July 14, 2021

Sidelined: Artyom Grushnikov

Poor Artyom Grushnikov.

The Russian defenseman committed to the Hamilton Bulldogs at the beginning of the year, only for the Ontario Hockey League season to get continually delayed and eventually cancelled. Then, despite representing Russia in previous age groups, he was left out of the squad that won silver at the 2021 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Texas.

Although he didn’t play a single game of organized hockey this season, Grushnikov’s excellent resume and international reputation will no doubt result in him getting picked in the NHL draft next month. However, it’s still unfortunate that he didn’t get to properly showcase himself. 

The 6-foot-2, 174-pound defenseman entered the year as one of the top Russian prospects. He was the only 2003-born skater on a Russian team that won gold at the 2019 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup and the only 2003-born skater at the World Under-17 Challenge in 2018, where he also won gold. At the club level, he has been one of CSKA Moscow’s star prospects from his age group for years along with Prokhor Poltapov.

A true defensive blueliner, Grushnikov’s style won’t draw a lot of eyeballs naturally.

Rather, you’ll need to really watch him to appreciate his true talent. It’s not that Grushnikov completely lacks offense so much that it’s that his defensive awareness and the control he has over his opponents on the defensive side of the puck is so much more prominent and impressive. Rarely does a player this young show the poise and calmness that Grushnikov does at his own blue line. As he wasn’t able to play this season, it’s even more impressive that Grushnikov had this maturity in his game in his D-1 season. 

Grushnikov’s skating is a bit inconsistent at times but in general, is technically above average. In particular, Grushnikov is highly mobile in his backwards skating and owns some really quick feet that allow him to accelerate quickly as the play comes towards him. At the same time, with his excellent side-to-side mobility, Grushnikov is often able to keep the play in front of him, and quickly deny access to any lanes an opponent may try to attack. 

One of the best assets in his skating is how quickly he can get his feet going from a standstill. As he glides backwards and reads the play coming at him, Grushnikov can quickly turn it on and with some incredibly quick reverse crossovers, maintain an incredibly tight gap to attack opponents as they enter his zone.

Above is an example of Grushnikov’s excellent play reading at his own blue line, with some nice footwork mixed in too. I liked how he came forward to hold the blue line on this entry attempt, forced the US team to bunch up and offered very little space to make anything happen on the entry. He follows that up with some impressive footspeed backward and maintaining a great gap to his man to neutralize him as a pass option. Here’s another example from the same game.

In addition to his great footwork, I also loved his stick placement in the above clip. Something that Grushnikov does so well is direct traffic with his stick and is always ready for a quick and accurate poke check. 

Once in his own zone, when the other team gets set up in a cycle, I do feel that Grushnikov can stay a little flat-footed and provide too much space to opponents in his own zone. He smartly sits back and waits for the right moment to strike. However, when he becomes stationary he struggles to get on pucks deep in the zone in time and challenge opponents in a timely manner. 

When he did have the puck on his stick, I liked the upright heads-up posture he takes while looking up ice for a pass. 

In this sequence, Grushnikov hits three solid exit passes in an attempt to advance the puck. His upright posture allows him to have great sightlines of the ice and hit his targets regularly. This is likely the best part of Grushnikov’s offering on the offensive side of the puck. He can be an excellent puck mover but doesn’t often put himself in situations to play that role, preferring to stay back from the play and launch longer passes from a distance. 

Offensively, Grushnikov leaves a lot to be desired but that’s not to say he’s completely inept with the puck in the offensive zone. He isn’t afraid to shoot the puck and his shot mechanics are decent but he more so flings the puck at the net rather than getting a full shot. Here’s a look at a shot from Grushnikov that winds up as an assist.

He catches the puck and doesn’t cradle it enough, in my opinion. As he turns into the puck he puts it into his pocket. Instead, to get more power, he should catch the puck and draw it back to carry the momentum through the shot and pull it back a bit farther in order to generate some additional power. 

Overall, I think Grushnikov is a great pick somewhere in the middle rounds. He’ll be a solid bottom-pairing defender who you can trust in key defensive moments in the game and a particularly good penalty killer.

If an NHL team can develop Grushnikov’s ability to jump up into the play, his passing is good enough to contribute much more through transition, making him even more valuable and could improve his ceiling to a middle pairing defender at the NHL level.

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