Way back in October there was this news…
— Igor Eronko (@IgorEronko) October 14, 2019
Anyway, between Zaitsev, Ozhiganov, Soshnikov, and Mikheyev, the Leafs have a proud history of bringing Russian free agents over and I am admittedly intrigued by both Grigorenko and Nesterov.
The history up until this season
Prior to the 2017-18 season, both of these players were attempting to find their footing in the NHL. Grigorenko had the benefit of being a 1st round pick and that bought him a fair number of chances to succeed. He didn’t. Some of that was on the Sabres for burying him in their bottom six and not giving an offensive talent a chance to play with other offensive players. Some of that was on Grigorenko for not adapting to his role. Either way, he was only averaging about 13 minutes a night in North America, and his best years came after his trade to Colorado when he a 27 point season career high, followed up with a season where he had a career high 10 goals. Nothing too exciting and it wasn’t particularly shocking that he chose to return to Russia.
Perhaps Grigorenko’s biggest storyline in North America was the bizarre rumour that he was older than he reported. I guess everyone needs a claim to fame, but it’s a buyer beware that the Leafs might be signing a 30 year old, not a 26 year old this summer.
As for Nesterov, his time in the NHL was shorter. The 5’11 depth defenseman was perfectly serviceable in the NHL, but not an everyday player and that’s likely what aided in his decision to return to Russia as well. Nesterov might not have the size many would seek, but he’s a physical presence, and could add something to the Leafs bottom pairing or defensive depth. With Marincin signed for next season, and Justin Holl establishing himself, I wonder if the same level of interest is still there, but he was a positive possession player in his sheltered usage before.
All of that looks pretty decent. Both players are presently on CSKA Moscow, the first place team in the league with a month and half remaining. It also appears that CSKA Moscow is very much in a position to be gutted by the NHL as players like Alexander Romanov and Kirill Kaprizov are all highly likely to play in North America next year.
Perhaps what is most interesting about Nesterov and Grigorenko is that they lead their respective positions in ice time, and the high usage speaks to some comfort to playing in all situations. How well that transfers to the NHL is generally a crapshoot when it comes to KHL players, but their found wallet status makes them worth the risk of finding out.
Should the Leafs do this?
The twist to this situation compared to some of the previous KHL acquisitions is that neither of these players would be on an entry level contract, and potentially this won’t be as cheap a move as the ones we’ve seen in the past. At the same time, I don’t imagine either player would cost much, and would probably take a cut in pay to give North America one last try.
As a fan of unconventional signings of the hit or miss variety, I’m not opposed to pursuing these players. Nesterov could be a stable presence in the bottom pairing in a season that could see bigger roles for players like Dermott, Sandin, Holl, and Liljegren. Nesterov could buy Sandin and Liljegren more development time if needed as well.
As for Grigorenko, bringing him in on an affordable contract allows the Leafs some flexibility on making decisions on their more expensive middle of the lineup wingers like Kapanen, Johnsson, and Kerfoot. If Dubas feels he can get similar results at a fraction of the cost it may be worth exploring trades on those players.
As for now, the waiting game continues. The KHL playoffs don’t wrap up until April, and neither player would be in a Leafs uniform until next season. It just seems worth considering these two players as potential future options for the Leafs and considering how that might impact the decision making process during the transaction season.