When the Blues acquired Evgeny Grachev at this summer's draft in exchange for their 3rd round pick it looked to be a low-risk, boom-or-bust trade: grab a guy who "needs a change of scenery" and hope that he breaks out. Grachev, himself a former third round selection of the Rangers, had showed promise with a 40 goal, 40 assist season in his only year of Canadian major-junior hockey followed by a strong first year in the AHL (12 g, 16 a in 80 gp) the following season.
But last year the big (6'4, 224) winger struggled in his NHL trial run (zero points, minus-3 in eight games) despite increasing his totals in the AHL. Apparently the Rangers felt he was developing into a player who played well against lesser competition but struggled against the world's elite in the NHL.
With the Blues, Grachev has looked like the change of scenery theory might just pan out. Granted, he is, once again, excelling against somewhat less than NHL-caliber competition, as early preseason games tend to be against watered-down rosters. But the promise is apparent and the way he is playing is clearly putting him into consideration for one of the available roster spots.
The Blues plan to carry 14 forwards and seven defensemen on the roster to open the season and with 12 forwards on one-way contracts and guaranteed spots, Grachev, Jonathan Cheechoo, Philip McRae and Ryan Reaves were the pre-camp favorites to win those spots. Reaves seems to have an edge on one of the spots, if only because he can play a solid game but also give the Blues a big brawler to insert into the lineup when they face teams who carry a heavyweight on the roster.
Through four pre-season games, it is Grachev who has made the biggest impression. He has scored three goals and added an assist in three games played. While McRae dominated at the prospects tournament and has looked good in camp and Cheechoo seems re-invigorated and has looked good at camp, in actual competition it is the big Russian who has stood out.
The Blues play again tonight, this time in Dallas, and finish with three more preseason games next week. By next Saturday the competition for these extra slots should be over, but if Grachev can continue to make an impact on the games and in camp, it'll be hard for the Blues to send another big body with a finishing touch down to the minors. In Cheechoo the Blues would be hoping he could regain his diminishing scoring touch, while keeping McRae they would be hoping that he can step up his game despite less playing time than if he goes to Peoria.
For now, it seems, the spot is Grachev's to lose.