definitely not a physical type of player, either.

Grigori Denisenko
Grigori Denisenko (Photo: HC Lokomotiv)

He tends to watch the puck even when he does backcheck, letting his feet go stationary. Defensemen have an easier time setting up for effective point shots as a result. He could be the type of player that can drive his coaches bananas with his defensive game.

What He’s Been Doing Since the Draft

Denisenko has since graduated to the KHL, though like most young players, he struggles to find a consistent role. He spent 25 games with Lokomotiv’s main club, notching 4 goals and 2 assists over that time. In 2019-20, he got an expanded role, tallying 6 goals and 6 assists in 38 games over that time.

He improved his stock at the 2020 World Junior Championship back in February, just before the pandemic shutdown. In 7 games, Denisenko tallied 3 goals and 9 points.

Denisenko continues to flash the dripping talent that made him an intriguing prospect during the 2018 NHL Draft. He evokes comparisons to Artemi Panarin, a 2020 Hart Trophy finalist.

What’s Next for Denisenko?

There are decisions to be made in Florida this offseason. Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, both consistent 25-goal scorers, are unrestricted free agents. There is a very good chance that Florida will lose at least one of them, if not both.

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With his KHL deal expiring, the time seems to be now for Denisenko to make the leap to the NHL. His high-end skill and nose for the net could help bridge the gap of any lost scoring from Dadonov/Hoffman.

Denisenko’s size remains somewhat of a concern given that he doesn’t have the frame and body strength needed to win battles in the NHL. He will need to use his skating ability and elusiveness to evade defenders, creating space for linemates.

Denisenko will likely get every shot at making the NHL in 2020-21. Depending on what happens with Hoffman and Dadonov, he may even have an opportunity at a top-six role. It is likely that his defensive inefficiencies and strength will earn the ire of coaches and it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to see him spend as much time in the AHL as he does in the NHL.

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