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Kristians Rubins is the Leafs 18th ranked prospect

Kristians Rubins left home in Latvia as a 15 year old to pursue his hockey dreams. He was headed to the Swedish VIK Vasteras system. His late birthday (December 11, 1997) meant he had just turned 16 when he was selected to Latvia’s WJC-18 team. The following season, when he was turning 17, Rubins represented Latvia in both the WJC-18 and WJC-20 D1A, where he had 4 points in 5 games.

From a very young age Kristians Rubins has been playing up to a high competition level, and earning the trust of his coaches. As a 6’4″ LD, that can take him a long way in this sport. Sparing some of the details for later on in this prospect ranking, Rubins possesses many of the attributes that makes modern big-bodied defencemen successful. The winding path he took to gather those attributes is why he is relatively unheard of.

RANK – GRADE – NHL READINESS

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18TH – C – 1-2 YEARS

Position: Left Defence

Age: 22

Height: 6’4″

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Weight: 220 lbs

Shoots: Left

Drafted: No

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What kind of player is he?

Just looking at his height and weight, you can infer he’s a shutdown defenceman. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but Rubins was not always that way. He comes from a family of athletes, and chose hockey because of the speed. He took figure skating lessons before he moved to Sweden to play pro. He’s a quick learner, now fluent in Latvian, Swedish, and English. There is so much more to his game than just size.

I first saw Rubins at the Leafs 2018 training camp in Niagara, Ontario. At the time I was writing about Timothy Liljegren, who had bulked up as a 19 year old, so I was keeping a close eye to see if he had a shot at the NHL roster. Liljegren performed well but also had high expectations, so it was surprising to see his D partner playing just as well. This tall, lanky defenceman was a surprisingly good skater who was smooth with the puck, and consistently found an open teammate to move the puck up ice.

I didn’t recognize him so I looked at the training camp roster, #98 Kristians Rubins. He was listed as an ECHL contract on the PDF, but was in the WHL the year prior. He was the only player, out of 77 invites, there on an ECHL deal. That was really intriguing to me so I shifted my focus and watched him for the rest of the day.

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The Leafs were split into 3 teams for training camp so they would cycle between scrimmaging and drills on two different ice pads. When he was working with the puck, Rubins was unexceptional. He made good, hard passes, but often hesitated to get them off. It was without the puck where I noticed his footwork, his effortless pivots, his grace while engaging a puck carrier. Combine that with a long stick and Rubins was neutralizing some of the Leafs top forwards in drills.

Being able to close the gap and engage with smaller players without getting burned with speed is what sets Rubins apart from the Martin Marincins of the world, who rely on an active stick to keep puck carriers to the perimeter. Rubins’ willingness to engage early prevents forwards from gaining the zone so easily with possession, when paired with a partner like David Quenneville who retrieves pucks it allowed Medicine Hat to execute quick breakouts.

With the puck, Rubins has the hockey IQ to make good passes and defer to his partner on breakouts. He is agile and willing to move around the offensive zone to create opportunity.

By the numbers

In Rubins’ draft year he was playing for Vasteras’ J20 team, but it was his performance at the World Juniors that made him stand out. He recorded only 1 point but helped promote Latvia to the top WJC division, alongside Leafs draft pick Martins Dzierkals, Panthers draft pick Rodrigo Abols, and Sharks draft pick Karlis Cukste.

It wasn’t enough to get drafted to the NHL, but being selected by Medicine Hat in the 2016 CHL import draft gave Rubins his next opportunity. He settled into the WHL quickly, and recorded 24 points in 49 games as an 18 year old. He would also join Latvia’s WJC-20 team for the 3rd time that season, finally with Latvia in the top WJC division.

His success in Canada led to Rubins being ranked by some scouting services for the 2017 NHL draft, but Rubins went undrafted a 2nd time. He returned to Medicine Hat and recorded 27 points in 60 games, 2nd on his team amongst Defenceman. In first was Devils pick David Quenneville with 80 points, a 5’8″ RD who found success playing beside Rubins.

Rubins capped off the 2017-18 season with a trip to the World Championship to represent Latvia. This is likely where the Leafs made a decision to invest in Rubins, as they were closely watching Nikita Zaitsev be a top D for Russia in that tournament. Shortly after the WC, Rubins signed an ECHL contract with the Newfoundland Growlers for 18-19.

That ECHL contract lasted all of a month, as Rubins was signed and playing for the Marlies before he turned 21. As the Marlies got players back from injury Rubins was loaned back to the ECHL, where he would settle in and record 18 points in 56 games for the Growlers. Oh, and he won the Kelly Cup, playing in the top 4 en route to an ECHL championship.

Rubins rode that momentum into the 19-20 season, when he graduated to the AHL and never looked back. 14 points in 47 games for the Marlies isn’t eye-popping numbers, but he gained the trust of his coaches, just as he had done with every team prior. In the beginning of the season it was Sheldon Keefe who kept Rubins in the lineup, when Keefe was promoted replacement Greg Moore couldn’t keep him off a stacked Marlies blue line.

The trust that Rubins built with Keefe helped him secure a 2 year ELC, back when that was signed I did a breakdown of Rubins’ game with some video.

What’s next for Rubins?

Until the AHL season starts Rubins is on loan to the Frederikshavn White Hawks of Denmark. Also on loan to Frederikshavn is San Jose’s Joachim Blichfeld and Bakersfield’s (AHL) Liam Folkes. Rubins has the most points out of those three, with 2 goals and 1 assist in 9 games. There isn’t many good comparisons for Denmark statistically, nor is there many reports on Metal Ligaen games, so you just have to assume playing anywhere is better than not playing at all.

Whether he puts up 10 or 50 points in Denmark it doesn’t change much, Rubins is going to be on the Marlies when the AHL opens up. By my count he’s the 8th LD on the depth chart, but the reality of some LD playing the right side means Rubins can step into a top 4 role for the Marlies.

Looking ahead to 2021-22, Rubins will be contending for the 7D spot on the Leafs. I’d argue the Leafs will expose multiple D better than the forwards they expose in the expansion draft, and are likely to lose a D. Even if that’s someone like Holl or Dermott, the Leafs have Sandin and Liljegren ready to step in.

Lehtonen (who is quite good), Bogosian, Marincin, and Rosen are UFA after this season, leaving Teemu Kivihalme and Rubins under contract as the contenders for 7D. If the Leafs are not in a position cap-wise to sign a UFA D, Rubins has the potential to grow into a really good 7D by then for $785k. However, every time I look back on an article like this the Leafs add more depth than I expected and change my expectations.

It is more likely Rubins remains on the Marlies for 2021-22 to develop into a top AHL defenceman. He is waiver exempt until 2023, and it never hurts to have an over-qualified 6’4″ defenceman on standby. That would be the position Martin Marincin normally occupies, and Rubins in my opinion can be a huge improvement. He’s won a Championship with the Growlers, he’s earned the trust of every coach currently in the organization, and he still has room to grow.

The consensus opinion is that’s where Rubins tops out, as a 6/7 defenceman. Personally, I think Rubins’ skating ability gives him the potential to be a 4/5 like Justin Holl. A high-end comparable would be Latvian legend Karlis Skrastins, a reliable defenceman mostly for the Predators and Avalacnche. Skrastins was a 6’2″ LD who had a 495 game Iron Man streak, captained Latvia at the Olympics, and recorded 136 NHL career points.

Whatever he becomes, Rubins has all the right tools to be a solid depth defencemen, and is under team control for the foreseeable future. His $785k AAV deal expires RFA in 2022, and he doesn’t reach UFA until 2025.