Nobody's calling him Garbagekov anymore.
All those trashy giveaways that used to end up in a smelly heap inside Edmonton's net have become a thing of the past for defenceman Denis Grebeshkov, and a career that seemed destined for the scrap heap when he first came here is headed in a bright new direction.
Nobody's exactly sure why, or how, but a guy who used to cough up so many pucks he could have been a Pez dispenser has evolved into a top four defenceman who's still getting better by the week.
"It was as dynamic a change as I've ever seen any player make in a short period of time," said head coach Craig MacTavish, who remembers watching the 25-year-old Russian handle the puck like it was a live grenade last fall. "All of a sudden it just clicked with him."
It happened almost overnight. One game he was feeding pucks up the middle of his own zone like he'd just graduated from the Peter Worrell Hockey School and the next he was one of Edmonton's most reliable defencemen.
PLUS PLAYER IN A HURRY
A whopping minus-9 in his first 16 games, Grebeshkov shored up his game so effectively that over the final 31 games of the season he was only a minus player five times. He was the only full-time blueliner who finished in the black (+2).
"I'm just trying to pick up where I left off last year," said Grebeshkov, who opened the season with two assists, 21 minutes of ice time and a plus-one rating against Colorado. "I'm even more comfortable and confident than I was last season."
Even he isn't sure what turned it around for him, only that it happened pretty fast.
"I actually don't know. Maybe it was the opportunity I got to play a lot last year because of all the injured guys. That helped me a lot. I really don't know. I just picked up my game somewhere and the coach started believing in me and they started playing me more and more. It just happened."
And now a guy they were almost afraid to put out there is putting a spook in the other teams. He can carry the puck and make the good first pass and he can play the first unit power play.
"The one area he was getting beat early last year was just moving forward in the neutral zone," said MacTavish. "When he became more patient in that respect his whole game settled in. He has exceptional skill and as good as he is offensively he's probably better defensively."
Tom Gilbert has noticed a big change in his defence partner.
"I think he's just got a lot of confidence," he said. "He has great patience with the puck and he sees the ice really well. Those are assets when you're playing defence that are huge. And he can skate, too. Once he gets all three of those going it makes the game a lot easier. You give him the puck he can make a play with it."
Despite the poor start to his Oilers career, Grebeshkov, who came here from the Islanders in the Marc Andre Bergeron trade, never shared the fan base's fear about him.
"My confidence wasn't that good, but at the same time I knew all I had to do was just work hard," he said. "I knew I had everything to play in the NHL. I thought that at some point it was going to work out."
COACHES STUCK WITH HIM
It has. Good thing the coaches weren't as quick to give up on him as the fans and media were.
"Coaches are game to game (when it comes to their opinion on a player)," MacTavish said. "That's why we never get the keys to the vault. The one thing that we saw in him, though, was coachability; he was really receptive, a very coachable person.
"A couple things we did in a couple of practices really resonated with him. He's going to be a great defenceman for a lot of years."