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Photo Credit: Newfoundland Growlers Twitter Account

Kristians Rubins: Latvian Lightning

When the Leafs signed Filip Kral and Kristians Rubins earlier this week, they made a withdrawal from the Rainy Day Fund.

The two left handed defencemen both showed much improvement this season, earning Entry Level Contracts when most 5th round picks and undrafted players do not.

Kral is no longer eligible for the Canadian Hockey League, and will be transitioning to pro whether it is at the AHL or ECHL level. Judging by the paths of Joseph Duszak and Mac Hollowell, Kral will likely start next season with the Newfoundland Growlers. The Leafs organization has committed over the past few years to using the ECHL as the third tier in their development system, and Kral would benefit from playing top minutes in a pro setting.

Rubins on the other hand was already playing for the Marlies, and will look to take on a top 4 role for them next season. Here’s what I wrote about him in the aforementioned article;

This year Rubins has spent the full season with the Marlies, with 14 points in 45 games to date. His combination of size and puck moving ability are difficult to find in the AHL, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Leafs sign the 22 year old to a 2 year ELC in the offseason.

Now that Rubins has signed, let’s take a deeper look at how he got here.

Recognition

Rubins was playing u18 in Latvia at 15 years old, before moving to Sweden to work his way through the VIK Vasteras system. In 2015-16, his play in Sweden’s SuperElit league landed Rubins a spot on Latvia’s World Junior Division 1A team.

This is where the Leafs likely would have first seen Rubins, as he was playing with 2015 3rd round pick Martins Dzierkals at the tournament. Latvia ended up winning division 1A and being promoted to the top division of the World Juniors for the following season.

While this was his draft year, Rubins did not get much of a look in the 2016 NHL draft. He had not been in front of many scouts in Sweden’s vast development system, but he did earn an invite to a Winnipeg Jets prospect tournament. He was also selected in the first round of the CHL import draft by the Medicine Hat Tigers.

Rubins was just under 0.5 P/G in his WHL rookie season, which was enough for Future Considerations to rank him 207th as an overager in the 2017 NHL draft. He also played in in the World Juniors with Dzierkals this season, this time in the top division. Again Rubins was not drafted, but he turned some heads along the way.

In his final WHL season there was not much statistical improvement, but Rubins did have a strong playoff with 4 points in 6 games. That would be all for Medicine Hat in the WHL playoffs, but Rubins kept his season alive by joining Latvia for the World Championships.

2018 World Championships

This is where I was able to watch the most extensive film of Rubins before he joined the Marlies, and it was valuable to watch him play pro level competition. While there was not many highlight worthy plays from Rubins at the WC, he had a good body of work. He was +1 with 2 points in 8 games, on a team that was outshot and outscored, and he was just 20 years old.

At the international level Rubins seems more free to skate into space, and jump in off the rush. He is big and physical in the corners, but not exceptional at denying zone entries. Most importantly though, for a man his size he can skate.

At 0:50, watch Rubins (94) turn on the jets to make a drive to the net and give the puck carrier an option after the entry.

In the next video, Rubins’ ability to keep the puck in at the blue line leads directly to a Pontus Aberg goal. While it is an assist, that was not the important part of the play to me. As soon as Aberg secures the puck, Rubins makes a cut towards the front of the net. It changes the play from a two on two to a miniature odd-man rush, and gives Aberg enough room to load up for a shot. This is something you see smaller, more offensive minded defensemen like Travis Dermott and Mac Hollowell doing a lot because of their agility, but Rubins is very effective at it too.

In fact, you might find Rubins down by the goal line a lot.

He can fire it, too.

I have not seen him take many slapshots from the point though.

A few highlights doesn’t tell the full story of a player, but I wanted to be able to highlight a couple key elements of Rubins’ game. Obviously he is big at 6’4″ and 220 pounds but he is agile enough to join the rush, and has the straight line speed to become an option. He shows signs of strong offensive awareness, but makes calculated risks on when to jump in. On the defensive side of the puck he uses his big frame well, but could do more with his reach.

Experience within the Leafs system

After he completed his WHL season and World Championships, Rubins next appeared at the Leafs development camp. He had a good showing there, and earned an opportunity in Leafs main camp. From The Leafs Rainy Day Fund;

I was fortunate enough to attend the Leafs 2018 training camp in Niagara Falls, where I first saw Kristians Rubins.

He was one of over 70 players listed on the roster, but one of very few with no prior connection to the Leafs. At first he caught my eye because of his size (6’4″), but he was paired with Timothy Liljegren and played a lot in the games I watched. He could move the puck pretty well and wasn’t a bad skater for his size, so I made note of him and awaited the roster cuts.

Eventually Rubins was also cut from Marlies camp but signed an ECHL deal with the Growlers. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a 20 year old Latvian with two years of North American experience, but he signed an AHL deal before November could roll around.

The biggest takeaway from his first pro season in North America was that regardless of who was his coach, Ryan Clowe or John Snowden or Sheldon Keefe, they trusted him to play in a top 4 role at 20/21 years old.  That says a lot about a defenceman, especially one who was undrafted and joined the organization on an ECHL deal.

In case it is not clear how much confidence coaches have in Rubins, consider that both Joseph Duszak and Mac Hollowell split time between the ECHL and AHL this year, while Rubins played more games for the Marlies than any D besides Teemu Kivihalme. Rubins is actually younger than Duszak, and would have been drafted one year later.

It’s difficult to compare Rubins to Duszak or Justin Holl though, as the latter two had at least 3 years of NCAA hockey on their resume before turning pro. Rubins was already a pro in Latvia and Sweden before playing in the WHL, and even had international experience for Latvia. His trajectory is going to be different because of that, and honestly there are not many NHL players to compare him to considering his path.

Just knowing the tools Rubins has, and his ability to quickly earn the trust of his coaches, he is going to be an important Marlie for the next two years. He could be stuck behind Martin Marincin or Calle Rosen to start next season, but looking at Hollowell, Duszak, and Jesper Lindgren on the right side Rubins is the only lefty their age. He will have an opportunity to play big minutes with them, and eventually compete for a recall from the Leafs.

Rubins has shown over the past two seasons just how quickly he can adapt, but it is too early to say if that will take him all the way to the NHL.  If the Leafs can develop him into a reliable NHL defenceman, they have a cost controlled option they signed out of the ECHL. His upside is likely not more than a bottom pairing defenceman, but he has the speed that the NHL is trending towards and the size the Leafs lack on their blue line. 

If Rubins does manage to appear for the Leafs, he would be the first Latvian to do so.