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Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton / USA TODAY Sports

2016-17 Leafs’ Season in Review: Nikita Soshnikov

Up next in our year-in-review series is Nikita Soshnikov.

This past year, Soshnikov initially broke in as a lineup mainstay, playing on the Leafs’ fourth line for the first two-thirds of the season. Then, unfortunately, shortly after the trade deadline he went down with an undisclosed injury (likely upper-body), and never made it back. With the way Kasperi Kapanen eventually came in and made an impact in his first real call-up for the Leafs, it’s unclear if Soshnikov could have gotten back in there even if he recovered. Either way, a tough end to a decent season up until March.

So where does this put Soshnikov in the overall plans of the Leafs? Well, even though he’s known to be a favourite of Mike Babcock’s, he’s sort of in a weird spot (as are many others) due to competition within the organization.

But we’ll look at that later. For now let’s get back to the season we just saw.

Strengths

The two keys to Soshnikov’s presence in the lineup are his speed and physicality. He isn’t a big guy (listed at 5’11), but he mucks it up a lot and initiates contact on the forecheck. Those attributes make him an especially good penalty-killer to boot.

Soshnikov does have some decent scoring touch for a depth player, but it seems that was muted this season alongside weak linemates. He finished the season with just nine points in 56 appearances, apparently riding his wave from the previous season aground.

Unfortunately for Soshnikov, his injury came about not long after Brian Boyle joined the team, so he didn’t get a proper look with a competent centre. As touched on by Dr. Aglikepull yesterday, when you’re primarily out there with players like Matt Martin and Ben Smith, all offence and pace seems to get stifled. It seems Soshnikov could be a victim of that, given those were his primary linemates.

Weaknesses

Soshnikov hasn’t really shown to be a strong play-driver, clipping along at just 47.6% score-adjusted Corsi (-2.5% relative) at evens this past season. But it’s worth noting his most common linemates were Matt Martin, Ben Smith, and Freddie Gauthier, in that order. Pulling him apart from those guys is difficult since it provides such a small sample. For instance, Kadri would be next on the list with just 78 mins played with him, but that Sosh-Naz-Leo trio did look solid in their limited time together, up around 54% score-adjusted Corsi (via Datarink).

Essentially, until we get more of a look at Soshnikov at the NHL level, hopefully with some better talent around him, there isn’t much to pick on yet. He looks to be a fine fourth-liner, and the Leafs should try to ensure they have room for him to be a part of the team next season. Considering his skating level and willingness to engage, I don’t expect Soshnikov to be a weak possession player going forward on an improving club, if he can, in fact, stick here with a better centre to play with. [I’m praying Toronto can manage to bring Boyle back at a nice price point].

Looking Ahead

Nikita Soshnikov, Kerby Rychel, Josh Leivo, Zach Hyman, Kasperi Kapanen, and Brandon Leipsic. That’s a lot of borderline players vying for a limited amount of depth wing slots next year. Out of that group, I’d expect Kapanen to likely take a jump up the roster, but that would still push another guy down into this list. This is all exacerbated by the fact Matt Martin will be locked into the other 4W.

For those reasons, it’s not a guarantee Soshnikov is a consistent part of this team in 2017-18, despite the 56-game break-in season he’s coming off. His waiver-exempt status next season makes him an easier target to send to the Marlies over someone like Leivo or Rychel, for example, even assuming one of those guys heads to Vegas. It’s great to have fringe players in case injuries pop up (and they will), and right now that appears to be the extent of what Soshnikov will be bringing to the table, for better or worse.