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Photo Credit: KHL.ru

Kirill Semyonov, the Leafs forgotten center

There have been a lot of small moves over the summer, a lot of change, and it’s easy to see how someone could get lost in the shuffle of the bottom of the Leafs roster. To some extent that is what has happened with Kirill Semyonov, who along with Brennan Menell, is one of the Leafs newest KHL imports. As we counted down the prospects, Semyonov was excluded on account of him being too old for our definition of prospects, and while we’ve just started our countdown of top roster players, I don’t think I’m being a particularly big spoiler by acknowledging that Semyonov failed to make the cut on that list as well, with our voting panel favouring players like Pierre Engvall and Adam Brooks to almost completely unknown asset that is Kirill Semyonov.

The Semyonov signing didn’t have a lot of the hallmarks of other Russian signings. He wasn’t exactly setting the KHL on fire. Sure, he just won a Gagarin Cup, and he was an All-Star in the KHL in 2019, but only twice in his career has he exceed a .5 ppg total for the season, and only once has he had more than 30 points in a season (46 points in 62 games). He’s not bringing substantial offence to the mix, but that might be okay, given the Leafs more recent success with defensively strong Russians like Nikita Soshnikov, and (of course) Ilya Mikheyev, the latter being a former linemate of Semyonov.

While Mikheyev and Zaitsev had immediate staying power with the Leafs, players like Ozhiganov, Soshnikov, Lehtonen, and Barabanov had much rockier arrivals in Toronto, but all came to Toronto with the assumption that they would be Leafs, not Marlies. That is what makes Semyonov such an interesting player to consider. The fact that he is waivers exempt and lacks North American ice experience seems like it should make him a lock for starting the year with the Marlies, but the reality of KHL free agents is that there isn’t interest in playing in the AHL or drawing an AHL paycheck. I’m not sure I blame them on that, as uprooting your life probably means you want to play in the NHL. And while I don’t think the Leafs will necessarily gift anyone a position on their roster, especially this season, I wouldn’t rule out that the fourth line center position could be Semyonov’s to lose. That may be a strange thing to consider, especially since more than one of you forgot that Semyonov existed before reading this article.

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So let’s look at what Semyonov is before determining where he’ll fit into the Leafs training camp line rushes.

Semyonov has been a career middle six center in the KHL. He’s got a strong defensive game, kills penalties, and has been a consistent 10+ goal scorer in the 62 game KHL seasons. He’s not a prolific hitter, but his numbers increased in the playoffs during the championship run, so while he’s not going to be imposing his will on anyone, he’s capable. Less than a month into the season, Kirlll will be turning 27, so he’s not a youthful gamble like Soshnikov, Mikheyev, or Barabanov. The Leafs brought in Semyonov to see if he can excel in the bottom six role, and the move likely occurred as the original fall back plan for if Seattle selected Alex Kerfoot or Pierre Engvall, or the organization’s acknowledgement that a natural center will thrive in the bottom six center role more than converted wingers. To make things more interesting, the Leafs did their bizarre little dance with Jared McCann this summer, and added David Kampf as a potential third line center, meaning that the two bottom center roles could below to Kerfoot, Kampf, Engvall, Brooks, Semyonov, or even Spezza. While the depth is certainly encouraging, it’s a challenge to determine where Semyonov will wind up, and how good a chance he truly has of making the Leafs.

Making assumptions

The first few assumptions that need to be made are that the Leafs would prefer to use Alex Kerfoot as a top six winger rather than 3C, given the departure of players like Hyman, Foligno, and Galchenyuk. It’s also likely that Engvall’s NHL career will involve a lot more time on the wing, than at center, and we’ve already seen that Spezza is really only a center as a last resort. We could also make the assumption that the Leafs truly believe that Kampf can be their 3C, and he’s going to get every chance to prove he belongs there. With those assumptions, it really only comes down to Semyonov and Brooks competing for the 4C spot, and in that scenario it doesn’t seem like a stretch that the organization wants to try Semyonov in the role first with Brooks possibly being the reserve forward.

As for who Semyonov would play with, it seems that Mikheyev would be the obvious choice. While Mikheyev might not be thrilled about the icetime that goes along with being on Semyonov’s wing, there seems like there’s the potential that they could form 2/3rds of a very reliable line that clogs the neutral zone against their opponents bottom six group.

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Given the frequency that Mikheyev played with Engvall, it seems entirely possible that he could be the additional forward with that group, and together they could form the least fun line in hockey. Zero events, zero fun, but also zero goals against.

The other option is that they could be paired with Wayne Simmonds and the speed and positional play of Mikheyev and Semyonov could allow for Simmonds to step out of position to be a more aggressive checker, and help the Leafs establish a more physical game.

The final option is Ondrej Kase, who would really be an elevated version of Engvall, but if Semyonov seems to be competent as a center in the NHL, this could result in this line requiring less sheltering.

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No matter what the options are, and what promises might have been made at the time he signed, the feasibility of getting Semyonov into the roster doesn’t seem to be there, at least on day one. Matthews, Tavares, Marner, Nylander, Kerfoot, Kampf, Mikheyev, Ritchie, Bunting, Kase, Spezza, and Simmonds are seemingly the 12 forwards for opening night. There are injury concerns about Kase, Spezza and Simmonds might be platooning, and Bunting just might not make the cut if he has a bad camp, but that still leaves Engvall, Brooks, and Semyonov fighting for the right to sit in the press box. This is before considering that Nick Robertson could steal a roster spot too. With Robertson and Semyonov being the waivers exempt options, it might not matter how well Semyonov does, it could be a victim of asset management. While that is right call for the Leafs, it will be interesting to see it play out with Semyonov, especially if he does well in the next couple of weeks.