Stop me if you’ve heard this before: we have a tie at the top of our annual Top 25 Under 25 rankings, but this time, it isn’t between Nylander and Marner. This time, it’s our top defensive prospect, Rasmus Sandin, tied with arguably our top forward prospect Rodion Amirov.
It’s an interesting pair of players to be tied, as they have some similarities and differences from each other even outside of their position. Sandin is an older prospect at 21 years old, having been drafted in 2018 at the end of the first round. Amirov is relatively new, but technically only one calendar year younger than Sandin despite being taken two drafts apart thanks to his October birthday.
Sandin has played his entire post-draft career in the AHL, with some stints in the NHL. He had two great World Junior tournaments, scoring a combined 14 points in 12 games and winning the top defenseman award in his final year. Amirov has been playing over in Russia between the VHL and KHL, and also played a top role for Russia at the World Juniors. He had 6 points in 7 games and did well, albeit with some warts.
As a defenseman, Sandin might be a bit short but he’s also pretty strong and physical. He’ll throw the odd big hit, which can seem surprising but shouldn’t be by now. But he’s more known for his offense than his defense. He seems poised to take over PP1 duties from Morgan Rielly because of his great puck movement, and if he doesn’t get that job, he’ll be a lock for at least PP2. Otherwise, he’s not necessarily a high offensive defenseman in terms of points and goals, but he will help drive offensive possessions — again, through great puck movement.
Rasmus Sandin rocks Blake Wheeler pic.twitter.com/BfvlbgdpyB— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) April 24, 2021
Amirov is weirdly a similar kind of player. He’ll get his points, but he’s not necessarily going to be a forward who is known for raw point production despite having a lot of skill. He is a great skater, and great with the puck on his stick. But he’s also a relentless transition player who can use his skating and stick skills to defend the neutral zone, and carry the puck into the offensive zone. He’s also been used as a penalty killer at every level and tournament he’s played, and now in the KHL as well.
I’m not fully sure how well he will put up points in the NHL, but he already has the tools to be a very effective supporting winger who can make plays both with and without the puck.
All your pucks belong to Rodion Amirov, and he doesn't care how much you don't want to give it to him. He will find you, and he will take it from you. pic.twitter.com/opKRiNxIoj— AleSTANdro Kirk (@brigstew86) August 10, 2021
HOW WE VOTED
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As you’d expect when they tied for the same average rank, they had the exact same spread of votes. Four people had Sandin ranked 3rd: myself, Seldo, Omar and Arjun. I can’t speak for the others, but for me it was a combination of Sandin already showing he can play in the NHL and having potential as a top PP quarterback who has a chance of playing on a second pair — though I’m still not sure of that. Amirov and Robertson, on the other hand, have upside as middle six forwards but are a bit further away and less certainty than Sandin for me. That little extra certainty is why I had Sandin 3rd. One person had Sandin ranked as low as 6th (Species).
Here’s what others had to say about Sandin:
Katya: There were five U21 defenders in the NHL last season who held a regular roster spot all year. That includes Alexander Romanov, who was scratched in the playoffs. Noah Dobson was the only other one on a playoff team. In the category of played over the “burn a season number” that was seven games last year, there were eight others. Of those only Sandin and Bowen Byram were on playoff teams. If you’re worried he hasn’t grabbed an NHL job yet, stop. He’s fine.
Hardev: This is my hot take of the T25, but seeing what I have from Sandin in the AHL and NHL, I am worried that he’s not going to be able to crack an NHL top four on the regular without some more growth in his game. Luckily, age is mostly on his side still. Sandin was decent in the AHL, but he mostly defended by having the puck — that doesn’t always work in the NHL, you have to know how to defend without the puck. I know that stint with TJ Brodie was fun, but Brodie did a lot of the heavy lifting for him and I’m not sure how many players the Leafs can afford to be carried defensively by their partner, especially with Muzzin and Brodie are only going to get worse with age. I want to see a step from Sandin next season where he shows a more consistent defensive game.
thinking about this william nylander breakaway goal off of a perfect rasmus sandin lob pass again pic.twitter.com/5yR7PzAVvr— portnoy is a virgin (@dylanfremlin) December 7, 2020
Four people also had Amirov ranked 3rd: Species, Hardev, Scouch and AJ. One person had him 6th (Seldo), who has said before his rankings strongly reflect proximity to the NHL. You can read some longer thoughts on Amirov from Kevin Papetti over at MLHS. Here’s what Scouch and Katya had to say about Amirov:
Scouch: This is my boy. Rodion Amirov’s talent level is huge. How that talent level projects to the NHL remains to be seen, as his hesitancy to drive inside the middle of the ice in favor of sticking to the perimeter does seem to be withholding his KHL production, and will definitely withhold NHL production. That being said, he at least has the talent to overcome those limitations with exceptional agility on his edges, great skill with his hands to evade pressure and open lanes, and plenty of explosiveness to plow into open ice when he spots it. I’ve got high hopes for Amirov.
Katya: Let’s talk about Salavat Yulaev. They have a hot-like burning top line and their coach set their usage to get all the goals from them, and for the rest of the team to just eat the clock. Yes, that is the Boston Bruins SOP. I don’t think Bruins depth guy is really Amirov’s wheelhouse, so I’m a little concerned at his not very exciting KHL season, but not a lot concerned. I am a lot more disconcerted by Amirov’s seeming abandonment by the Russian National Team program after a good, not great WJC. I had Amirov, Sandin and Robertson in a virtual tie last year and this year as well, but I ordered them a little differently. They all had slightly disappointing years, but Amirov’s was in the easiest league to play in, so he gets a bigger readjustment.
#LeafsForever prospect Rodion Amirov was in pre-season action in the KHL. He's played on one of their top lines, and had some time on the PK and PP. He has one assist so far after dancing through the offensive zone. pic.twitter.com/RD1Z7IS5xI— AleSTANdro Kirk (@brigstew86) August 10, 2021
Honestly, Katya touches on it in her comment above, but the three of Sandin, Amirov and Robertson seem like a toss up to me. I treated them as all within the same tier, and so did everyone else it seems. There was almost a three-way tie, in fact, with Robertson needing one 3rd and 4th place vote to be flipped. They all have very interesting skills, and despite some slightly concerning flaws they all seem like locks to be something in the NHL, it’s just not clear what as of yet.
But that’s what separates them from the other prospects in the tiers below them. Sandin has already played 37 games in the NHL, including in five playoff games last year. And he looked... okay doing it. He looks like he could already take their top powerplay role from Morgan Rielly who is no slouch in that area. The rest of his game will need to be improved for him to make it as a second pairing guy vs a third pairing PP specialist, but he has not struggled as mightily in the NHL as, say, Timothy Liljegren. That’s what separates those two in terms of ranking tiers.
RASMUS SANDIN 🚨 #WinItForJT— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) May 23, 2021
FIRST PLAYOFF GOAL! pic.twitter.com/07tv73W7OG
And Amirov just looks special in the KHL already. It was interesting watching the pre-season KHL games this summer to compare how Amirov and Ovchinnikov fared. Both may be very skilled, but you can just see how much better Amirov is. He can hang with best of them there, he doesn’t get pushed around, he is relentless all over the ice and there isn’t any concern that his two-way play or his skill are not good enough for the NHL. Ovchinnikov could flash a good play offensively, but there were also times he was just present as the play around him happened, especially defensively in transitions and in the defensive zone. There is more concern that he does not have the strength or pace to keep up in the KHL yet, and there is no doubt at all in my mind that Amirov does not have that problem.
This is a shift breakdown of #2020NHLDraft prospect Rodion Amirov from February 15th. Amirov scored 1G in the game, and was impressive offensively. Amirov's willingness to cut to high danger areas in the slot made him a constant threat in this game.— Daniel Gee (@DanielGScouting) April 5, 2020
Part (1/2)👇 | 📽️MHL pic.twitter.com/Nysknew9hJ
Who do you think is more likely to have the best NHL career?