With the injury to Jake Muzzin in Montréal, it seems very likely Ilya Lyubushkin is going to get a trial by fire tonight in Columbus. Like most of you, I’ll confess to making no effort to watch the Arizona Coyotes tank for Shane Wright this year after years of losing either intentionally or not. But I watched a lot of Lokomotiv in the years Lyubushkin was there, because he played with Yegor Korshkov, and I have not one recollection of the man.
The general zeitgeist on Lyubushkin is that he might be a second pair defender if you want someone to stay at home — think Ron Hainsey playing with Morgan Rielly. Hainsey wasn’t ideal, but he filled a hole Rielly wasn’t going to fill.
Let’s find out what we can about him, and see if that’s plausible or just an expression of the desire to find someone to replace Justin Holl:
Ilya Lyubushkin is 27, with a birthday coming up in early April which makes him exactly Morgan Rielly’s age. Rielly has 621 NHL games played to Lyubushkin’s 180, but of course Lyubushkin has 262 KHL games played as well. Nonetheless, they are an order of magnitude apart in skillset and value.
Lyubushkin signed with the Coyotes in 2018 as his Lokomotiv contract expired, and he joined them the next autumn in training camp. He only played 41 games in 2018-2019, not due to injury, but just sprinkled regularly through the season. He was paired up with either Jacob Chychrun or Jordan Oesterle most of the time. His usage wasn’t tilted to defensive or offensive zone usage, and he played low minutes when he was in the game on a team that just rolled out the defence fairly evenly. They had a lot of medium quality defenders that year, and Lyubushkin really seems to have been surplus to their needs.
The next season, in 2019, he was sent to the minors in training camp. He didn’t stay long, played only two games, and was recalled on October 12. He played the rest of the season in the NHL, but Arizona didn’t seem to really have a plan on defence that year. Their pairings were a jumble, and the only real constant was that Lyubushkin wasn’t trusted with meaningful minutes in meaningful situations. He was just there playing low minutes every night.
Last season, he returned to Russia to Lokomotiv at first, but only got in five games. He had no points, which is normal for him. His biggest points year ever was in 2015-2016 with Lokomotiv where he had 11 points in 55 games. His four goals that season was his greatest ever season as well. Even as a teenager in the MHL he never got points.
Back in Arizona for the 42-games he played, his role had changed. His ice time grew to 16 minutes a game and he began to play more meaningful minutes — shifts when a a goal for or against would actually impact the chance of winning. Was that him improving or the team having no other options? This kind of deployment tells you how the coach sees him, which can be instructive, but it isn’t necessarily a correct read on the player.
The coach was sure about his defenders last year, and he played Chychrun, Alex Goligoski and Oliver Ekman-Larsson as his top three, with a rotating cast of not-top-three filling in. Lyubushkin joined the rest of the crowd in this role, playing the very occasional shift with Cychrun, but mostly seeing time with Ekman-Larsson.
This is the point at which it might be instructive to see if Lyubushkin’s results (not his points) changed from his low-leverage role in 2019-2020 to his role as one of three second/third pair tweener defenders last year.
RAPM is a model that does a good job of separating a player’s individual effect on on-ice results from the rest of the team and from his usage. But nothing says carefully used defenceman like that first chart. It looks a bit like this one for a defender who also plays low-leverage minutes:
That second chart screams out defender played over his head on a bad team. The only glimmer of light is the positive effects on Expected Goals Against. And really, once you think about how Lyubushkin plays, that’s really all you can expect him to do — defend in the defensive zone better than some of the other players out there.
This season, as Arizona devolved into something that can’t truthfully be called an NHL team, Lyubushkin played every game at 18 minutes per game and saw time with Chychrun on the top pair, a person named Janis Moser on the second pair, and Cam Dineen and Anton Strålman on the third pair.
That’s led to this:
Which is just a picture of chaos to me. If anything it simply says he defends better than almost anyone else on the team, but that bar is so low, anyone could stumble over it. In the last four seasons at five-on-five, this year’s Coyotes have the lowest Expected Goals % of any team in any season (Using Evolving Hockey’s model). They aren’t the worst Expected Goals Against per 60 minutes, that honour goes to this year’s Canadiens, but they are in the bottom fifth of the list.
Trying to imagine Lyubushkin on the Leafs to forecast his value is nearly impossible given the massive upgrade in teammates he’ll have. On the Leafs this season, Justin Holl, Jake Muzzin and T.J. Brodie play the highly defensive minutes. In other words, when Sheldon Keefe is putting a defenceman on the ice when a goal against would be very bad, he picks two of them. That’s likely why you keep seeing Muzzin and Holl get scored on in ways it upsets you so much, and is deeply colouring opinions about both of them. However, both of those players are versatile defenders who have offensive skils of various kinds. Lyubushkin seems to be tethered to the blue line offensively. The natural comparison is to see him as Brodie-lite, and potentially have him play that role with Rasmus Sandin on a juiced up third pair.
The interesting thing about that comparison is that Brodie on the Leafs is a much more “activated” defenseman, who shoots very little, but moves all over the zone. Back in his Calgary days, he shot more, but in a similar way, barring his last year there where he was playing for Bill Peters and Geoff Ward. They tethered him to the blueline.
Lyubushkin reminds me much, much more strongly of Ron Hainsey than any other defender the Leafs have had in recent years. The only other defender to be used that way in recent memory was Cody Ceci, and Keefe managed to make him into a null factor with careful deployment in a role bigger than he should have been playing due to injury. Hainsey was on a team with a very shallow defender pool, and he was asked to do things well above his ability all the time. He did a very good job of faking it when there really wasn’t anyone else. Everyone always said that if Hainsey played his stay-at-home game against regular competition and for 14 minutes a game on the third pair, he’d be an asset. And here we are again, likely saying the same thing about Lyubushkin if he’s played too much.
I think it’s highly plausible to expect Lyubushkin to look really good with Rasmus Sandin. Sandin has all the modern skills — he skates like a dream, carries the puck well, has a good shot, passes in the offensive zone well. He seems like the perfect partner for Lyubushkin.
Before last night, the logical course of action seemed to be to play him with Muzzin, in that spot Liljegren has been occupying and see what happens, but with the expectation that the third pair is his destiny. Now, the test is tougher, with Muzzin out, he may well play with Sandin as the actual second pair.
If Lyubushkin does get dumped into a second-pairing role out of the gate, it’s nothing he hasn’t done before. Right now the stakes aren’t that much higher for the Leafs than in Arizona, where no one cared if you won or lost. But he’s not a long-term Muzzin replacement, I’ll guarantee you that. And in a very short time, the stakes get raised.
Good luck, Ilya, I think you’ll need it.