Odd Man Out: Where does Grushnikov fit in Stars’ long-term plans?

HAMILTON, ONTARIO - MARCH 14: Artem Grushnikov #2 of the Hamilton Bulldogs skates against the Oshawa Generals at Tim Hortons Field on March 14, 2022 in Hamilton, Ontario. (Photo by Chris Tanouye/Getty Images)
HAMILTON, ONTARIO - MARCH 14: Artem Grushnikov #2 of the Hamilton Bulldogs skates against the Oshawa Generals at Tim Hortons Field on March 14, 2022 in Hamilton, Ontario. (Photo by Chris Tanouye/Getty Images) /

When it comes to the core of talent on this team, it’s easy to point to the jackpot that the 2017 NHL Entry Draft was. Your perennial Norris candidate defenseman in Heiskanen, a generational talent of a tendy with Oettinger, and a scoring threat that the masses are calling to be extended for in Robertson. Each of these foundational pieces to the squad was rostered in the first 39 picks of the ’17 draft. When it comes to talent acquisition, this process is Jim Nill’s piece de resistance. If we could draft like that every year, we’d be cup contenders on an annual basis.

However, the chips fall differently for each draft, and not every pick can be a hit. Further, not every hit can be a home run. With the buzz surrounding Stars prospects Logan Stankoven and Wyatt Johnston, one would presume that the Stars struck gold with the 2021 intake of draft talent. It’s easy to see those two pearls and dispatch the second of twin picks in the second round that could give it a similar depth that we saw the stars achieve in 2017. Beyond the forwards oozing with potential breakout talent this upcoming season, let’s take a look at the defensive piece that completed the top of the prospect pool for the Stars in 2021.

In the spirit of fantasy football, those of us picking in the top or bottom of our snake drafts can sympathize with Jim Nill in the second round of the 2021 draft. It’s purely joyous to not have to pick between two players and just grab both at the same time. In theory, this mindset indicates that each player taken is of interchangeable value. Given that Stankoven has thrust himself into uncommon conversations with his post-draft appreciation, that is a ringing endorsement for Artem Grushnikov.

In a similar fashion, it speaks volumes that Grushnikov has been recently named to the Traverse City prospect tournament roster. Grushnikov has the opportunity to showcase his talents with the likes of the aforementioned Star forwards, along with others that are garnering higher and higher expectations as their big league moments approach. What exactly is the skillset that Grushnikov will be displaying?

As a member of the OHL Champion Hamilton Bulldogs, Artem was a bulldog himself on the defensive end. Standing firmly at 6’1” & anchoring 195 lbs., Grushnikov registered 12 points (5 g, 7a) at a clip of +33. We saw the same valuable skillset in the Traverse City tournament this past weekend. While not contributing a whole lot on offense, he was a risk-aversive anchor to the defensive core.

To cut to the chase a bit, Grushnikov is the defensive counter-balance to the offense-first d-men we’ve seen the Stars grab in recent history, outside of Lian Bichsel. Grushnikov embodies the best qualities of the previous coaching regime, and could that mean that he does not fit with this new culture?

First, we need to take into account the Star’s depth situation on defense. There are too many left-handed cooks in the kitchen right now, and the aforementioned Bichsel has made things a lot more crowded with his NHL-ready 6’5” 225 lb. frame. By the time Grushnikov is projected to hit NHL readiness, Ryan Suter will have aged out of the last year of his deal and Lindell will be wrapping his up as well.

If Harley completes the transition, one can assume that a spot will be his. While Heiskanen can play anywhere, he is left-handed and would be optimally used on that side. All this to say, there are approximately 1.5 spots to fill and Bichsel has the 1st round sunk cost to his name that would compel the team’s leadership to slot him in. The uncertainty for Grushnikov creates an up-or-out scenario within the next 3 years.

One might wonder if there’s any space allotted, in today’s NHL, for a high-end defensive talent with relatively low offensive potential. One might point to Esa Lindell and say that there is since he’s carved out a career of shutting down opposing top skill.

The issue for the Stars on that front is that they already have Lindell. Did they draft Grushnikov and Bichsel as replacements after their contracts expire? We’ll see, but for now, Grushnikov needs to maximize his offensive opportunities and show a little more flash.

Despite this year being the most likely for a U20 talent to make the opening night roster, Grushnikov is not among the candidates. We will likely see him go back to Hamilton and attempt to repeat as OHL champions. In my hearty sports opinion, championship pedigree translates well between levels of competition.

The mindset is in place for this defensive stalwart in Grushnikov. In order to make the jump into DeBoer’s system, and draw the 2021 to 2017 draft comparisons closer, Grushnikov will need to add a bit more polish to his offensive game at the OHL level this year.