The pause, Kyle Dubas later confirmed, was not for dramatic effect.
But the delay was pronounced enough that commissioner Gary Bettman began asking the Toronto Maple Leafs if they wanted to take a timeout while deliberating what to do with the 15th pick during Tuesday’s virtual NHL draft.
Inside the makeshift war room at Scotiabank Arena, there was no debate about who to select. Russian forward Rodion Amirov was their guy. But the Leafs first had to weigh the merits of trading back, adding additional assets and likely settling for someone other than Amirov instead.
“There were a number of trade situations that we were considering,” said Dubas. “We were just contemplating all of the different scenarios that were coming in really from the time Winnipeg picked [at No. 10] right through to our pick right at the very end.
“Then in the end just made the pick right at the buzzer.”
The draft is no easy exercise when you’re a team trying to win now.
Amirov is already competing against men in the KHL and could eventually provide a big boost as someone capable of making an impact on a cost-controlled, entry-level contract. But that might be years away even if things go well. The 19-year-old is under contract with Salavat Yulaev Ufa until spring 2021 and there doesn’t seem to be any thought he’ll be pushing his way into the NHL immediately afterwards.
In other words: His presence in the organization doesn’t do much for Auston Matthews, Morgan Rielly and Mitch Marner, who announced the selection. At least not in the foreseeable future. That’s partly why Dubas spoke openly about flipping this 15th pick from the moment he acquired it in the Kasperi Kapanen trade with Pittsburgh and ultimately listened to offers right up until he was on the clock with the selection.
“By the time he’s kind of entering into his prime, it’s five years from now and suddenly a lot of the guys who are part of our core will all be nearing 30,” Dubas said of Amirov. “That’s kind of sad to think about, but that’s just the reality of the situation.”
At least he fits the profile of what Toronto should be drafting for right now. Dubas saw Amirov play live in the Canada/Russia Series nearly a year ago and has used the COVID-19 pause to comb over video of his games at various levels of the domestic league.
His speed is “amongst the best in the class,” according to the Leafs GM. Dubas came away from a recent call with the prospect believing he’s better off for having to fight his way through Salavat’s lineup as a teenager.
He’s currently producing as a top-six winger on a team that’s seen a number of players contract coronavirus.
“What we like about him is that, especially in international play and at the under-18 tournaments and various different events, he’s scored at a high level,” said Dubas. “When he’s been with Ufa at the MHL and VHL level he’s scored there. And now at the KHL level this year — not that this year played a huge factor in it — but he’s up at the top of their lineup in their top two lines, on their team, and he’s scoring there as well.”
Ideally, the Leafs project him doing the same thing in the NHL one day.
“I think we certainly envision him, because of his ability on and off the puck, to be able to play up with our top players,” said Dubas. “With his speed, with his play-making ability and his ability to drive possession and the puck in transition, that’s our expectation.”
Let’s consider it an open question as to whether his development timeline will mesh with the one the Leafs are on. As much as they’d love to sustain a long window of contention that requires the pipeline to continually be refilled, most Stanley Cup contenders sacrifice a huge amount of draft pick and prospect capital to get there.
Toronto is still in that chase position. Dubas acknowledged that he’d be willing to move some of the 10 picks he holds in the lower rounds Wednesday in order to provide more immediate help for his team.
“I think that we certainly know what we’re trying to do,” said Dubas. “We’re trying to get as good a read as we can on the market and free agency. If there are opportunities tomorrow to improve the team with some of those picks we won’t hesitate to do so.”
The Leafs clearly have their eye on some free-agent bargains, especially among the pool of restricted free agents who don’t receive qualifying offers before Wednesday’s 5 p.m. ET deadline. There are expected to be more of those than usual this off-season.
We should see a much more active trade market in the days ahead, too.
Those are areas where Dubas needs to make his mark to boost a talent-laden roster that’s lost in the first round of playoffs each of the last four years. The draft is exciting when your team has been down and out, but this is a group that’s shown lots of promise without the breakthrough.
That’s why they took so long to call Amirov’s name on Tuesday night. They love the prospect, but have only so much need for prospects right now. They certainly weren’t trying to add any spice to the made-for-TV draft.
“We try to reduce the drama here as much as we can here,” said Dubas. “That’s our goal anyway. We’d like to be more successful at it as we move ahead.”
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