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T25U25: The Case for Semyon Kizimov

I voted for one of the least well-understood Leafs prospects. Here’s why.

Kate Frese / SBNation

I voted for Semyon Kizimov in the T25 this year, and I’m the only voter who ranked him. No one knows anything about Kizimov, beyond his place in the site meme that Kyle Dubas only drafts guys from the Soo or named Semyon, which is partly why he got no votes. This is his story.

The Player

Semyon Kizimov was drafted by the Leafs in 2018 in the seventh round. He is a left-shooting winger, who usually plays the right side, and he has spent his serious playing years in his hometown of Togliatti, Russia, playing for Lada. After moving up the junior ranks in the club, Kizimov was in the MHL (top junior league in Russia) full time at the time he was drafted. Last year, he played on Lada’s men’s team in the VHL (second-level men’s league below the KHL).

Kizimov had six goals and 12 assists in 30 games in his MHL season in 2017-2018 and four goals and 10 assists in 48 games in the VHL last year. He is under contract through the coming season and is likely to stay in the VHL.

Highlights

There’s not much out there to show you Kizimov, but this edited video of all his minutes in one junior game from the season before last is really interesting. You can see that he’s not the best skater ever, but he’s very tuned into the game at all times. Also, Russian junior hockey looks like passing practice compared to your average OHL game.

Conclusion

I think you can see why I voted for him, and that’s the story of Semyon Kizimov, you decide where you would rank him.

Wait a Minute

That’s it?

That’s the whole story isn’t it? The VHL and MHL games Kizimov have played in are hard to access, the press about him, if there even is any, is all in Russian, and that is the standard profile from Elite Prospects that we begin with when looking at draft picks.

Do you think you have enough information now to decide where you’d rank Kizimov? Do you know all you need to know?

All You Know is All There is to Know

Leaping gleefully to conclusion is what the T25 is all about. And humans are as naturally gifted at making that leap as Auston Matthews is at scoring from under a goalie’s nose. There are no rules for T25 voting, there aren’t even any guidelines, but what we all end up with is some kind of mixture of a ranking of how good the player is now, weighted by their probability of future NHL success.

How each voter makes both parts of those judgements is going to be influenced by their biases, preferences, beliefs about hockey and development and a host of other things. But it is also strongly influenced by their knowledge or ignorance of the players and the leagues they play in.

For a player like Kizimov, that gulf of ignorance is wide and deep in all of us, about him and about the MHL and VHL. There is a proximity or familiarity bias in the T25 that we all know and expect, and it’s not an outrage that no one has made a personal study of Kizmov’s season on Lada this year. I’ve never watched him play. So it’s not fair to blame voters for their ignorance, and we shouldn’t hesitate to acknowledge the gaps in our knowledge. That’s the first step to avoiding the trap of thinking that what we do know is all we need to know.

The Player, Reprise

Kizimov has a January birthdate which means he’ll turn 20 in the middle of the coming season, but even though he’s barely a teenager still, he is the eighth youngest player on the T25 eligibility list. The younger seven are Rasmus Sandin, Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, and five players drafted this summer.

By accident of his birth, Kizimov has grown up in the local club, Lada, in his hometown. Russian club systems do not conform to rigid age restrictions like Canadian Junior hockey, so he played on multiple teams every year until last season. He got a look in on the U16 team at age 15 before making the roster the next year. He got some time on the U17 team that year before moving up and playing both on the U18 team and the MHL team at age 17. The MHL is the highest level junior league, with an age 20 limit, making it similar to the CHL. At 18, Kizimov was in the MHL fulltime and last year he played on Lada’s men’s team in the VHL.

Just as Kizimov got old enough and good enough to make the men’s team, Lada — due mostly to financial concerns — was removed from the KHL in a league restructuring. This wasn’t a relegation, the criteria used was ticket sales and financial health. Lada became the farm team of KHL team Lokomotiv last season, but Kizimov played the whole year in the VHL. He also got three games on Russia’s U20 team, although not at the WJC.

He’s not a top-level prospect in Russia for his age, but he was a success at age 19 on a team broadly analogous to the AHL in the Russian system. In terms of his level achieved, he’s matched age-mate Rasmus Sandin and is ahead of Riley Stotts, who is almost his age as well. Stotts will play in the WHL again this season, while Sandin and Kizimov will continue in pro hockey playing as one of the youngest players on their teams.

Hitting the Big Time

Going pro for a player is hard, but in Russia, with the club structure, you often don’t have to go anywhere to go pro. For Kizimov, he was still with Lada, still in familiar surroundings, just on a new team. He played 48 games out of a possible 56 last year, and three of their four playoff games, and only one other young player from the club was a regular like that.

Lokomotiv, with a more impressive pool of young prospects than Lada, put a few of their juniors in some Lada games, and it’s clear that Kirill Slepets (Hurricanes) and Grigori Denisenko (Panthers) were better prospects, so I’m not claiming that Kizimov is another Andreas Johnsson, but he’s not someone who should be brushed off as a no-hoper either.

One of the things that’s tough about comparing a player like Kizimov with someone like Stotts, who I also voted into the T25, is that Stotts has gaudy looking stats playing in a league for teenagers. He had 57 points in 62 games last season. If he did that in Ontario, we’d all be pencilling him into the Leafs lineup in two years alongside the much older Justin Brazeau. Kizimov’s 14 points in 48 games don’t move the needle. To claim those numbers are impressive, you need to compare him to his peers, not to the whole of a Russian men’s league. And you should. But you need to do more than that, you need to recognize the differences in playing pro vs playing junior hockey.

When I write the European Report every week in-season, it’s inevitable that someone will declare the whole list a bunch of draft busts and lament how terrible it is that [insert name of the GM or AGM they don’t like here] drafted all the wrong players. It’s inevitable that, as we embark on the T25, someone is going to be extremely perplexed at how the voters ranked some of those junior stars they’re familiar with. The exploits of a teenager in a men’s league just don’t thrill anyone. Consider how many times you’ve heard someone confidently opine that Timothy Liljegren (top pair D in the AHL at 20) is a bust.

Playing Against Men is not just a square on a prospect bingo card, it’s a major factor in considering the results a player has. But it isn’t just that the players are bigger, stronger and meaner that matters. It’s also a question of how advanced the skills are of a prospect’s teammates. Are they playing track-meet hockey like a junior team? Or are they playing a more sophisticated, more adult game? And does that game expose some weaknesses that roaring up and down an OHL rink hides?

Rasmus Sandin, who is glorious to watch anywhere, is a great deal brighter in his glory at the WJC or in the Soo than he was in his first AHL season. All his junior hockey habits were exposed. He looked lost defensively sometimes. So does Liljegren, and yet, despite those weaknesses, they succeeded at playing top-four roles at a much higher level. You can, if you forget that the easy days of being the best player on the team are long gone, be so disappointed in a prospect who hits pro hockey and hits a bit of a wall, that you overreact to it. William Nylander is different class of player than the ones I’m talking about today. So don’t go looking for any of the European players Kizimov’s age and younger to do what he did at that age as a pro.

Kizimov in the VHL

In 2018-2019, the VHL had 1,043 skaters who played at least one game and 604 of them played at least half the season. Thirty-seven of that 604 were U20 players and only 14 of them were U19. There was not enough teenagers playing a regular roster role to put one on every team.

Of those 14 players, Kizimov is second in games played, fourth in total points and fourth in points per game. Two of the players ahead of him were on Zvezda, the VHL feeder team for CSKA, a very wealthy club who won the Gagarin Cup. One of them had enough games on CSKA itself to get his name on that cup this year. For Kizimov to do what he’s doing on a good, but not great or wealthy team full of top players, is impressive.

Kizimov got just over 14 minutes per game, so he wasn’t quite a fourth liner, but he was tenth on the team for forwards in minutes per game. His peers on Zvezda played about the same minutes, so the crowd of them are all about equal in their results and usage.

Stotts was 18th in the WHL by total points for U19 players, and a little better by points per game, so while he was very good, the gap between him and the elites at his age who were playing in the same league is notable. Just like Kizimov isn’t quite Vasily Podkolzin (who had similar stats in a short tour of the VHL), Stotts isn’t Dylan Cozens or Kirby Dach.

In the WHL, Stotts was a second line forward, likely playing a couple of more shifts every game than Kizimov did. Could he have played in the AHL the way Kizimov was playing pro? I think so. But I bet he wouldn’t have been on the second line or putting up 60 points while he was there.

This coming season, given the ownership structure and his contract status, Kizimov is likely to stay on Lada while Lokomotiv focuses on their own prospects, and Stotts is going back for his final year in the WHL. I know who’s going to have more points. And yet, I can’t help but think that right now Kizimov is doing better at a harder job.

Is This Guy Really Going to Make the NHL?

Time to cut to the chase. Is Semyon Kizimov a future NHLer? This is the part of the T25 voting where you take all you can find on a prospect and weight it by his probability of going all the way to the NHL. I think the probability leans to no. Only a tiny percentage of very late draft picks make it. Russian players have other options — Kizimov is getting paid to play hockey right now, unlike Stotts. And most of the players we actually do rank on the bottom half of our T25 never make it.

So the question for me is how slim a chance is he? And I say, a lot less than you think if all you look at his points before your attention is caught by the junior hockey stars who shine so much brighter in their artificially controlled environment. I weighted my probabilities very, very heavily by age this time around, and given how young Kizimov (and Stotts) is relative to the rest of the T25 list, bloated up with 24-year-old NHLers, I thought they both deserved to make the list.

I picked a host of younger prospects over players like Joe Duszak and Adam Brooks, Andreas Borgman and Dmytro Timashov. All of those players on the Marlies have short runways to make the NHL and they are nearing the peak of their development phase. None of them are elite in pro hockey, not even for their ages. Kizimov is.