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Curious about Rodion Amirov?

How is this season going for the Leafs only first-round pick?

Russia v Germany: Quarterfinals - 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

Rodion Amirov, drafted 15th overall by Toronto in 2020, plays hockey in the KHL in Ufa. It’s not quite halfway around the world, but it is about 8,000 kilometres and nine time zones away. That’s a long way to armchair quarterback his usage, but that won’t stop anyone. Not even me.

To begin, this is his 2021-2022 gamelog:

Rodion Amirov Gamelog

Date Teams Score TOI SFT G A P PIM ESG PPG SHG OTG SOG %SOG HITS BLS FOA
Date Teams Score TOI SFT G A P PIM ESG PPG SHG OTG SOG %SOG HITS BLS FOA
29 Dec 2021 Barys - Salavat Yulaev 1:2 11:09 15 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 - 0 0 0
27 Dec 2021 Sibir - Salavat Yulaev 3:2 ОТ 13:06 20 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 1 0
25 Dec 2021 Salavat Yulaev - Avtomobilist 4:2 8:26 10 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 - 1 0 0
22 Dec 2021 Spartak - Salavat Yulaev 3:2 Б 14:09 19 1 0 1 0 1 0 0 0 2 50 0 0 0
20 Dec 2021 Kunlun RS - Salavat Yulaev 3:4 ОТ 13:32 18 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 0
6 Dec 2021 Salavat Yulaev - Admiral 4:2 1:08 2 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 - 0 0 0
29 Sep 2021 Salavat Yulaev - Avtomobilist 3:2 11:28 16 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0
25 Sep 2021 Lokomotiv - Salavat Yulaev 2:3 ОТ 9:09 13 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 - 0 0 1
23 Sep 2021 SKA - Salavat Yulaev 2:4 11:54 16 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 0

This is overly complete because I thought it might be fun to let you see how you interpret stats from the KHL. I moved his ice time and number of shifts over so it’s easier to see, however.

First thing to understand is that this is all-situations, and the only way you can know special teams time is to manually track the games or have access to some other data source that is proprietary. Often when people tell you about power play usage for KHL players, they are guessing based on watching a few games. One way to tell is by the power play goals (PPG) — you don’t get to see the assists — and Amirov has zero. Look, he has a lot of zeroes, that’s really the takeaway here. He has not had any impact on his team to speak of all season.

The only shooting stat reported is shots on goal, so this is a bit like AHL stats, where you can’t really tell how much someone shoots when the blocks and misses go unreported. Suffice it to say, Amirov is not shooting a lot.

Way over on the right side of the table is the things that aren’t covered by points. Hits, blocks, and FOA, which is foul against, so we can see he’s drawn one penalty and taken none. He’s blocked one shot and landed one hit. Does he even play? Well, slide back to the left of the chart, and that answer is clear.

Amirov began the season in September playing around 10 minutes a game for three games. Two of those games were against playoff teams in the West, and one was against perennial bottom-feeder Avtomobilist, the Senators of the KHL. And then he got hurt, and the team didn’t cease to exist, the way it often seems to when you follow prospect news. The games went on without the NHL-drafted prospect.

Salavat Yulaev is serious about winning with a fellow on their top line you may have heard of, Teemu Hartikainen, one of the best skaters in the KHL right now. Hartikainen is 31, which is in his prime in the KHL where careers last longer. They want to win before he ages out of that prime, though. He averages 18 minutes per game

Another fellow you might have heard of, Nikolai Kulemin, was plucked from semi-retirement, given a PTO and took the second-line right wing job that all the Leafs prospect watchers hoped Amirov would grab. Kulemin, 35, is having a renaissance season, and plays 16 minutes a night. They also traded for Viktor Tikhonov, and have the very good Alexander Kadeykin, as well as the other two great Finns, Markus Granlund and Sakari Manninen. They acquired KHL veteran Geoff Platt and Sergei Shmelyov this year as well. They loaded up, in other words.

Amirov, even when he’s healthy and playing third or fourth line, isn’t going to get big minutes, because the team and the coach want that top-heavy, top-two lines to play most of the game. They have to, if they want to win. They aren’t the AHL, they aren’t a development league and they don’t wink into existence only for the brief moment that one prospect is playing. Twenty-year-old Amirov has to take Kulemin’s job. Which he has about as much chance at this season as he does taking Fulemin’s job.

This picture tells the story:

Happy Amirov (#27) smiling up at the dour old men above him, the grim and determined 30+ crowd who are going to carry Salavat Yulaev as far as they can.

The KHL is unlike the NHL in this way. Sure, there’s hot young players there, and a glance to the right on that picture shows you the defenceman filling in for Shakir Mukhamadullin, who was busy getting on a new flight back from the WJC (after getting kicked off the first one) and couldn’t make this game. Mukhamadullin, not hampered by injury, has played all year, and at 19, looks to have taken a step.

Another way the KHL is not like the NHL is that they aren’t limping through the first third of their season. They’re roaring through the back third. The trade deadline has passed, the teams are pushing for playoff spots and they’ve already played 45 games. They have an Olympics to go to, and in less than three weeks, they will go on a month-long break.

When they come back in late February, they have a week to play before playoffs start. They’ve done this before. They know how this schedule goes, and the fact is playoff teams need to get their house in order before the break, not try to come out hot in that final week.

Progress in hockey is often not a straight line. Amirov is not a bust, and this isn’t an evil plot by the evil KHL team of evil who don’t realize that the Leafs are all that matters. He’s a kid, he’s been hurt — the extent to which we don’t really know — and he’s not going to put Salavat Yulaev over the top. This isn’t his year. But that break coming up is not going to hurt him. If he’s struggling with building on his basic game, and he seems to be, some skill development is not going to go amiss. The VHL does not have an Olympic break, so Amirov might play there, and that won’t be a demotion, it will be an opportunity.

Amirov’s trouble is that he has a game that will look familiar to watchers of Mitch Marner, but he’s not at Marner’s level of playmaking. He needs to shoot, and he needs, frankly, to shoot smarter. Reports say he’s taken some strides this year, but at the WJC last year, where he could get away with junior habits, he floated back to the blue line from the left circle too much. He wants to fade in and out of the peripheral vision of the defenders, but he ended up just fading out of the play. His game is there, the work needs to be done to build on what he has.

The coach of Salavat Yulaev is Tomi Lämsä, a man hired specifically to bring Finnish systems and teamwork to a team that can’t buy its way to a championship in the KHL like SKA or CSKA can. They can’t just rely on having the better forward line on the ice at all times. There’s no indication he doesn’t “like” Amirov, or is holding him back out of some philosophy of not playing young players. He just needs to make the best team he can out of who he has every night. Even when they play the bad teams, he has to push the team.

Let’s see how Amirov does from now to the break at the end of this month, and then remember to check in on him after, to see how he used that time. But this is real hockey, not a development league, and if you want ice time, you have to make it impossible not to have it given to you.