Masters: There wasn't much debate about picking Amirov, Leafs love his speed, poise
TORONTO — The Maple Leafs waited for all of their allotted five minutes to expire before making the 15th selection in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft on Tuesday, but ultimately no incoming offers could dissuade Toronto from plucking left wing Rodion Amirov, of the KHL’s Ufa Salavat Yulayev, off the board.
“There were a number of trade situations that we were considering,” said general manager Kyle Dubas on a Zoom call after the first round wrapped up Tuesday night. “But if we were going to make the pick, it wasn't at all a discussion of Rodion versus anybody else. We were just contemplating all the different scenarios that were coming in. We were excited to have a chance to take him when we did.”
The 6-foot, 167-pound Amirov just turned 19 on Oct. 2, and has notched seven points (three goals, four assists) in 31 games with Ufa of the KHL over the last two years. He also did a stint with that club’s farm team in the VHL, producing two points in three games earlier this season.
Touted as a strong two-way player with good playmaking ability and finish, the Salavat, Russia, native fits the Leafs’ mould of coveting smaller, faster offensive players.
Not only has Amirov been working his way through the KHL system, he was a dominant presence for Russia’s national team at the 2019 U-18 tournament, tallying six goals and nine points in seven games en route to their silver medal win.
That resume to date showed the Leafs plenty about Amirov that’s worth getting excited about.
“[The] number one [thing] is his speed,” Dubas said. “We considered it to be amongst the best in the [draft] class. We liked his ability throughout last year and then into this season as well to find a way to make an impact at the KHL level. He’s played for the national team and played well there. When he's not producing he's able to contribute using his speed on the penalty kill, forechecking. We really like his game on and off the puck.
The global COVID-19 pandemic prevented Dubas from ever travelling to Russia himself and seeing Amirov play live, but Dubas did see the newest Leaf in person at the 2019 Canada-Russia series (where Amirov scored one goal and three points in five games). From there, Dubas relied on Toronto’s staff to bridge the gap with technology.
“I feel like I've watched every single one of his games in the course of the [NHL] pause,” Dubas admitted. “Our video and scouting staff did a great job of making that readily available to us so it's been good to be able to spend a lot of time watching all these players.”
Amirov remains under contract with Ufa for the remainder of this season, and Dubas said the Leafs will evaluate his status when that pact ends to determine a next step. But at this point Toronto predicts it will be some time before Amirov could be a top contributor in the NHL.
“By the time he's at his peak and getting into his potential and entering into his prime, it's five years from now,” Dubas said. “The guys who are part of our core [now] will all be nearing 30. I think we certainly envision [Amirov], because of his ability on and off the puck, to be able to play up with our top players, with his speed, with his playmaking ability and his ability to drive possession and the puck in transition. That's our expectation when we're picking somebody [at 15].”
A couple of the Leafs’ current stars were even part of Amirov’s big night. Rather than having Dubas announce the team’s selection on Tuesday, Toronto skirted tradition and had forward Mitch Marner make the reveal from the team’s dressing room headquarters instead, as defenceman Morgan Rielly stood behind him holding the newly-pressed Amirov sweater.
Now that the Leafs have one selection made, Dubas’ attention turns to Wednesday’s schedule, where Toronto is slated to make 10 picks in the draft’s final six rounds.
If that afternoon plays out anything like Tuesday night though, don’t expect much action on the virtual draft floor. There were no player trades at all in the first round, and Dubas credits that lack of movement to the still-looming deadline of Wednesday at 5 p.m. for teams to qualify - or not qualify - their own restricted free agents. Dubas wouldn’t even say during his pre-draft press conference on Monday which of the Leafs’ own RFAs the team intended to qualify, although he did admit on Tuesday that forward Evan Rodrigues will not be getting an offer from Toronto.
Other than that, Dubas isn’t giving much away as the Leafs prepare for a second day of draft action at the opening of free agency on Friday.
“As you see different players that are coming available that aren't being qualified by their teams, I think before you get into trying to move assets for players, you want to see everything that's available,” Dubas said. “We certainly know what we're trying to do, we’re trying to get as good a read as we can on the market and free agency and if there are opportunities tomorrow to improve the team with some of those  picks, we won't hesitate to do so.”