A player's size, nationality and league all consciously or unconsciously influence perception of NHL Draft prospects. Vitalii Abramov has the trifecta: he plays in the QMJHL (widely viewed as the weakest of the three CHL leagues), he's Russian (too often associated with being one-dimensional) and he's small (5-9).
In 2015, two of these types of bias played into the fall of prospect Daniel Sprong to the Pittsburgh Penguins at 46th overall. In 2014, two of them contributed to the fall of Ivan Barbashev to the St. Louis Blues at 33rd overall.
And while bias nearly always works to the detriment of those evaluating players, this has especially been the case with Abramov.
I can say without reservations, after watching Abramov play in-person more than any other prospect in the class while scouting the QMJHL in Gatineau with the Olympiques, that he is unquestionably one of the most gifted creators in the draft.
Ranked 22nd by Future Considerations, you can read excerpts from my two most recent game reports during the QMJHL playoffs below:
Played on a line with Nashville predators prospect Yakov Trenin and winger Austin Eastman. He has begun to be used in all situations. Unlike most pure scorers, Abramov is used on defensive zone draws on a consistent basis because head coach Benoit Groulx knows he’s capable of making plays and using his speed to carry the puck up ice. Makes plays under pressure and uses adept passing to send the puck up ice when it looks like he’s going to be checked. Made a beautiful play early on by faking wraparound before stopping up behind the net and nearly scoring shortside. Has a special ability to shoot off of his back foot, which nearly always catches the goalie off guard. Gains speed while crossing over or curling, which allows him to change directions and avoid checkers to find open space to receive a pass in the offensive zone. Took an interference penalty early in the second period that opened up a chance for Boucher and the Remparts to take a 2-0 lead. Drew a penalty after Robidoux plainly targeted him and charged him. He was stunned when Kiselev dove to stop a wide open tap-in on the ensuing powerplay. Has a tendency to let his shifts run too long. Created a chance cutting to the middle but it went off of Kiselev’s shoulder and then picked up his own rebound to try and tuck the puck in the wraparound but Kiselev slid across to get it with his toe. Fired a shot from the top of the circle off of Kiselev’s pad as the buzzer sounded to end the second period too. Turned the puck over on the powerplay trying to find Trenin up-ice early in the third. Created more on another powerplay minutes later, handling the puck from the wall but Gatineau couldn’t convert on Kiselev, who had made 40 saves with 16 minutes left in the third period. Exceptionally gifted as a puck handler, in tight and at full-speed. - March 26 versus the Quebec Remparts
After sitting out the last game of the regular season on scheduled rest, Abramov picked up where he left off offensively for the Olympiques with the game-winning goal from the high-slot in the third period to give his team the 1-0 win. The goal game off the rush, when Abramov curled in off of the right wing and stopped up to give himself some separation from the defender to fire a snap shot high short-side – vintage move and a hard, accurate release that beat the goalie cleanly. Despite standing 5-9, Abramov continues to prove he’s one of the most dynamic scorers, at a young age, in the QMJHL. Had several chances throughout the game, and went to his go-to backhand toe drag through the legs twice to beat defenders outside and catch them flat-footed for chances off the rush. He has added to his scoring arsenal by becoming more and more of a playmaker as the year has progressed and it has made him harder to stop – especially on the powerplay. He moved the puck really efficiently on the man-advantage and it forced Quebec to scramble. When he was on the ice with Preds prospects Yakov Trenin and Alexandre Carrier as well as Avs prospect Nicolas Meloche, they were unstoppable. Showed he was willing to play more physically in the playoffs, out-muscling people in the corners to win puck battles, which is a positive step forward. He has become more of a feisty, dynamic player. Continues to become more explosive from a standstill too. A worthwhile target from 15-25 in this draft class. - March 25 versus the Quebec Remparts
Some other stylistic notes:
Goes to the front of the net and takes a punishment but isn’t deterred. Doesn’t stick around in one place long in the slot, likes to roll off checks and stay active and open. Shoulders sway too much in his stride but he’s extremely light-footed. Can get caught playing too high on breakouts, which doesn’t give his defensemen a real option. Buzzes around the ice and stops and starts with the puck on the cycle to avoid his lack of size being a factor. Passes as well from his backhand as he does from his forehand. Loves to make high-risk plays but often creates with them instead of turning it over. Likes to stop up at the top of the crease to change directions and try and tuck the puck in along the ice. Not affraid to handle the puck in dangerous areas at the blueline. Unafraid to look cross-ice but will also push puck off heal to the outside in order to one touch it to himself and cut past defenders for a shot. Often double shifted in order to play key powerplays as a rookie. Likes to fire shots hard and low under the goalie’s pad or five-hole. Good balance on the inside of his skates, uses it to work quickly at the top of the crease and beat goalies in tight. Leans heavily on his crossovers without losing balance.
In 2014-2015, after scoring at more than a two points per game (PPG) clip -- 39 points in 15 games -- with Traktor's under-17 program, Abramov scored at a 0.70PPG rate as a 16-year-old in Russia top junior league (the MHL). Internationally, he led Team Russia in scoring with nine points in six games as they won gold at the World Under-17s.
This season, after being selected 13th overall by the Olympiques in the CHL Import Draft, Abramov lit the QMJHL on fire. Not only did Abramov finish fifth in league scoring with 93 points in 63, he outscored the nearest rookie (Leafs prospect Martins Dzierkals) by 26 points. Among draft-eligible QMJHL forwards, Abramov finished behind only potential top-five pick Pierre-Luc Dubois in scoring.
Among all QMJHL players (draft-eligible or not), Abramov finished the season first in goals for percentage. While Abramov was on the ice, the Olympiques scored an astonishing 76% (117 GFoI, 37GAoI) of the goals. For reference, fellow top-ranked QMJHL prospects Julien Gauthier (96GFoI, 40GAoI) and Dubois (138GFoI, 65GAoI) finished with 70GF% and 68GF%, 11th and 24th in the league respectively.
My reaction, watching him throughout the year, was often the same as the one I had when I first saw him at Gatineau's season-opener.
Abramov scores again. Incredible. Three Gatineau goals, three points. I repeat: It’s his first game. #2016NHLDraft— Scott Wheeler (@scottcwheeler) September 12, 2015
Abramov passes it off with the empty net instead of going for a hat trick. Gatineau leads 4-1 with 47.8 seconds left, he gets 4PTS in debut.— Scott Wheeler (@scottcwheeler) September 12, 2015
For the Leafs, who have a late first round pick via Pittsburgh as well as the first pick of the second round, Abramov should unquestionably be a target as a potential steal if he falls like many of his QMJHL counterparts have in the past.