After sitting out the first round of the 2019 draft, the Leafs had a chance on Tuesday night to make significant addition to their prospect pool thanks to a deal in which they acquired Pittsburgh’s 15th overall selection. There was plenty of speculation leading up to the draft that the Leafs would move the pick for immediate help, and it seems they may have been close to doing so after GM Kyle Dubas said they used the entire clock because they were in trade talks for the pick right down to the final second. He made sure to clarify the reasoning for them going down to the wire, stating there was no debate about who they were choosing if they kept the pick.
Kyle Dubas says Leafs went to time limit because trade discussions were ongoing. Leafs were not debating whom to pick at 15.
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) October 7, 2020
Following an unusual scene where commissioner Gary Bettman stepped to the podium to announce that Toronto’s time had run out and they needed to call a timeout or make the pick, Mitch Marner stepped in front of the camera in the Leafs’ makeshift war room to welcome Russian winger Rodion Amirov to the organization as Morgan Rielly stood behind him displaying a Leafs jersey with Amirov’s name stitched onto the back.
The pick was met with criticism by some members of the media and fans alike, with many seemingly disappointed that the Leafs opted for another offensively gifted winger rather than a player like Braden Schneider who plays a position and style the current Leafs roster lacks. But drafting to fill an immediate need on your roster is almost always a poor decision. The chances of any of the players that were available with the 15th pick stepping right into the NHL and making an impact are slim to none, never mind asking a teenage defenceman to be the one to come in and solve all the problems on the Leafs blue line. Remember Luke Schenn, who was drafted 5th overall?
In the three previous drafts, the Maple Leafs have selected 22 players and 11 of them have been defencemen. That includes their two most recent first round selections, Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin. To put things in perspective, Sandin is one of the more highly touted prospects in the hockey world over the last couple of seasons and even he is just now knocking on the door for a full time NHL job.
Drafting the best player on your board should always be the play, and whether you agree with the assessment or not, Amirov was the best player left on the Leafs’ board. The Leafs have drafted well during the early part of Dubas’ GM tenure, and they’ve been able to unearth players like Ilya Mikheyev and Mikko Lehtonen as well so there should be little concern over this regime’s ability to identify talent.
Jan 13, 2020: Rodion Amirov first VHL goal vs Neftyanik pic.twitter.com/dr2lpbnpbI
— HockeyRU20 (@HockeyRU20) January 13, 2020
They didn’t exactly go off the board either, with Amirov being ranked as high as 11th in places and landing at 17th on our consensus draft rankings.
One of the many incomplete truths that have been thrown around regarding the selection of Amirov is his production in his draft year, with the draft broadcast displaying his stat line of 2 points in 21 KHL games last season. First, it’s important to have an understanding of the structure of Russian hockey. The KHL is widely regarded as the second best league in the world behind the NHL, the VHL is something of a feeder system similar to the AHL in North America, and the MHL is the Russian under 20 league like we have here with the CHL and USHL. Amirov played in all three leagues as an 18 year old in 2019-2020.
|KHL||Salavat Yulaev Ufa||21||0||2||2|
As you can see, Amirov was much more productive playing against his peers with 22 points in 17 games at the U20 level. The fact that he was even playing in the KHL against men as an 18 year old speaks to his ability and maturity. Fast forward to this season, and Amirov already has three goals and two assists for five points in his first 10 KHL games of the year.
Another one of the incomplete truths, or outright falsities in this case, is that Amirov is just another small, soft Russian. I’ve spoken to scouts that have seen much more of him than I have who say that on top of his offensive skill, he is more than willing to engage along the boards and play through traffic.
Not one but two! 18-year-old Rodion Amirov scores his first KHL goals! pic.twitter.com/PmqyiqGJ3a
— KHL (@khl_eng) September 27, 2020
He is a fantastic skater who excels carrying the puck through the middle of the ice and he has great vision setting up his teammates for scoring opportunities. He also has outstanding puck skills and has the ability to make defenders look silly while taking the puck to the net himself, but he is a reliable defensive player as well.
Dubas on what #Leafs liked about Rodion Amirov: "His speed. We considered it to be amongst the best in the class. We liked his ability to find a way to make an impact at the KHL level. We like his game on and off the puck."
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) October 7, 2020
Amirov isn’t exactly small either, and his agent Dan Milstein was sure to point that out in an interview with the Athletic. Having just turned 19 years old a few days ago, there is still plenty of time for the young winger to add additional strength and muscle to his frame.
— Nick Richard (@_NickRichard) October 7, 2020
The Leafs prospect pipeline has fallen to the bottom of the league in recent years as they had a couple of mostly unsuccessful drafts under the guidance of Mark Hunter, but Dubas and his team of scouts have put their philosophy to work in the last two years adding exciting players like Nick Robertson, Mikhail Abramov, Mikko Kokkonen, and Nick Abruzzese, just to name a few, to the top of the organization’s prospect ranks. None of these players were drafted to step into the NHL lineup immediately, and Nick Robertson is the exception to the rule that these players take a while, but they are all still very good prospects and Rodion Amirov could be the best of the bunch.
(Statistics from eliteprospects.com)