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Looking at Mikhail Abramov’s remarkable transformation this season

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Mikhail Abramov is a Leafs prospect to watch

Toronto Maple Leafs Headshots Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

As of writing this, Milhail Abramov is currently leading the Victoriaville Tigres of the QMJHL in both goals (28) and points (52). In fact, the next closest player on the Tigres in points is defenseman Jerome Gavel, a 20 year old and one of the oldest players on the team who has only 27 points.

That’s right, Mikhail Abramov has more GOALS than his next closest teammate has in total POINTS. How ludicrous is that? Well, the QMJHL record for most goals in one season is Mario Lemieux (of course) who had 133 goals (lol) in 70 games, but his teammate Jacques Goyette had 170 points. Guy Lafleur had 130 goals but his teammate Normand Dube had 138 points.

In fact, I looked back at the last 20 years of each QMJHL team’s leaders in goals and points, and not once has any player managed to finish the season with the feat that Abramov currently holds. It might not have ever happened in the history of the league, or any CHL league for all I know. I haven’t been able to find anything to say either way, and I’m not willing to go through each team’s stats season by season over their whole history to find out. Suffice to say, if it has happened it’s extremely rare, especially in the current era of hockey.

It’s just been that kind of year for him. When the Leafs drafted him at 115th overall in the fourth round, there were some that were saying the Leafs got a steal.

I’m going to admit that Mikhail Abramov has been a lot of fun to follow this season, even though it’s frustrating as all hell to find any highlights of him compared to prospects in the OHL or WHL.

I am fascinated by him, and not just because of his crazy stats or that he is carrying an entire QMJHL team on his back. What really fascinates me about him is that his explosion in goal scoring is almost the complete opposite of what was said about him around the draft.

Abramov’s Pre-Draft Scouting Reports

When you look at the scouting reports on Abramov going into or right after the draft, there was one thing you will likely see in just about all of them: he is more of a play maker than a goal scorer, and he needs to both shoot more and work on his shot.

From Kevin’s post-draft musings, with a section on Abramov:

Not a good goal-scorer, Abramov is a clear pass-first player, but he’s crafty with the puck and sees the ice well and I could see him becoming a 30+ assist winger at the NHL level. He’s going to take another step forward once he puts on weight and gets stronger. He’s a little bit like Dmytro Timashov of the Toronto Marlies.

From 51Leafs at The Leafs Nation:

Abramov is a smart, skilled playmaker who can play both in the middle or on the wing. With the puck on his stick in the offensive zone, Abramov is primarily looking to set up a teammate for a scoring chance...

He also just isn’t a shoot-first type of player, and I’d categorize his shot as “average”, so as a result, he doesn’t score a ton of goals.

From dobberprospects.com:

A talented pass-first playmaker

From The Hockey News:

A true playmaker, he is also versatile enough to play both center and wing (mostly on the right side, his off-wing). Has excellent puck skills and great vision. He passes the puck with aplomb but needs to work on his shooting ability in order to maximize production at the highest level.

From The Last Word on Hockey:

He is another undersized but talented playmaker. Abramov creates space with his quick changes of speed and direction. He takes advantage of being an outstanding skater and having quick hands to create passing lanes with subtle changes of direction or changes in angles. Abramov protects the puck well and can wait for a teammate to get open before setting him up for a scoring change.

In a piece Scott Wheeler wrote a profile about Abramov back in September, he quoted Louis Robitaille, the Tigres head coach, who backed all of this up:

“He reminds me a lot of a Nicklas Backstrom at the junior level. He’s always going to be a guy with more assists than goals,” Robitaille said.

I am sharing all of these these blurbs because I think it shows just how remarkable Abramov’s development has become. You have some of the (to me) best prospect scouts out there all saying the same thing, with only a couple of them even hinting that he might have potential as a goal scorer.

When you look at his stats from the 2018/19 season, the numbers only seem to back up what all of these reports were saying:

  • Regular season: 16 goals, 38 assists, 2.7 shots per game, 9.7% shooting
  • Playoffs: 1 goal, 6 assists, 1.9 shots per game, 6.7% shooting

In his combined U18 international games, he added 2 goals and 8 assists in 10 games for Russia. That all sure seems to show a player who isn’t exactly a goal scorer. It’s not quite the level of Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, but it seemed like the Leafs went after another short (but not as short as SDA) Russian center who excels at passing.

Where Did Abramov’s Goal Scoring Come From?

There are only a few things that hinted at the goal scoring potential that Abramov had.

First, Abramov had shown in small doses before coming to North America that he could be a goal scorer. If you look at Abramov’s Elite Prospects page, for example, you can see his U18 season in Russia and in an international tournament where he had a combined 14 goals and 10 assists in 14 games.

There are also a few choice quotes that I’ve seen that touch on the potential for Abramov’s shot and scoring ability. The first is from Kristen Shilton at TSN.ca:

Another pick, another smaller, high-skill selection by the Leafs in 5-foot-10, 161-pound Abramov. Billed as a competitive, creative two-way centreman with a great shot, Abramov plays with a high level of pace and has grown into being a solid playmaker displaying patience and craftiness in the offensive zone.

The other is from Wheeler at the Athletic:

I’d like to see Abramov use his shot a little more because he showed real flashes this season of effortlessly picking corners of the net and surprising goalies with how quickly it snaps off of his blade despite not having the strength to power it past them.

And from the same piece Wheeler wrote (that I linked above) where he quotes Robitaille, Abramov’s coach in Victoriaville:

“He needs to trust his shot a little bit more because he does have a really good shot and I think he felt comfortable using it more towards the end of the year. But at the end of the day, his best skill is his playmaking ability.”

Scott also noted that Abramov was battling wrist and shoulder injuries through the year, which would probably not have helped him with his shooting.

Abramov’s Remarkable Player Development

So one of the major knocks on Abramov was that he wasn’t thought of as a goal scoring threat, even if he had a sneaky good shot. He was also said to be too small and weak, and easy to be pushed around.

Going back to Scott Wheeler’s longer profile on Abramov from September, there are a few tidbits that touch on this. If you have a subscription to The Athletic I do recommend reading the whole thing, because I’m not going to quote or paraphrase everything.

Anyways, Scott relays a story of when Abramov was newly arrived in Quebec and still really working on his English, he was told that he gets pushed around too much and needs to get stronger. At the time, he was 5’9” or 5’10” and not much more than 150 pounds.

After this was conveyed to him, his billet family passed on to the coach that he was doing pushups in his room during his free time to get stronger.

“His billet was like, ‘What’s going on?’ And [Abramov] said, ‘I want to get bigger and stronger, I need to keep the puck more.’

And as of this year, Scott’s piece notes, he seems to have grown a couple of inches and is now 6’0” — though both eliteprospects.com and theqmjhl.ca both list him as 5’11”. His training has also helped him bulk up a bit, up to 162 lbs (QMJHL.ca). That’s still a bit beanpole-ish, but it does point to his maturing physically that would help him against his competition.

His assistant coach last season also touched on his drive and desire to work on improving himself as a player:

When Abramov wasn’t scoring before Christmas, he would stay on the ice late after every practice to work on his shot, according to Desruisseaux.

“Mikhail is a great kid, great personality, he’s a great kid to work with, and he’s really attentive. He wants to learn, he wants to be a better hockey player, he wants to be stronger. He likes to do overtime and spend time on the ice,” Desruisseaux said.

After Christmas, both coaches said they saw a shift in Abramov’s game. He went from being a premier passer in the league to more of a well-rounded threat.

To back that up, if you check the game logs from after Christmas last season you can see that Abramov scored 13 of his 16 goals during the regular season after December 25th. In fact, let’s break it down into those halves of the season:

  • Pre-Christmas: 29 games, 3 goals, 22 assists, 80 shots, 4% shooting
  • Post-Christmas: 33 games, 13 goals, 16 assists, 87 shots, 15% shooting

Now, it’s pretty cliché to talk up any player about how hard they worked at their various skills, how they work out to get into the ‘best shape of their life’, yadda yadda yadda. Normally I roll my eyes about that sort of puff piece along with most people.

What I would say about this specific instance with Abramov is that I think it is real enough to be at least a partial factor to explain his breakout this year. He worked out a lot and got stronger, which helps him perform better in numerous areas. He also practiced improving his shot and committed to actually using it more. He already had the ability to be smart, shifty and creative for being a playmaker, which seems to have helped him translate some of those skills into scoring more goals.

You can see the payoff not just in his goal totals, but how he’s getting them. Not only is he getting close to 1.5 times more shots on goal this season, but he’s apparently shooting from more dangerous areas. He isn’t just firing shots from the outside, like that scrub William Nylander.

The QMJHL is the only of the three CHL leagues to track “dangerous shots”. How exactly they define that I don’t know, but I think we can assume there is some system or judgment that says whether a shot on net was a better scoring chance than others. I take this with a grain of salt, but considering his goal scoring this year I think it is noteworthy that Abramov is 9th in the QMJHL in dangerous shots.

In the end, all of this might not mean anything as far as his chances of making the NHL let alone becoming an impact player. However, with the Leafs’ recent history of developing their prospects, I think it’s a great sign that he’s already taken this big step forward himself — especially since some scouts, like Kevin and Scott, both had Abramov much higher than he was taken. He could wind up being a real steal in the 4th round.

To finish off, I asked Kevin for some thoughts on Abramov now that we’ve seen something different from this year, and this is what he had to say:

I decided to make my 2019 Draft Rankings a top 62, and even though Abramov wasn’t getting much hype elsewhere, he beat out 15 honourable mentions for the final spot on my list. I was thrilled when the Leafs took him in the fourth round, and frankly, I wouldn’t have batted an eye if a team took him towards the end of the second. There was clearly room to grow after scoring just 17 goals in 70 games in his draft year, but his speed and playmaking provided reasons to be optimistic.

Ahead of the draft, Abramov stood out as his team’s second leading scorer at the Hlinka-Gretzky, behind only Vasili Podkolzin. He was a go-to entry threat on the powerplay, stood out as a strong playmaker, and consistently beat defenders out wide. While six of his seven points were assists, he seemed to be one of the best players out there every time he touched the ice.

Abramov’s issue was always strength, and I thought he looked out of place with the Leafs in the prospect tournament as a result. However, he’s clearly taken a step forward in the QMJHL this year, as he’s scored 12 more goals in 17 less games. Given his age, we can expect him to continue to become a little bit stronger, and I figure he will turn some heads in next year’s World Juniors.

He’s a left-shooting centre who loves to score from the right-wing side, usually with his wrist shot. All of the sudden, he’s become a main-shooting threat on his team’s powerplay this year, and you’ll see the occasional one-timer from the right faceoff circle as well. His shooting percentage has jumped from 9.6% to 15.6% this year, and part of this is being stronger relative to his opponents (there’s now less players in the league who are older than him). Ultimately, I still see him as a playmaking centre, but it is nice to see him score goal after goal on a team that lacks offensive weapons.

Abramov Highlights