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Igor Ozhiganov is the Leafs’ biggest mystery depth signing

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Get to know the newest Leafs defenceman as well as you can before training camp.

2012 World Junior Hockey Championships - Gold Medal Game - Russia v Sweden Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

In my last instalment looking at the deepest depths of the Leafs lineup, I’m looking at the man we’re all going to get to know together: Igor Ozhiganov.

Ozhiganov, like Lindholm, has a birthday in October, and he turns 26. He is a right-shooting defender of Matthews-type size, and he is not an offensive player.

He has already arrived in Toronto, in fact he’s been around since late August learning his way around, and trying to get used to doing hockey in English. He spoke to the Toronto Sun after one of the unofficial pre-training camp practices at the Master Card Centre:

“I’m so happy, this is my dream,” Ozhiganov said, able to put four weekly sessions with an English tutor to good use. “Of course, everything is new to me … the ice area is very small and it’s very fast hockey.”

These practice sessions cannot be run by the Leafs coaches. Mike Ellis, who is a skills development consultant to the team, has been in charge, but Mike Babcock is around to watch.

“He’s walking around like a kid in a candy store,” [agent Daniel] Milstein said. “(Leafs senior director of player evaluation) Jim Paliafito has been driving him places, too, getting him used to the city. We’ve got him an apartment for when the season starts and his wife and newborn son, who just arrived in July, they’re both coming shortly.

This is what it means to take a leap at the chance of an NHL job. His wife is in for the biggest challenge of her lifetime too, so for them both, I hope it works.

I’m not going to pretend to know much about Ozhiganov, and his stats tell very little about him. He has never scored 10 goals in a season as an adult. Twenty-two points is his career high, and that was the year before last when he played a regular role on CSKA Moscow after their top right-handed defender left and the remaining players were moved up.

Something happened in that season to dull CSKA’s interest in him, and the team acquired some NHL cast-off defenders last summer who played well enough to shove him out of that newly-won position. Ozhiganov’s depth role dwindled to a sixth/seventh defender role. (Games played can be misleading in a league with different roster rules.) But he did get in 42 games last year, which is most of a season.

His usage changed drastically however, and he went from being a player that was always used around 27 shifts per game and 15 - 20 minutes to someone playing 21 shifts per game and just over 14 minutes. He played only five playoff games and was barely used in them.

There are rumours and gossip about the coach taking against him, but whatever the reason, it’s obvious the coach didn’t trust him. Usually when that’s happened, you expect to see a ballooning goals against or a lot of penalties taken, but that’s not the case. His shot rate per game dropped by about what is reasonable given his minutes, his shooting percentage took a dive, but not to anything that isn’t reasonable for a defensive defender. He did stop hitting as much, and maybe that was a bit of fine, then I’m not using myself up for you if you won’t use me.

A change of scenery is usually the suggested cure for this sort of thing, and it’s not a surprise he told the Sun he’s sorry he didn’t come over sooner. He would have had to buy his way out of his contractm however.

One curious thing about CSKA, their defenders, and their defenders’ points is that over Ozhiganov’s career, his tepid looking totals are right in line with the rest of the group. Except for the top offensive guy. In 2015-2016, Denis Denisov, the classic stay at home partner for the more active top guy (you know this is Nikita Zaitsev, right?), had 19 points. Bogdon Kiselevich, the left-shooting second pairing man, had 17, and Ozhiganov had 16. The next year those three were 25, 23 and 22.

But last year, with Mat Robinson appearing to take the top offensive defender job, the rest of them got less effective. Kiselevich had only 16 points, and Ozhiganov, with lower minutes, had 9. They’d both been shifted out, not just in ice time but in role, by Nikita Nesterov and Alexei Marchenko.

This all looks like a new system was brought in with the coaching change in October of 2017. Dmitri Kvartlnov, who had been coach for three years, left for Lokomotiv, and the assistant coach was promoted.

Meanwhile, Bogdan Kiselevich is now a Florida Panther, who is expected to play in the NHL lineup on a regular basis, and Denis Denisov, who is 36, moved on to a new team last year and didn’t do very well.

That’s absolutely all I can wring out of the short and semi-successful career of Igor Ozhiganov. He is a defender who seems to have committed the sin of not getting any better than he ever was. Once we get a chance to see how well he defends, maybe we’ll know if he’s good enough for a team hungry for right-shooting depth. The Leafs are not hungry for points from their defence, after all, so defending is where he’s going to make or break as an NHLer.

Ozhiganov has a European assignment clause in his contract, so if he doesn’t make it, he likely will simply find a job back in the KHL. It’s an all or nothing roll of the dice.

Acknowledgements

Almost all data used for this article came from Elite Prospects or the English KHL pages. Cap Friendly has confirmed the assignment clause.