As Mitch Marner stepped up to the podium to begin the announcement for who Toronto would select at 15th overall, fans everywhere held their collective breath. Many thought that this year, one filled with uncertainty and unpredictability, would finally be the one. This would finally be the year the Leafs got a defensemen, one that would propel the franchise towards that ever elusive Stanley Cup.
But alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
Instead, following a brief stutter from Marner, the Maple Leafs elected to go with Russian teenager Rodion Amirov. I could almost hear all of Leaf Nation exclaim, “who?!” simultaneously. How could a team, one that was so desperately in need of a defensemen, take yet another small, speedy winger?
Once you dive deeper past the trolls of Twitter, it’s actually quite easy to see why Amirov is a valuable pickup for Toronto. Kyle Dubas has publicly voiced what he values in a player, which is pretty much everything Amirov emulates. With both Rasmus Sandin and Nick Robertson, both of whom are smaller players, being selected in the past couple of years, Dubas has established a pattern of sorts, one that has already begun to pay off.
Let’s find out what exactly the Leafs are getting in Amirov.
A Complete Game… For A Teenager
For starters, Amirov was widely regarded as one of the smartest and most well-rounded players of this draft, with some mock drafts having him just inside the top-10.
Amirov’s stats might not jump off the page, but he’s certainly one of those players that holds a ton of value once you look beyond the numbers. While not having the best skating ability, offensive awareness, or shot, Amirov undoubtedly possesses great skill in all aspects of his game, something that makes him an outstanding player.
Not to mention Amirov made his KHL debut at just 17-years-old and logged an average of 10 minutes of ice-time in a league that is notoriously unfriendly to teenagers. While putting up just two points in 21 games for Salavat Yulaev Ufa this past season, competing in a pro league at just 17 will certainly turn heads overseas.
The left winger is one of those rare players that excels in all facets of the game. He possesses a high hockey IQ and is responsible at both ends of the ice, something the Maple Leafs currently lack. Drawing comparisons to the likes of Mark Stone, expect Amirov to be making an impact in Toronto sooner rather than later.
Dubas Didn’t Draft By Need, A Good Move In The Long Run
Kyle Dubas did what he should’ve done. Instead of drafting by need, he took the best player available and walks away from Day One as a winner. While many expected him to take Brandon Wheat Kings defensemen Braden Schneider (19, NYR), or perhaps Prince Albert product Kaiden Guhle (16, MTL), Dubas’ decision to take the best player available will certainly pay off soon.
Believe it or not, the Maple Leafs actually have defensive resources at their disposal. Both Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren will be gunning for roster spots next season and Dubas certainly isn’t done dealing. Do they have needs that need to be addressed? Certainly. But drafting a project that will take a few years to arrive makes absolutely no sense.
A slight reminder for those who forgot, free agency opens this Friday. And while the Leafs don’t have an abundance of cap space, there’s still plenty of time for Dubas to reach into his bag of tricks.
I still find it comedic that a lot of Leafs Nation doesn’t trust Dubas at this point. He’s still a young GM and hasn’t really had a solid chance to prove himself since taking over and cleaning up the mess left behind by Lou Lamoriello. Then again, what would hockey trolls be if Leaf fans weren’t involved?
When Will Amirov Arrive In Toronto?
This is yet another reason why selecting Amirov was a no brainer for Toronto. Having two seasons of pro hockey under his belt already, which will greatly benefit his game both mentally and physically, the speedy Russian will be ready to transition to the NHL sooner than most.
He’s already played against men, while the majority of the 2020 draft class have simply played against teenagers. This gives Amirov a leg up on a lot of his counterparts and makes him that much more intriguing for the Maple Leafs moving forward.
Since Amirov is under contract with Salavat Yulaev Ufa until the end of the 2021-22 season, we won’t be able to see him on North American ice until two seasons down the road at the earliest. While we probably wouldn’t have seen him anyway, even if he wasn’t under contract, this is a good situation for Toronto to be in, as it gives an extra year for Amirov to develop in Russia. With that being said, on the premise that everything goes according to plan, we can expect to get first looks at Amirov when training camp opens for the 2021-22 season.
Another factor that more than likely impacted Toronto’s decision was the NHL’s flat salary cap. Because of the financial restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL was forced to keep the salary cap the same, something that handcuffs financially-pressed teams such as the Leafs. If that was indeed the case, the Amirov pick makes even more sense.
With the Leafs undoubtedly needing to invest internally with entry-level contracts to save money, Amirov can sign one and make an impact as soon as two seasons from now. This is a luxury that many other teams simply don’t have.
At the end of the day, many Leaf fans were upset with Dubas’ decision. While any mild-mannered fan would question the GM’s tactics, analytics and superior European scouting would suggest otherwise. Evidently, Dubas has kept this team on track and clearly has a plan for the future. And at the rate things are going, it’s certainly beginning to take shape.