General Manager Kyle Dubas addressed the media after the selection of Rodion Amirov with the 15th overall selection in the 2020 NHL draft, discussing Amirov’s traits as a player on and off the ice, the process behind selecting him, and the lack of trade activity on day one of the draft.
What attributes did you see in Rodion Amirov that made you comfortable selecting him at 15?
Dubas: Number one is speed. We consider it to be amongst the best in the class. We like his ability throughout last year and into this season as well to find a way to make an impact at the KHL level. He certainly did that, especially as they’ve had some injuries and illness on their club and he’s been able to step up this year. He has played for the national team and played well there. When he is not producing, he is able to contribute using his speed on the penalty kill and forechecking. We really like his game on and off the puck. We were excited to have the chance to take him when we did.
What can you say about Jim Paliafito and his knack for cultivating relationships and finding players overseas like this?
Dubas: Jimmy does an unbelievable job for us in every facet in which we employ him. He is especially great when it comes to cultivating relationships with players and agents. I think everyone knows the list of players that have come over here — Barabanov, Lehtonen, Mikheyev prior to him, Ozhiganov, Zaitsev, Aaltonen, Lindholm. Jimmy has done an excellent job. He spends a lot of time there — a lot of time building relationships with the agents and the players and even the teams.
More than anything, he makes players comfortable in deciding where to go and in coming here. It makes them comfortable when they come here that they’ve already got a relationship with a key member of our staff.
With this pick here, obviously, Jim has watched Rodion play a lot, but you also have to give credit to our European staff — Ari Vuori, our director of European scouting, as well as Grigori Shafigulin and Olegs Koreskovs. They were all very high on him and did a lot of background work on him. We are appreciative of their efforts.
How much were you able to get over and see him before everything happened?
Dubas: I did not see him live. I saw him at the Canada-Russia series that the CHL puts on, but I did not see him live in Russia. But I feel I have watched every single one of his games in the course of the pause as our video staff with Will Sibley and Adam Jancelewicz and our scouting staff did a great job of making that readily available to us. It has been good to be able to spend a lot of time watching all of these players.
Does it give you a different perspective watching on video versus in person?
Dubas: I think so. The positives of video are you able to stop and rewind and go back and double check things. Live, you get a great read on the player’s body language and how they interact with their teammates — some of the things you can’t see on the cameras. Both have their uses. Unfortunately, for the last seven months, with the way everything has gone in the world, video was the only way to go. We weren’t able to go back over there once their season started for obvious reasons regarding travel restrictions.
We appreciate both in-person and video scouting. Our scouts last year saw him play a ton over in Russia in the VHL and MHL and KHL and in international play. We were able to do a lot on video from March until today.
You mentioned the need league wide to try to get players into the lineup as soon as can be. Do you have any idea on Rodion’s future in terms of coming over here? Is it longer term because he is in Russia?
Dubas: I don’t know if it is going to be a need. I don’t know if I would term it as a need. I think it would be something that would happen naturally just because of the various different limitations that are going to be placed on each time economically and with the salary cap staying flat.
With Rodion, his contract expires at the end of the season with Ufa. In our discussions with him, it has been deemed that it is his desire to have a great season there and then have a discussion about his status.
They have done a great job there with him developing him and making him earn his way up the lineup at the KHL level. When he has been lower in the lineup and not getting his minutes, they’ve got a great situation where they put him in the VHL and get him big minutes there in all situations. We think highly of their program and the way they have developed him thus far. We will continue to stay in touch with his representative, Dan Milstein at Gold Star, and with the club and Rodion as well.
Does he project to you as a top six eventually, if everything pans out?
Dubas: With the way that our team is constructed, by the time he is at his peak and is sort of getting into his potential… He just turned 19 years old at the beginning of the month a few days ago. By the time he is entering into his prime, it is five years from now. Suddenly, the guys who are a part of our core will all be nearing 30. That is kind of sad to think about, but that is just the reality of the situation.
We certainly envision him, because of his ability on and off the puck, to be able to play up with our top players with his speed, with his playmaking ability, and his ability to drive possession the puck in transition. That is our expectation when picking someone there: try to find someone that can play at the top of our lineup.
Some of the flavour of a Nikita Kucherov appears to be there with this player. Do you see the same thing? Or would you not dare make that comparison at this point?
Dubas: Well, if it turns out that way, we will be thrilled. That is a heck of a player. It is tough to compare because Kucherov was in North America at the time and the numbers in major junior are easily accumulated than if you are playing at the men’s professional level in Russia or in Europe as a 17 and 18-year-old.
What we like about him is that, especially in international play and the U18 tournament and various other events, he has scored at a high level. When he has been with Ufa at the MHL and VHL level, he has scored there. Now, at the KHL level this year — not that this year played a huge factor in it, but he is up at the top of their lineup in their top two lines on their team and he is scoring there as well. All of that is intriguing to us.
When you start talking about drafting Russian forwards, in particular, the narrative and what gets branded on them is that they might not be a good two-way player, but this guy really is. We really like what he brings on both sides of the puck.
Does the certainty that he is going to play in the KHL for likely a full season this year factor into the pick at all?
Dubas: I don’t think so. Those are circumstances the prospects themselves don’t control. Talking to the Ufa staff, it certainly alleviated any concerns you would have. If all of the other leagues were playing, you would know everyone is there and you would worry, “Is he going to play in the KHL? Is he going to be in the VHL? What level is he going to be at?” But they have had quite a bit of illness and injury, and as recently as two weeks ago, he was on their top line with a former player of ours in Nikita Soshnikov. It gives you a pretty good way to compare him against a much older player — a player eight years older.
It was certainly appealing to us in talking to the Ufa staff just how they view him and how they are going to use him throughout the year. It did eliminate one bit of uncertainty as much as we can, but we didn’t hold it against anybody. Say they were from the WHL or USHL or the OHL or even some of the leagues in Europe that ave pushed back — be it in Germany or Switzerland — we tried to eliminate that and say, “If the player is not playing, it is not their fault. They are not in control of it. We will do everything we can to develop them.”
In your limited conversations, what kind of stuck out to you about who he is off the ice as a person?
Dubas: Our staff met with him extensively and then I met with him recently because he was one of the players in consideration for the pick. I think the thing I liked about him the most is just what he views as his ability to make an impact and where in the lineup — his ability to make an impact up and down the lineup, and more than anything, the way he has talked about what he has faced in the last year and a bit, which is trying to make his way in the KHL on a good team and earn his way into being a full-time player and into the lineup.
Not a lot of players that we draft are faced with the same thing. Whether they are from major junior, college, or other places in Europe, they are usually kind of at the top of the lineup on junior teams or leagues at a lower level, relatively speaking, so they have always been top-line guys. This guy has had the experience and opportunity already to work his way up the lineup from being on the fourth line all the way to the top, like most players have to when they come over here or turn pro in North America.
That is appealing to us. We know he can do that. We know he has the mental dexterity to deal with it when things aren’t going well. Despite the fact that he has always been a high-end player, he has got to find his way to make an impact. We really like that about him and that is one of the things that excites us about him.
It seemed it went right down to the wire before the pick was made. Were you debating the selection or weighing a trade?
Dubas: There were a number of trade situations that we were considering. If we were going to make the pick, it wasn’t at all a discussion of Rodion against anybody else. We were just contemplating all of the different scenarios that were coming in, really, from the time Winnipeg picked right through to our pick right at the very end. In the end, we just made the pick right at the buzzer.
Can you give us an idea of the ambiance of the draft? Did the remoteness of it change how much you might’ve talked to other teams about moving up or down? Were there any kind of video glitches or anything like that along the way?
Dubas: No glitches. The staff here in our building did a great job — Reid Mitchell as always and then Steve Keogh and his staff on the media relations side, and Emiliano Martinez, who is our IT lead. They had everything ready to roll. There were no glitches.
It was very similar to the draft [as usual]. As the picks were coming close and our pick was coming close, there was lots of activity on the phones for trades up and trades down. It seemed like business as usual. On the floor, you are not walking over to teams a lot. They are calling on the phone. It was the same here.
It was a little bit different, but the same in terms of the ambiance in the actual draft room as it was in the Soo when we did drafts a similar way. All in all, I thought the experience was great.
You have 10 more picks tomorrow. How eager are you to use one or more of those to try to help the current roster and spend some of the futures to help the now?
Dubas: I mean, we would certainly look to that if we could. As you saw tonight, there really wasn’t any of that happening. All of the picks and trades were for movement on picks and not actual players. As I mentioned in the call yesterday, you see different players that are coming available that aren’t getting qualified by their teams. Before you get into trying to moving assets for players, you want to see everything that is available.
We certainly know what we are trying to do. We are trying to get as good of a read as we can of 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.