Did you know that the Maple Leafs haven't drafted a defenseman since 2020 when they took Topi Niemelä, William Villeneuve, Axel Rindell and John Fusco?
I'm not one to argue the Leafs should take a player of a certain position just because they "need it". Not when any prospect they take will very likely not be in the NHL for 3+ years. Liljegren only got his first taste of the NHL in his D+3 season and didn't really make it as a full time guy until his D+5 season. Sandin got his first taste in his D+2 season and wasn't a regular until his D+4 season.
But the reason why I'm going to bring it up is because it is a position that is pretty barren in their prospect cupboards. It's not a position they NEED to draft for, but it would be nice if they find a guy that makes sense. But the main reason why I'm going mention it is because this year, unlike last year, is pretty deep for defensemen in Toronto's range.
So let's talk about Dmitri Simashev, who has become my favourite prospect in this draft.
THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT
- Position: Left shot defense
- League(s): MHL (33 games) and KHL (18 games)
- Height: 6’4″
- Weight: 201 lbs
- Birthdate: February 4th, 2005
Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:
- Bob McKenzie: 35th
- Scott Wheeler: 36th
- Elite Prospects: 10th
- Dobber Prospects: 9th
- Smaht Scouting: 15th
- Future Considerations: 37th
Simashev is a big left-shot defenseman who plays in Russia. He had only 12 points in his 29 MHL games, and no points in his 18 KHL games this season. In the playoffs he had better production, with 6 points in 10 games. So you may look at his profile and size, and his point totals – even as a defenseman – and assume that he's a big defensive defenseman. And you'd be partially right, because he is definitely one of the best pure defensive defensemen in this draft and he is 6'4" every time he steps on the ice. But it's not a complete picture of who Simashev is as a player.
First, let's talk context about those points. By far the leader for defensemen in Simashev's age group who had the best offensive production is Mikhail Gulyayev, a smaller guy who has more obvious offensive flash and skill. He had 25 points in only 22 MHL games. Simashev finished with the 10th most points for U18 defensemen in the league, but he had the 5th best point per game rate. So while he wasn't among the very best, he was in the next tier. In Russia, and the MHL, you don't see many defensemen putting up lots of points.
But why I like Simashev so much as a defenseman is because, while he didn't have a lot of points, he has a lot of interesting offensive upside to go with it.
THE GOOD: ELITE DEFENSE AND OFFENSIVE POTENTIAL
There are two elements to Simashev's game that are already at an elite (or borderline) level – his skating, and his defense. His defense alone was why he played 18 games in the KHL as a 17 year old, including 9 of them with 7+ minutes of ice time.
As far as defensive skills and tools, Simashev really has it all. He's big (6'4") and has a long reach, so he is imposing in every zone on the ice. He has elite skating, and not just good skating for a 6'4" guy. He has great mobility and speed to keep up with anyone. He's not fully mature yet, and will undoubtedly get stronger over the next few years, but he can already hold his own physically against pros in one of the best leagues in the world.
But Simashev also has advanced defensive habits to go with his physical abilities. On rushes against him he plays a tight gap, and with his size and reach forces a lot of turnovers and dump ins. He makes good reads in terms of anticipating how plays will develop, then has the skating and size to snuff it out more often than not. While he's big and physical, he doesn't chase hits or try and crush guys – but he can and does pin skaters on the boards. He has a very good stick for poking pucks away, blocking passing lanes, and tying up or lifting opposing sticks. You will not often see him make the amount or kind of defensive mistakes from a young defenseman.
And if an opponent does get by Simashev, by his or someone else's fault, he has the skating and stick to recover quickly and make life difficult for the puck carrier. Here are some highlights that show a good mix of his defensive plays that are pretty common in his games. He's #26 in the red/white jerseys.
Offensively, Simashev may not have the points but watching him, you can see the potential to have a positive offensive impact. He may not ever be a guy who gets a lot of points, but he can help drive offense all the same. He is already pretty strong on retrievals – picking the puck up off a dump in and getting it out into the neutral zone. He does this with good skating to get to it early, but also having good deception to elude forecheckers and carry it out with control. Where necessary, he can make effective passes to his forwards to push it up quicker.
Simashev flashes skill from time to time with the puck and making plays with it. He already pulls off the occasional deke or give and go to create a more dangerous situation for his team. He can sell a shot fake to freeze defenders and goalies and make his pass to a teammate more dangerous. He can use his skating to join rushes that he starts from his retrievals. He has shown he can activate from the point, make smart pinches to keep offensive zone possession going, and walk the line with some fancy footwork to keep the puck alive. He can even snipe the occasional goal with a good looking wrist shot.
He does not show a consistent or high level of offensive skill, to be clear. At least not yet. But he has shown flashes of some high level skill, to the point that I think it can be worked on. Work on making his higher end skills work more consistently in game, make his shot more dangerous, make his passes more accurate and consistent, make his deception more effective at opening lanes to carry or pass it.
Here are some highlights of the kinds of things I've seen him. Again, he will be wearing #26 in the red and white jerseys – sometimes mostly red, sometimes mostly white.
The way I've seen someone describe Simashev's offense being as a facilitator, rather than a producer, and that I think fits him perfectly. He can facilitate offense by getting the puck out, helping transition to offense through the neutral zone, and make the little plays to help keep the puck moving and alive in the offensive zone. He may never be a top unit PP defenseman in the NHL, but he was used in that role in the MHL. Time will tell if some of those flashes of high end offensive skill becomes a more consistent thing.
THE FLAWS: OFFENSIVE RISK AND CONSISTENCY
Being pretty close to pro-ready as far as defense is concerned can make Simashev feel like a "safe" pick that harkens back to Toronto's "Large Adult Sons" era under Mark Hunter. How many times did we see a big, defensive defenseman get taken who couldn't even make the NHL?
Simashev is not that, to be clear. He is very defensive minded, but he has other potential going for him. He can actually skate very well, for starters. That's a big difference from those Large Adult Sons. But it still is cut from the same cloth, I'd say. And that does feel... a bit risky for a first round pick. Yes, it will be a late first round pick, so it is closer in quality to a second rounder than a top 3, 5, or 10 pick in the first round where there's a big drop off. But with Simashev you do have to ask the question: what happens if his offensive potential never moves beyond just potential?
Simashev's ability on retrievals and transitions is arguably his best in terms of consistent offensive impact. That's nothing to sneeze at. But that's also mostly in terms of his puck handling and skating. His passing can be good, but is inconsistent. He can make simple and quick passes to move things along, but he will only rarely pull off any more dynamic passing or playmaking. Don't rely on him for stretch passes, for example, at least not right now.
There's also the physical element of the game. He is big, and he will use his size and reach to his advantage, but he's not by any means a bruiser. I am fine with that, but I do wonder if he can add more physical edge to his game. There were times I'd see him just give a sort of love bump to a guy on the boards that did nothing to slow them down. His transition defense is further ahead than his in-zone defense as a result of that, and as a result of some consistency problems with his awareness.
While those kinds of issues are pretty common in a 17 year old, even a high end prospect, it is still another element of risk. Because not all prospects will ever fix their consistency issues and fully realize their potential. That is an inherent risk to all prospects.
So that's where you have to ask if you like the package of who is already is right now (defensive, skating, size) that projects easily to the NHL, with the risks inherent in his currently unrealized potential (offense, consistency). For myself, I do. I do very much. He's young enough that he can work on improving his skills and tools so they are both more effective and more consistent. I think a team like Toronto in particular can really help with that. They've already done some good work with guys like Liljegren and Sandin, and seem to be doing pretty darn well working with lower-tier prospects like Niemelä and Villeneuve with how far they've come.
Niemelä in particular is the one I think is closest in resemblance to Simashev, because he had a similar profile when he was drafted. He was a brilliant skater already, and very effective defensively to the point he played most of his draft year as a pro in Finland. His offense had potential, again mostly from being a facilitator on transitions and moving the puck. But he didn't really realize it until after he was drafted and he had a big offensive awakening.
But for me, I don't really care if my defenseman gets a lot of points or not. It's nice if they can do that, but I'm perfectly fine with a defenseman who can facilitate offense. Someone who can impact the offense by helping get the puck back and push it up the ice then keep it in the offensive zone. And that's where I see the biggest potential for Simashev.
The thing is, I'm less and less sure over time that Simashev will be available when Toronto picks at 28. He's gone mostly under the radar for much of this season, but I think that's mostly because of playing in Russia, not having eye-popping point totals, and not playing in any international tournaments for obvious reasons. In Bob McKenzie's mid-season edition, Simashev made his first appearance on the rankings at 35th. He was not even an honourable mention on his early season rankings, while fellow Russian defense prospect Mikhail Gulyayev was.
But Simashev has the profile that we know NHL teams love. I believe it when I see public scouts like Craig Button or Corey Pronman say they've spoken with some NHL teams who have Simashev very high on their boards. But this is a very deep draft, there are other defensemen who have a similar profile but have more points or more games on the international stage to increase their hype. David Reinbacher, Axel Sandin Pelikka, Tom Willander, and a couple of others come to mind.
So really, I'm hoping that the teams who have Simashev very high on their boards will take someone else they like more with however many picks they have ahead of Toronto. If he does fall to 28, there's a very, very good chance that he would be my favourite option for Toronto to draft.
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!