Over the last six months, as the Maple Leafs have transitioned from a team fumbling around for a playoff spot to a team on the rebuilding path, the team has made several moves to acquire young talent.
Trades during the season brought in Brendan Leipsic from Nashville's system. Trades in the off-season brought Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington in from Pittsburgh's system. The Leafs signed Casey Bailey out of the NCAA. Mark Hunter added enormous amounts of skill and potential at the Entry Draft via Mitch Marner, Travis Dermott, Jeremy Bracco and others.
So you can be forgiven, with all of that excitement, to have forgotten about a move that was announced during the run-in to last season that wouldn't impact the team until this coming season. Towards the end of March, the Leafs announced the signing of Nikita Soshnikov, a 21 year-old forward playing for Atalant Mytishchi of the KHL.
However, unlike most signings out of the NCAA or CHL at that time of year, Soshnikov didn't immediately move into the organization in some capacity. The deal was set to begin this coming year. So now, nearly six months after announcing the signing Maple Leafs fans will be getting their first glimpses of Soshnikov.
Soshnikov is an intriguing prospect from an avenue that isn't often explored, and he debuts at #18 on our countdown.
Last season was Soshnikov's second season playing professionally in Russia, and one in which he established himself as a relied upon contributor (jumping from 5 points in 33 games to 32 points in 57 games).
It's unclear exactly what we can glean from Soshnikov's KHL numbers and trying to project them to North America. Looking at KHL statistics on Eliteprospects is a bit of a chore because he falls just outside some of the prospect filters they have.
What I did find was that Soshnikov's 21 year old season is comparable* to Pittsburgh free agent signing Sergei Plotnikov, former Coyotes prospect Viktor Tikhonov, and now Anaheim Duck Jiri Sekac, among several other players who've stayed in Russia. The truth is that most impact players that come from the KHL to North America (Evgeny Kuznetsov and Vladimir Tarasenko, for example) performed much better in the KHL at similar ages.
*To clarify, I'm comparing what Soshnikov did in the season he turned 21 to what those guys did in the season that they turned 21.
It's probably unreasonable to expect Soshnikov to come over and be a front-line guy that leads the attack and is a major contributor to the Leafs going forward. And that's okay, because when you sign free agents at 21 years of age 99 times out of 100 that's an unreasonable expectation.
His comparables I mentioned were or are expected to be contributing depth players at the NHL level, and given the competition and uncertainty at the lower end of the NHL depth charts, it's not unreasonable to think that some Russian-based players who might be in tough to carve out a role in the NHL would be content to stay in Russia.
There, they can be more certain of employment and a higher salary than they would make in the AHL - though that mindset could change given Russia's current financial issues.
We talked to ESPN's Corey Pronman about Soshnikov and where we might expect him to fit into the Leafs plans this season;
PPP: Soshnikov is almost a forgotten man in the Leaf system, with so many new faces brought in this offseason. What can we look forward to from him?
CP: Very good puck handler and skater with high-end creativity, with a subpar off the puck game. Good not great prospect, but for sure arguably a top 10 player in that system.
PPP: Do you think his experience playing professionally in the KHL gives Nikita a leg up in trying to compete for an NHL job, or does he need seasoning in the AHL?
CP: That always helps but he'll need a huge summer training wise to be a guy to look for out of camp. Midseason or next season seems more realistic.
PPP: If Soshnikov succeeds in cracking the NHL lineup, where do you see him fitting?
CP: 3rd line player, maybe a 2nd in a best case scenario.
The large variance in rankings isn't particularly surprising, given the limited information we have on both what to expect from Soshnikov and where he fits into the Leafs plans (given how many new forwards were added since his signing).
One could probably argue that this ranking is almost provisional, based on further information about where the Leafs see him in his transition from playing overseas.
The Leafs competition for roster spots in the NHL is significantly overcrowded and it will be interesting to see how the Leafs desire to follow the "Detroit model" of prospect development affects a guy like Soshnikov.
Odds are that he'll be ticketed for the AHL to start, to work on development on the defensive side of the game, as the additions of Taylor Beck, Mark Arcobello, Shawn Matthias and others have given the Leafs several options to fill out their lineup.