Off the Radar: Gratchev, Berube and Wright

By Holly Gunning

Off the Radar spotlights players who are outside of an NHL organization, who possess potential. This month, three pro rookies are spotlighted. Two have recently been called up to the AHL. All three are 21 years old and coming off out of Canadian juniors.

Maxime Gratchev, F

Gratchev was a fourth-round draft pick of the New York Islanders in 2007, but went unsigned.

With something to prove, he signed with the ECHL Elmira Jackals this season and scored 20 points in 17 games, placing him tied for fourth among league rookies. His success has gotten him called up to Binghamton of the AHL. Gratchev had been playing on a line with the Donati twins, Justin and Tyler, who are league leaders in scoring, but the 5’11 198-pound Gratchev was certainly not riding their coat tails.

"He’s a heck of a rookie, plays real hard," Jackals head coach and director of hockey operations Steve Martinson said of Gratchev. "Can really skate, great acceleration and shot. He’s got a great future."

As far as what Gratchev needs to work on, Martinson said like all rookies, he needs to get better defensively, be smarter and harder to play against. Work on positioning, and being strong on the puck.

"Right now he’s kind of a ‘go’ guy — he gets the puck and he goes," Martinson said.

Mike Berube, D

Last year, Berube played for a very good Vancouver Giants team. This year, he’s on an AHL Hartford contract. He’s played the whole year for the ECHL Charlotte Checkers, but was recalled today to Hartford. Berube has four points in 16 games and his +11 ties him for the best plus/minus on the team with his defensive partner T.J. Reynolds. It also ties him for the second best plus/minus among league rookies.

"He’s played well, he keeps the game simple," Checkers general manager and head coach Derek Wilkinson said. "The last couple years of junior he was like +30, +35, and you can see why. He doesn’t put himself in bad spots, puts the puck in good spots for his teammates. He’s a smart player, that’s why he’s so effective. He’s tough too, he’ll fight and scrap."

Berube is happy with his season so far, noting the lifestyle change to pro and the greater strength of the players compared to junior. The 6’1 215-pounder credited defensive partner Reynolds, 28, with helping him adjust.

As far as what Berube needs to work on, Wilkinson said "He’s got to work on his foot speed a little bit. Here, he’s doing fine, but to take that step up to be a dominant defenseman at this level and get to the American League, he’s got to improve his foot speed. But he’s a great character kid — he’ll find a way I think. He’s a kid who should get some chances if he keeps developing."

Berube’s mobilty is good, and he’s a smooth skater, just not as quick off the mark as he’ll need to be to move up.

"He’s working hard on his core and his legs, getting his body from a boy’s body to a man’s body," Wilkinson said. "He’s young yet and he works at it."

Berube said he does quick-feet ladder exercises at least twice a week with the Checkers athletic trainer. And every summer back home in Edmonton, he works with skating coach Stephanie Hanlon of Quantum Speed.

If he can improve the skating, he’ll bring some much-needed attributes to a team: smart passes out of the zone, and a physical edge — things that don’t often go together. Berube shrugs off the strange juxtaposition of puck-moving and toughness though, since these have been his strengths his whole life and it doesn’t seem odd to him.

Berube had to work his way up in the WHL, which he credited with the formation of his work ethic. Never drafted, he caught the eye of the New York Rangers organization. Wilkinson said that Hartford sees Berube as a late bloomer who is still blooming.

"When they signed him and told us we were getting him, that was the scouting report on him — he came into junior and no one really knew about him. He found his way, played important minutes and he’s doing the same thing here and gives the impression he’s going to continue to do that."

Ben Wright, D

Wright was a fourth-round draft pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2006, but went unsigned.

After four years with the WHL Lethbridge Hurricanes, Wright worked out with the University of New Brunswick this fall, with the intention of turning pro. Wright said that the coach there wanted him to come and work out and get a feel for the place, with the knowledge that he was playing pro this year. Wright said he’s interested in going to college after his pro career is over.

The 6’2, 196-pounder attended Norfolk Admirals training camp, but didn’t get a long look there.

On offensive defenseman in junior, Wright is on Elmira’s second power play unit, has posted five points in 17 games and is +2. In junior, he took on some enforcing duties on his team, but does not need to that on the Jackals, who have a tough line-up.

"He sees the ice well and makes a good pass," Martinson said. "We pulled the goalie one night and he scored a goal with :30 seconds left to tie the game."

On what Wright needs to do to move up: "He’s got to work on his skating and he knows that," Martinson said. "But what he makes up for there is that he’s a good team guy, he’s unselfish and he’s in good shape."