TLN’s 2023 Offseason Leafs Prospect Rankings: #20 Dmitri Ovchinnikov

Photo credit:twitter.com/completehkynews
Filipe Dimas
11 months ago
We have updated the criteria from previous editions of TLN’s prospect rankings regarding who is considered a “prospect” for the purpose of this exercise. Rather than hard and fast limits on age or NHL games played, our group decided on a more nuanced approach to include any reasonably young player who is either under contract with the Leafs or on the club’s reserve list, who has not yet established himself as a full-time NHLer. This includes players such as Matthew Knies and Joseph Woll, who made strong impressions in limited NHL action last season and are expected to make the 2023-24 opening day roster but does not include late-bloomer Bobby McMann, who will also be vying for an NHL roster spot heading into his age-27 season.
TheLeafsNation would also like to acknowledge and honor the memory of 2020 first-round pick Rodion Amirov who tragically passed away after a courageous and inspiring battle against cancer. We offer our sincerest condolences to Rodion’s teammates, friends, and family in this difficult time.
For years now, Dmitri Ovchinnikov has remained one of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ most mysterious and debated prospects. Selected 137th overall in the fifth round of the 2020 NHL draft, the Russian winger has shown flashes of promise while remaining largely out of the spotlight due to political turmoil surrounding Russia and a sizable number of forward prospects ranked ahead of the 5’11 skater within the Maple Leafs’ system.
After being drafted, Ovchinnikov spent another two years playing in the MHL, Russia’s major junior system and the equivalent of the CHL. There, the young winger consistently excelled, averaging well over a point per game and 0.5 goals per game pace throughout his junior career, among the highest of all players in a relatively low scoring league. During that time, he received a few call ups to the KHL squad, and although counting stats may look poor during his first two KHL seasons (1 point over 16 games in 2020/2021 and 3 points over 17 games in 2021/2022) it’s important to remember that KHL teams rarely give teenagers any significant ice time, and the situation was no different here, with Ovchinnikov regularly recording less than two minutes per game.
The fact that Ovchinnikov was spending so much time with the KHL squad at all, was a good omen that there was something they liked in the teenager’s game, and wanted to ease him into the rigors of Russia’s highest level of competition, especially since his club (Sibir Novosibirsk) didn’t have a minor league affiliate.
After a cup of coffee with the Marlies at the end of the 2021-22 season, where he scored two goals in seven games, Ovchinnikov became a full-time KHLer in the 2022-23 season and was able to contribute while earning himself more ice time over the course of the season, eventually establishing himself as the team’s second line left winger. Despite all this experience, playing KHL games across four seasons, it’s important to remember that Ovchinnikov has yet to even turn 21 years old, doing so later this month.
Next year will be the largest test yet for the developing winger, as he’s joining a number of European Maple Leafs prospects, including Roni Hirvonen, Topi Niemela, and Dennis Hildeby, in playing for the Marlies full-time. This will give Maple Leafs coaches and supporting staff a better look at the winger and a chance to develop his game to a more North American style.
So what is it the Maple Leafs have in Ovchinnikov exactly? Since signing him to a three-year deal in February 2022, they’ve twice had him come over to play for the Marlies and train with MLSE staff at the conclusion of his season with Russia. Between that, and his aforementioned near-guarantee of a roster spot with the Marlies to begin the new year, there must be something that the franchise likes within the fifth-round pick.
After dominating against his peers in the MHL and holding his own against grown men and established pros in the KHL, Ovchinnikov has earned himself a closer look. The winger is a responsible and intelligent player, rarely taking penalties while playing with a level of awareness to his game rare for someone his age. He’s an excellent skater whose creativity with the puck makes him a devastating dual threat in transition, capable of both blowing past someone with his speed or using his hands to operate past defenders while finding an open teammate. 
While this may make him sound like yet another stereotypical, undersized European forward who’s all offence and no defence, Ovchinnikov’s speed, quick hands, and hockey IQ have also developed to improve his defensive game and forecheck as well. Take a look below at two assists he (wearing #97) recorded last year due to his stick control and agility while closing down on opposing puck carriers.
Many players attempting those same plays would simply get beat by the defender, or get their stick tied up in the opposition’s skates and penalized for an infraction. However, on those plays, Ovchinnikov showed not only the aforementioned excellent awareness, agility, and puck control but also exciting confidence in his ability and a calculated intelligence for knowing where the puck is going to be and finding the optimal route to intercept the puck carrier, reminiscent of the way an NFL safety may read a pass.
Of course, a few highlights and gifs don’t tell the full story of his game. Ovchinnikov still has developing to do, including adjusting to North American defensive systems, playing within his own end, and even developing his game when set up in the opponent’s end, as currently, much of his offensive output relies on scoring off the rush. While he has shown flashes of brilliance on the cycle, he’s shown a reliance on high-risk passes and trying to dance through defenders that is less likely to transition to an NHL level where defenders are bigger, smarter, and quicker to intercept a pass.
When he’s moving, Ovchinnikov is one of the most exciting prospects in the Maple Leafs system and a threat to make any highlight reel with his skating, hands, or shot. It’s when the game slows down to cycling the puck both on defense and offense that he struggles. Thankfully for the MLSE coaching staff, this deficit is entirely fixable through coaching, especially given the natural tools and instincts that the Russian winger already possesses. 
Currently listed at only 163lbs on his 5’11 frame, it may seem like Ovchinnikov needs to add some size to avoid the same fate as Nick Robertson, whose development has taken a step back due to injuries. However, it should be noted that the Russian winger is a far superior skater to Robertson and has already survived over 100 games playing in the KHL, where opponents are just as large as anyone in the AHL or NHL. Instead, Ovchinnikov’s game is not dissimilar to Johnny Gaudreau’s, using his smaller size as a positional advantage when battling for the puck, allowing the lower centre of gravity and closer to the ice, dominant stick hand to control the puck with the same in-tight agility that a point guard uses to dribble through opponents.
Despite barely making the top 20 this year and falling down our rankings list every year since being drafted, there’s a lot to be excited about with Ovchinnikov. He’s a raw prospect that has not only excellent physical gifts but also plenty of technical ability and natural hockey intelligence as well. With a full year of working alongside MLSE coaches and development teams, we could see him quickly grow into one of the franchise’s best-kept secrets, with the potential to be a pesky middle six forward that can be both a threat off the transition or the forecheck while devastating teams due to his speed and stick skills both with and without the puck.
Over the past decade, the Maple Leafs have shown an exciting tendency to draft and develop unheard of late-round picks out of Europe into regular NHLers. With players like Andreas Johnsson, Pierre Engvall, and Pontus Holmberg leading the way, one has to wonder if Ovchinnikov is the next late-round lottery ticket that the franchise will be cashing in on.
(Statistics from EliteProspects.com)

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