Players who take unusual paths in their development fascinate me. That doesn't mean I use that as a basis to conclude they're a better prospect than guys who take more traditional paths, but I always like to follow them. This year I latched onto Aydar Suniev pretty early, after some comments by Will Scouch and an early season profile by Elite Prospects.
Suniev is a Russian forward who has chosen not to play in Russia from a pretty early age, but also didn't choose to play in any of the major junior leagues in North America. Instead, he wanted to play in the NCAA so he chose to play in one of the junior-A feeder leagues instead of in the CHL.
There's been 18 players not including goalies who were drafted from any of the lesser junior leagues that feed the NCAA (BCHL, AJHL, OJHL, NAHL) who have played 100 games in the NHL. Cale Makar, Zach Hyman, Josh Manson, Colton Parayko, and Alexander Kerfoot are among the best examples.
The issue more recently has been a few higher picks that seemed great, but so far have disappointed as they broke into the NHL and failed to turn into stars. Alex Newhook, Tyson Jost and Dante Fabbro look like guys who can carve out solid careers as useful depth, but had more expected of them after their great numbers in junior and in the NCAA.
Part of that is the usual problem of expecting too much from any first round pick just because they're a "first rounder". Part of that is overrating big point totals in lesser junior leagues, and in the NCAA to some extent.
Which brings us to Aydar Suniev, an exciting looking but flawed Russian forward prospect from a British Columbian junior league who has committed to play in the NCAA who also had big goal and point totals.
THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT
- Position: Left-winger
- League(s): BCHL
- Height: 6'2"
- Weight: 192 lbs
- Birthdate: November 16th, 2004
Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:
- Bob McKenzie: Honourable mention (outside top 80)
- Scott Wheeler: 54th
- Elite Prospects: 69th
- Dobber Prospects: 100th
- Smaht Scouting: 50th
- Future Considerations: Not ranked
Aydar Suniev is a big, Russian power forward who for some reason really wanted to play in the BCHL junior league so he could fulfill his dream of playing for UMass in the NCAA. I kid, because looking at his EP page it's clear he never had any interest in playing in Russia. Outside of six games he played in Russia's U18 lower junior leagues during the pandemic season, he has always played in North America as far back as his age 14 season. He's played here long enough that if you just watched an interview with him and didn't know anything about him before hand, you wouldn't know he was Russian.
More recently, Suniev has been playing in the BCHL junior-A league. It is often used by western Canadian prospects who want to preserve their eligibility for the NCAA. He played on the most dominant team in the league, who won the regular season title with a 50-3-1 record and had a +208 goal differential. They went 16-1 in the playoffs to win the championship. They were a wagon, and Suniev was a big (heh) reason why.
Suniev had 45 goals and 90 points in only 50 games, then added 9 goals and 23 points in 15 playoff games. He was not the top player on the team, that goes to fellow 2023 NHL draft prospect Bradly Nadeau and his older brother Josh Nadeau, who each had 110+ points. But I chose Suniev because I find his projection to be more enticing. The two Nadeaus and Suniev finished first, second and third in the league in total points... by a very large margin. Suniev was 16 points ahead of the fourth place player, but he was 23 points back of Bradly Nadeau.
So why am I writing a profile about Suniev, and not Nadeau who is younger, plays center, and had so many more points?
THE GOOD: SKILL AND POWER GAME
If there's a prospect that may best replicate the kind of power and possession game that Matthew Knies has, it could be Aydar Suniev. Because Suniev plays in a more obscure league I haven't had the chance to watch him as much, but he got some strong reviews early in the season from some people I trust so I've managed to see him for at least a few games, plus lots of highlights.
Suniev plays a Knies-like style of power forward, with the power turned down a bit but his finesse turned up a bit. Where the Knies-like game comes through the most comes with his puck protection and his puck pursuit. With the puck, he has a similar ability to get defenders on his back, at which point he's simply too big and skilled to get it off of him. He uses his reach to his advantage very often, holding the puck away where no one else can reach it to poke away.
When pursuing a loose puck, Suniev shows Knies-like abilities to establish his body positioning so he can get to the puck first – or at least get to it in a more advantageous position. He uses his size and strength to outmuscle opponents who are neck and neck with him, and does little things like widening his stance so his feet act like walls to prevent opponents from getting around him. He is a pretty capable puck thief too, so even if an opponent got to the puck first there's a good chance he will come away with it himself. He has a good sense of timing and tricks to come at the puck at a time or from an angle that the opponent does not anticipate.
This video shows some good examples, with notes, showcasing some of this. Suniev is wearing #19 in all the clips.
Where Suniev differs from Knies is in two distinct areas: his finesse game and his abilities with the puck. When Suniev has the puck, he is a dual-threat offensively. He has good vision and will probably be a better passer than Knies, which is an area I've always pointed to as a relative weakness he needs to work on. Suniev, however, showcases a higher level of playmaking with the puck on a consistent basis. He shows good vision and an ability to find narrower passing lanes and fire it tape to tape. He has good, quick one-touch passing too, especially on the powerplay where he can play on the half wall and act as a threat to shoot or pass.
For his shot, I would rate it about equal to what Knies showed when he was drafted when it comes to their wrist shot. Both of them have hard, heavy and accurate wristers that can beat junior goalies from distance. Where Suniev has an advantage is that he also has a pretty darn good looking one-timer. From what I've read from some scouts, he hasn't even fully unlocked his slapshot/one-timer with his mechanics. He already gets a lot of power, but he doesn't get down on it as much as he could – he just is that strong with mostly his upper body.
THE FLAWS: SKATING
If there is one area of improvement that is the most glaring for Suniev, it is his skating. Not that he is a terrible skater – you can see him more than keep up in all of the clips above. His problem is one of refinement. If he is skating in a straight line, he can get up to a good top speed. He won't be the fastest, but he has some power in his stride. Similarly, if Suniev needs to be more agile in close quarters, he can manage that as well. He has some slick hands for a big guy, and can stick handle in tight very well – and that needs some shifty feet to go with it.
His problems are twofold: he isn't the most explosive and may take a bit longer to get up to speed compared to others, and he can't easily switch between being fast and being agile. You can see it in some of these rush chances he has in the video below – to start making quick cuts and dekes, he often stops moving his feet and slows down, and the transition from one to the other is awkward.
In a lesser league like the BCHL, it hasn't been a problem. But he will get more exposed in the NCAA and certainly if/when he turns pro if he doesn't improve. He probably will get better at least a bit, as all prospects do over time. He can already generate power with his stride, and in the highlights you can see he is able to make quick cuts, shift his feet, go wide in his stance, and use his legs/feet in a variety of ways to do what he wants to do.
Suniev's issue is that, as of now, he does it too slowly. He isn't going to suddenly turn into Connor McDavid, but he has the physical tools to work on refining his skating mechanics and learning how to fluidly switch between speed and agility without the awkwardness and slow downs.
The question with Suniev is can he improve enough? He has plenty of skill, enough for him to be an impact power forward in the NHL I think – but only if he can improve his skating enough. He wouldn't be the first big guy who has skill, can shoot and pass, and look dominant in junior but just can't keep up once he's forced to play at the speed and pace that the pros do.
I do think that Suniev is a project worth swinging on, especially if Toronto trades down and has a pick in the late second round, or into the third. He has all the tools to be a skilled power forward, and while his skating is an issue to be worked on I have confidence it can be improved enough to not hold him back from the NHL.
The important thing is that Suniev already does the right things when it comes to his skating, it's just in isolation of each other. He can get up to a good top speed. He can be agile and dance through defenders with shifty feet and nifty hands. He can widen his stance when he needs to be more difficult to knock off his feet. It's just a matter of refinement during his transitions from one to the other. And that's something where I think an NHL team with a large and advanced development staff, like the Maple Leafs, can help him a lot.
Because if you can unlock Suniev's skating to the point that it's not a flaw at the NHL level, just something that's not at an elite level, he has everything you'd want to be a useful forward. He has the physical tools in terms of his size, reach, and power forward habits. He has the finesse and the skills to be a dual-threat offensively, with his shot and his playmaking. He has the forechecking and puck skullduggery and board work to make coaches love him.
Suniev playing in a lesser junior league may hurt his visibility, and the skating may scare off some more. As of writing this Bob McKenzie didn't have him in his top 80, but did list him as an honourable mention just outside of that range. I just can't see him being ranked that close to the first round, making him an excellent trade down candidate – maybe even with the lower of two picks they get, let alone the first. Imagine getting a Brindley or a Sawchyn and Suniev?
Thanks for reading!
I put a lot of work into my prospect articles here, both for the draft and Toronto's prospects. I do it as a fun hobby for me, and I'd probably do it in some capacity even if PPP completely ceased to exist. But if you like reading my work, some support would go a long way! I pay for a few streaming services (CHL, some NCAA, some USHL, the occasional TSN options for international tournaments that are broadcast) to be able to reliably watch these prospects in good quality streams. I also pay for some prospect-specific resources, such as tracking data and scouting reports from outlets like Elite Prospects, Future Considerations, McKeen's Hockey, and The Athletic.
Being able to get paid for this helps me dedicate more time and resources to it, rather than to second/third jobs. And whatever money I make here, a lot of I reinvest back into my prospect work through in those streaming and scouting services. Like I said, I'd be doing whatever I can afford for this anyway, so any financial help I get through this is greatly appreciated!