This is the first year Kristians Rubins has been eligible after signing an Entry-Level Contract with the Leafs this spring. Considering he is an undrafted, big defenseman out of the WHL and has been in the Leafs organization for two years, the fact that Rubins has an ELC with the team is damn impressive.
At 6’4” and with not much to show on the scoresheet, I’ve (understandably) seen Rubins siloed into the Ben Harpur stereotype. But I’m here to tell you that he’s very much not in that mold.
Votes - Kristians Rubins
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I really believe Rubins is a quality prospect for the Leafs who will definitely be in the top 25 next season, that’s a guarantee. He is a solid defensive player who focuses on the puck more than the body. His physical attributes allow him to cover a lot of ground both in terms of skating and stick position. And he has some genuine offensive upside that only comes through on occasion as a result of his defense-first deployment.
I’ll first start with some video to show what Rubins can actually do, then explain the strengths and weaknesses in his game that I’ve seen watching him as a rookie in the AHL this past season.
Here are both of Rubins goals this season. He’s never been a shooter in his career (10 goals in 109 WHL games), but his mechanics are good enough for the opportunities he will get as a mostly defensive-defenseman. What stands out to me the most with Rubins are his offensive instincts to pick his spots, not second-guess himself, and make the high-value play. This characteristic of being responsible with and without the puck carries through in all the video clips I have.
In this first goal, Rubins takes the puck off the faceoff and moves across to give Ben Harpur the chance to execute a decent shot-pass through the slot. He’s then in the middle of the ice to cover for his pinching defense partner (without any forward support), but when he sees the puck coming into the open slot, he pounces on it and scores.
On this goal as well, you get a great example of his smooth catch-and-shoot mechanics. Rubins had 50 shots in 47 games for the Marlies this year and shot at about the rate you would expect from a defenseman. The quickness and efficiency of his shooting was something that stood out to me during the season, especially for his size. Unlike Martin Marincin (who I love), even if Rubins doesn’t score, he’ll get the puck to the net and give the forwards the opportunity for a second chance.
Nose for the Net
This play stood out to me because it shows Rubins winning a puck battle to keep possession in the offensive zone, then he immediately jumps into the play with his stick on the ice knowing there’s a forward behind him. He drew attention away from Aberg, who used that time and space (but mainly his great skill) to score. Seeing those instincts from Rubins is a big plus for me.
This is probably my favourite play by Rubins this year and it combines everything I’ve said above. Gaudet makes a great play to draw the opposition out wide, Rubins jumps right into that open space and makes a beautiful, quick, sharp pass to Miikka Salomaki for a goal.
It really feels like Rubins has bought in and is confident playing in the system Sheldon Keefe set up, namely defensemen playing aggressively and keeping pressure up. Rubins isn’t dangling anyone out of their jocks (though he did a few Monsters on that play), but he’s creative and smart and it works really well for him.
I couldn’t find much in terms of his defensive play (the Marlies only make videos of goals and most teams don’t make videos at all), but this was a good example of pressuring the offense with his feet and stick (similar to Pierre Engvall, I must say) and getting the puck moving forward for Brooks to take it out and score.
Rubins is really active with his stick and gets up on opposing forwards really well. I’m interested to see how effective he can still be against tougher competition, but he does play penalty kill and was out for defensive shifts late in games when the Marlies had a lead (which was rare, I must say). He played 11 out of 47 games on the first and second pair this year, so he wasn’t only playing easy competition.
Connecting with Korshkov
It’s funny that both stretch passes from Rubins that I could find found the stick of Korshkov and he found the back of the net with style in each of them. I’m not going to make any grand statements about Rubins’ puck-moving ability, because he’s realistically not going to do that for you in the NHL unless he improves a lot, I just found them and they are fun to watch.
Most defensemen that look like Rubins also look like they have no idea why they’re standing in the offensive zone and just want to stand in front of their own net where it’s safe. Rubins is not one of these defensemen. He’s not going to hog the puck and make crazy plays with it, but he fits within the system and understands where the puck needs to be and where he needs to be at all times.
He makes reliable plays in the offensive zone, won’t pinch when there’s no support, but will jump in the play with the use of his good skating to fill gaps and make the defense cover him. I’d say if you have a puck-moving guy like Mac Hollowell or Joey Duszak next to him, you have a good pair you can play in the offensive zone. I think Rubins is underrated in the offensive zone, especially because the narrative on big defensemen is that they can’t skate and they can’t handle the puck. He can do both just fine.
In terms of production for a defenseman, he had similar rates to Calle Rosen and most other defensemen in their rookie years. Rosen was older and getting played higher, but Rubins still matched his point totals at even strength. As with Sandin in his rookie year, although Sandin was also playing higher in the lineup almost right away and was younger. He beat Liljegren in his rookie year, who struggled offensively on the third pair but did amazingly well growing on the defensive side of the puck.
When you’re not the guy scoring 20 goals a season, you learn how to play defense pretty quickly to stay useful. I’ll talk about this more in the weaknesses, but Rubins wasn’t the most physical player in his rookie year. That said, he’s really effective with his stick and body positioning along the boards and in front of the net. Like Engvall on the wing, he makes it a priority to limit time and space for attackers. He does it really well and I feel like as he continues to get stronger, this side of his game will only match an increased level of competition.
I really don’t like the narrative that big guys can’t skate, because it’s been disproven in the Leafs organization multiple times in the past few years. Korshkov, Engvall, Holl, Gauthier to a lesser extent (he was coming from a farther place). Even guys who went straight into the NHL like Mikheyev can move really well. Sure, they look awkward and won’t do 10 crossovers in three seconds, but they can move really well, creating pressure on their opponents and can keep up everywhere on the ice.
Rubins is among these players. He can skate really well and get up to a good top speed, too. While he won’t be sifting through the defense on his own, he’s got the legs to get out of tough spots in his own zone and alleviate pressure for his teammates or against a forecheck. He’s a really useful, modern, defenseman.
Rubins isn’t going to be any version of Jake Gardiner unless a lot of things change really quickly. He’s not going to be the guy you ideally want taking the puck from the defensive zone and getting it in the offensive zone. He can do it, but that’s not where his strengths lay. If there’s someone next to him that can fill that primary role, I think Rubins can be a good secondary option.
He’s likely going to be playing with Lindgren, Duszak, or Hollowell next season on the Marlies. with Lindgren, the duties of moving the puck will likely be shared, but next to the defensively developing Duszak and Hollowell, there’s a couple of really good pairing options there. I imagine he and Connor Carrick, who’s a little feisty, would have a lot of fun together on the ice.
Surprisingly, Rubins got pushed around a bit in his rookie season in the AHL. For a 6’4”, 220lbs player, I was surprised he wasn’t more assertive with the body. Not that I wanted to see him run guys through the wall because head-hunting often puts you out of position, but I was hoping for a bit more physical maturity in front and behind the net. I honestly think he shied away from being a physical player
I think he has room to grow — he’s still a very lanky player for 220 lbs — I would like to see him add this dimension for next season.
He’s a third pair defenseman on a bad AHL team. There’s not much to be impressed with in terms of who he’s going up against. This was his second year pro, first in the AHL, all on an AHL contract. Obviously the Leafs think there’s some NHL upside to Rubins, otherwise they wouldn’t have given him an NHL deal this spring, but he still has to show what he can do higher in the lineup.
Unless the Marlies get flooded with left-handed defensemen from the NHL or from AHL free agents, Rubins is pencilled in for second-pair duties behind Teemu Kivihalme. Kivihalme didn’t have a great end to the season, and he’s on the older side (turned 25 last Sunday), so there will be opportunities to show what he can do against better opponents. As long as he keeps maturing physically and increasing his role at even strength, his stock will rise.
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