With the current Leafs’ management regime having a reputation for capitalizing on market inefficiencies such as trading down at the draft to acquire more picks, it turned some heads when they traded up in the fifth round of the 2020 draft in order to secure Russian forward Dmitry Ovchinnikov.
Ovchinnikov has continued to turn heads since, establishing himself as a legitimate prospect with stellar production in his draft+1 season where he netted 51 points in just 40 games – good enough for the third highest points per game mark among MHL players who suited up for at least 20 games. His strong play at the junior level earned him some time in the KHL but he was mostly relegated to bench warming duty as an 18-year-old.
The 2021-22 season was a similar story for Ovchinnikov and he racked up 29 points in just 22 games for Siberskie Snaipery. He had seemingly outgrown the MHL, and with Sibir being one of the few KHL clubs without a VHL affiliate, he was caught between being too good for the junior level but not yet gaining the full trust of his coaches in the KHL. He suited up for 17 KHL games but averaged just over five minutes of ice time per game, including five games where he played less than two minutes.
With Ovchinnikov’s development in mind, the Leafs stepped in and signed him to his entry-level contract which coincided with his KHL contract being terminated. He joined the Marlies late in the season and showed well in limited action but a somewhat stagnant year and lack of playing time at higher levels forced Ovchinnikov to fall ever so slightly in this year’s ranking after he landed in the 14th spot last summer.
W | Toronto (AHL) | Age: 19 | 5-foot-11 | 163 lbs | Shoots: L
Acquired: 2020 5th Round, 137th Overall | 2021 Ranking: 14
Though his overall rate of production in the MHL took a slight dip from the prior season, looking deeper into Ovchinnikov’s numbers at the junior level illustrates just how dominant he was against his peers. He graded out near the top of the league in just about every offensive category, save for individual shot generation. Unsurprisingly, however, he converted on his attempts at an extremely high rate, due in large part to his unwillingness to settle for low-danger shots.
The one area of concern looking at last year’s numbers is the amount of goals that Siberskie allowed when Ovchinnikov was on the ice but they were one of the worst teams in the MHL last season and in terms of being a net positive, he graded out quite well relative to his teammates.
After sorting through immigration and work visa issues, Ovchinnikov got into just seven games for the Marlies down the stretch, managing a pair of goals. Though he saw only limited action during his first stint of North American hockey, his confidence and comfort level seemed to grow with each passing game.
The hallmarks of Ovchinnikov’s game are his skating ability and intelligence. He is a versatile offensive threat who sees the ice very well and can beat opposing defenses in a variety of ways. Because of his fluid stride, four-way mobility, and the creative routes he takes in transition, he is a real weapon off the rush. He has good separation speed, the agility to weave through traffic, and the puck skills to execute difficult plays in stride. Check out this slick assist where he starts the breakout, carries the puck through the neutral zone, and beats the defender with a between-the-legs move before quickly slinging a backhand feed to his charging teammate:
On this play, he collects the puck at his own goal line and quickly skates it out of trouble before cruising through the neutral zone and sending his teammate in for a great chance that ends up in the back of the net:
Ovchinnikov is a strong transition player who creates a lot of clean zone exits and entries but he isn’t limited to generating offense off the rush. With the puck on his stick in the offensive zone, he balances patience with his ability to make quick reads and find teammates with difficult passes. Ovchinnikov consistently funnels pucks to high danger areas and is more than capable of connecting through layers of coverage. On this powerplay assist, he delays and forces the defender to commit, and then makes one quick move to change the angle on his blade to ensure his pass finds it’s mark:
Watch how he cuts across the ice on this play and draws the defenders toward him just long enough to open up the passing lane and find his teammate at the backdoor:
Though Ovchinnikov has more of a pass-first mentality, he also has the ability to create his own looks. He isn’t much of a volume shooter but he will let it rip from dangerous areas and he has a quality release that can beat goaltenders cleanly. His intelligence and sense of spacing in the offensive zone put him in good positions to score around the net, and his skating and puck skills allow him to take the puck into prime scoring areas on his own when he sees an opportunity.
Ovchinnikov’s offensive toolkit is enticing to say the least, but there is more to his game than flash and dash. His hockey IQ shows up on the defensive side of the puck as well, and though he suited up on the wing for the Marlies, he was mostly used as a center with his MHL club. He is still a physically immature player who can be pushed around a bit but he displays a strong work rate away from the puck for the most part, and seems to have a good understanding of his defensive responsibilities.
Ovchinnikov will patrol high in the zone on the forecheck to pounce on loose pucks and discourage opposing breakouts, or to cover for pinching defenders, and he has the ability to quickly turn those plays back in his team’s favor. He positions himself well in defensive transition to cut off passing lanes or jump in front of oncoming attackers, helping to limit clean entries for the opposition. He is far from perfect defensively, and can get caught drifting in defensive zone coverage from time to time but for a young player, he shows solid habits away from the puck that should only become more consistent over time.
Check out this shift as he hops off the bench to cut in front of an opposing player at the defensive blue line, breaking up the pass to deny the entry. He then positions himself along the wall in the neutral zone, makes a skilled play under pressure to help facilitate an offensive zone entry, and then stays above the puck on the forecheck, making sure his team doesn’t give up an odd-man rush the other way:
Set to turn 20-years-old in August and with just seven games under his belt with the Marlies, Ovchinnikov was a somewhat surprising absentee from the Leafs’ recent development camp. It could just be a case of a young player spending time with his family before returning to North America for an entire season, but it is worth noting all the same. Ovchinnikov remains under contract with the Leafs and given the way he was handled in Russia before signing his entry level contract, it would be a surprise if Toronto would want to loan him back to the KHL.
There is no shortage of uncertainty surrounding players based out of Russia but in all likelihood, Ovchinnikov will return for the Leafs’ main training camp this fall as he gets set to embark on his first full season in North America. He isn’t a threat to push for playing time in the NHL just yet but he has the potential to grow into a prominent role with the Marlies as the season progresses.
The main areas of focus for Ovchinnikov will be adding size and strength to his slight frame while continuing to adjust to the pace of the American Hockey League. He has all the tools to develop into a solid contributor with plenty of runway in front of him to do so, but the key will be figuring out how to make use of those tools when everyone is just a little bit smarter, stronger, and faster.
Ovchinnikov is still a long-term project but the Leafs have to be pleased with the early returns on their decision to trade up and select him in the fifth round of the 2020 draft. Despite limited opportunity against high-end competition, he has continued to show progress in his overall game and his upside remains high. It is difficult to place a ceiling on a player with Ovchinnikov’s offensive skill set but if he makes good on his potential, there is reason to believe he could eventually grow into a responsible middle-six winger capable of generating offense at the NHL level.
Sliding down one spot from last year’s TLN Prospect Rankings through no real fault of his own, Ovchinnikov might be the prospect most likely to outperform his place on our list this coming season. It’s always been about opportunity for him and no one should be surprised if he earns more opportunity with the Marlies this season and takes advantage of it to propel himself up the organizational depth chart.
(Statistics from EliteProspects.com)
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