Sunday, September 18, 2011

Grachev gets a new lease with Blues

Russian hopes trade from Rangers parlays into job in St. Louis

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- There are times when a player just realizes one situation is not in their best interests and it's time to seek a new opportunity.

For the Blues' Evgeny Grachev, nothing could be further from the truth. One door closed and another one opened, and in this case, a new opening is just what the doctor ordered.

Grachev seemed to be pining away in the New York Rangers' minor league system when there was finally a ray of sunshine. The Blues saw something that they felt was intriguing enough to pull the trigger on a draft-day deal that brought the 21-year-old
Khabarovsk, Russia native to St. Louis for the 72nd pick in this summer's draft.
(Getty Images)
Evgeny Grachev is one of a number of players the Blues are looking at in

Now Grachev, who scored 40 goals in the Ontario Hockey League in 2008-09, will have an opportunity that the Rangers really never gave him: win a job in the NHL and validate his leaving his native country to play in North America.

"It's always something new, something exciting when you change the environment around you," Grachev said. "It's like a new start for me. I'm excited to be here. I don't know ... looking forward to training camp and I'll do my best to make this team."

Grachev did play in eight games with the Blueshirts last season. However, he was pointless and was a minus-3. He would never get back after being sent to Connecticut of the AHL, where Grachev scored 16 goals and added 22 assists in 73 games.

"I've been part of the Rangers' organization for three years. I guess it didn't work out for me the way I would have wanted it to work out," Grachev said. "But they drafted me and I just want to thank them for the opportunity they gave me.

"I'm just going to move on and hopefully become a part of this team. I don't think (the Blues traded for) me just as an AHL-AHL trade."

Indeed, as Davis Payne has placed Grachev on a line to open camp with David Backes and Jamie Langenbrunner. They will play together Tuesday in the exhibition opener against Tampa Bay. The Blues will give the big 6-foot-4, 224-pounder a chance to show just what he's got.

"The game is so much faster, with all the (rule) changes. Now it doesn't matter what your size is," Grachev said. "It's about how quick you can skate, how fast and changing direction. But yes, if you're big and you can skate, it's an advantage. I'm trying to use it to protect the puck in the corners and drive the net. I can't say I'm a big hitter, but for sure, if there's an opportunity to finish a check, I'm sure I'll do that."

Payne likes what he sees already.

"Size, skill, that big-body skill you saw down there at the end, when you've got two big bodies leaning on each other like that, the trench war gets a little bit interesting when you've got that kind of ability," Payne said. "He can get up and down the ice, handles the puck well, receives and shoots the puck well. It's going to be his abilities to take the opportunities in front of him and find a way to produce, find a way to defend correctly, find a way to play a physical game.

"In the end, he's a guy with size and ability to defend in an all-around game situation. I like his skating, I like his abilities to execute in some of those drills."

Before engaging in his first training camp with the Blues, Grachev returned to Russia to take part in the funerals of players involved in the tragic plane crash that took the lives of the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv hockey squad. Grachev, who played in Yaroslavl from 2005-2008, knew a number of the players.

"I had a lot of friends on that plane," Grachev said. "I thought I'd go back and support the families and say goodbye to all of those guys that were on the plane. I knew all the trainers and half of the team ... three or four were my good friends and one guy (Artem Yarchuk) was my best friend in the hockey world. We played together since we were 13.

"It wasn't fun. The city was dead for a few days. People wouldn't smile. There was no music in the restaurants. It changed a lot in the city. They don't have a team anymore. It's something you don't want to experience in your life. I can't even explain the emotions."

Grachev, whose English has been much better that teammate and fellow Russian Nikita Nikitin, admitted it wasn't an easy transition coming to North America but looked forward to the challenge.

"I learned English when I was about four years old, but it was just pronunciation," Grachev said. "Then in school, it was words. Here, I've just tried to pick it up. My first year in juniors, I didn't talk much. But you have to make an effort to learn the language. I watched cartoons or some TV shows. I messed up the words and guys made fun of me, but they helped me a lot, too. The last two years, I've been pretty comfortable with my English. It's not perfect, but I get along with it."

The Blues don't have many spots available among the 23 they will likely keep when they break camp. That means there are probably no more than two spots at the forward position up for grabs. Grachev will have as good a chance as any of the others that are battling and will battle right to the end.

"Hopefully they have some expectations for me," Grachev said, "and I expect they're going to give me a shot in training camp and see what happens."

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