With the Toronto Maple Leafs first-round draft choice that general manager Kyle Dubas received when he traded Kasperi Kapanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins in August, the Maple Leafs chose Russian forward Rodion Amirov. Two current Maple Leafs players also got involved in the announcement. Forward Mitch Marner announced his team’s pick with defenseman Morgan Rielly help up a jersey with Amirov’s name printed on it.
Now the biggest question about Rodion Amirov is “Who’s he?” During the remainder of this post, I’ll try to share what I’ve found.
More About Rodion Amirov
Amirov is a Russian winger who seems to do a bit of everything well; he has an offensive upside and plays some defense as well. Although he doesn’t address the Maple Leafs immediate needs, if he’s ready to play sooner rather than later he might jump to the team in a couple of seasons.
Currently the 6-foot, 180-pound Amirov plays for the Ufa Salavat Yulayev KHL team in his hometown of Slavat, Russia. This is his second season with the club. Last season, as a “designated junior” (a designation that means he didn’t count against the team’s roster limits), he played only 21 games and scored two assists. This season as a 19-year-old, he’s already played 10 games and has scored three goals and two assists. He’s averaging 15 minutes per game against players much older and stronger.
Many NHL scouts believe Amirov has the potential to become an effective offensive player at the NHL level. He was so good in the MHL (Russia’s junior league) that he graduated to the KHL as a youngster. He has international experience and was one of the top forwards at the 2019 U-18 World Championship. Obviously, Amirov’s young and needs to fill out as he ages, but the belief is that he could become a top-six forward one day.
What Do the Scouting Reports Tell Us about Amirov?
The scouting reports seem to be all over the map on Amirov. For example, Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino’s final draft rankings report that Amirov is a player who is “slight of frame with high-end skills. Will need to clean up inconsistent play and add bulk and strength to the frame.”
Elite Prospects 2020 Draft Guide notes that Amirov “strikes with strong habits, deploying crossovers through arced attacks on the rush, made all the more potent with a nice variety of rush patterns through the neutral zone preceding these forays. His anticipation, the ability to see plays before they develop, is one of his high-level tools.”
Scott Wheeler of The Athletic notes that “The strength of Amirov’s game is in his ability to protect the puck and change directions with control. This makes him particularly effective within the offensive zone because I wouldn’t say his straightaway speed is all that high end. Amirov is dangerous because he takes what’s given to him (he’s not a pass-first player but he doesn’t tunnel-vision the net as a shooter either), and he can carry the puck into the slot to draw pressure or create for himself. (from “Wheeler: Updated ranking for the 2020 NHL Draft’s top 100 prospects, Scott Wheeler, The Athletic, 21/09/20).
Finally, Kevin Papetti of Maple Leaf Hot Stove, noted “Amirov is one of the older players in this draft class and already carries a fairly significant track record. After leading Russia in scoring in last year’s U18 tournament while playing on a line with Vasili Podkolzin, we can expect him to be one of his team’s top scorers at this year’s World Juniors (assuming the tournament takes place). He also has 21 KHL games under his belt. Given that he also played at the Hlinka-Gretzky and World Junior A Challenge, every scout in the world is probably familiar with his game by now.”
Papetti adds, “He’s a well-rounded player who can help his team in a variety of different ways. He’s fairly big, carries the puck well, goes to the high-danger area, moves the puck effectively, and offers a fair amount of shooting talent. A good forechecker who can generate takeaways, he’s also an above-average skater. He just always seems to be one of the better players on the ice. The Amirov-Podkolzin duo has been a force to be reckoned with when paired together.”
Again, Papetti notes, “His size and speed combination makes him a relatively safe pick, but his transition skill and scoring ability also give him first-line upside. He dominated in the MHL on a line with Alexander Pashin this year. I think he might only be a year away from being NHL ready. I expect him to be a bit of a steal on draft day, as I think he’s a rather safe bet to be a top-six winger. He’s a standout in transition, offers two-way potential with his speed and size, and he doesn’t have many clear flaws.”
Why Did the Maple Leafs Pick Amirov?
In many ways the Maple Leafs didn’t make their fans happy by choosing Amirov. Many in fact believed Dubas had thrown the draft choice away. Honestly, who knows? I cannot presume to know more than the team’s scouts and brain trust within the organization.
I do understand the need to draft for the future and keep players coming up through the organization that are on inexpensive contracts as a way of supporting the core of Maple Leafs players who are now quite well-paid roster members. I also, as I read about the work of the Maple Leafs Director of Player Evaluation Jim Paliafito, tend to trust his ability to ascertain who’s a good prospect or not. In fact, I continue to hear that he’s by far the best scout in Russia.
There’s also a sense that Dubas isn’t liked that much by many Maple Leafs fans and any choice he would have made would have been undermined by a certain segment of the fandom.
But those who know Dubas philosophy can’t be surprised that he drafted skill and speed when he drafted this Russian 18-year-old hockey player and thought more about the future than his team’s current needs. That likely means Dubas couldn’t pull off the trade he wanted.
All that said, NHL scouts often comment about Amirov’s compete level and his ability to score. However, because he wasn’t Kaiden Guhle, the tough, young defenseman the Montreal Canadiens choose with their next pick, fans were upset. Perhaps it’s the same fans that thought Nick Robertson was too small and had no character.
By the way, Amirov was the first Russian player chosen in the draft and the first Russian player ever picked by the Maple Leafs during the first round of any NHL Draft. Finally, the Maple Leafs hadn’t selected a forward during the opening round of the draft since Auston Matthews went first overall in 2016.
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