I’m calling it now, Kristians Rubins will be the first ever Toronto Maple Leaf from Latvia.
The large, smooth skating defenseman was under the radar until the Leafs signed Rubins to his 2 year ELC in April 2020. Toronto may not have even noticed him in the first place if he weren’t WJC teammates with 2015 Leaf draft pick Martins Dzierkals. Throughout his time in the Leafs organization, Rubins has continually found ways to improve. He first signed an ECHL contract as a 20 year old, earned an AHL contract in less than a month, and won a Championship with the Newfoundland Growlers, all in one season. The following year he graduated to the AHL under then Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe.
Rubins split the 20-21 season between the Marlies and Denmark, where he played for Frederik Andersen’s former team, the Frederikshavn White Hawks. His 3 points in 22 AHL games that season was unimpressive, but the Marlies were in disarray. If you look at his larger body of work, Rubins has produced at a 2nd pair rate offensively every level he’s played at.
Weight: 220 lbs
2020-21 Team: Toronto Marlies, AHL
2020 Prospect Ranking: #18
Kristians Rubins comes from a family of athletes, and took figure skating lessons as a kid. His journey from Latvia to Sweden to Medicine Hat to Toronto to Denmark and back to Toronto again has seen him adapt to many situations that will help him reach the NHL. His English is very good, in addition to speaking Swedish and Latvian.
When I watch Rubins play for Latvia internationally, he is often playing top minutes, against top competition. He is able to use his size and strength to play up to higher ranked teams respectably, with a +1 rating at the most recent World Championship where Latvia was outscored. On the ice, it’s surprising to see a 6’5″ frame with such graceful skating. Rubins doesn’t blow you away with his acceleration, but he’s got a long stride and wicked top speed in a straight line. He applies it here (#94) to join an odd man rush about 50 seconds in:
At the beginning of the 20-21 season in Denmark, Rubins played 18:23 per game and had 5 points in 21 games. He’s been all over the place, it speaks to his ability to plug and play with different partners. That’s valuable for someone looking to break into a crowded Leafs blueline.
If Rubins really is going to step in as an injury replacement as soon as this season, what can Leaf fans expect from him? A left-handed D who is excellent at retrieving pucks in his own end. His speed ensures he’s first to a lot of dump-ins, excellent footwork and a long reach allow him to close the gap on races he does lose. When the puck turns up ice, the Marlies have employed his top speed to make a 4 man rush.
The biggest thing he needs to work on is making a defensive zone pass under pressure, that is true of many young defencemen. The upside is having such a mobile defencemen that also brings physicality around the net and a huge range on the PK. There have only been 21 players in the Leafs 100+ year history listed at 6’5″ or taller. The three most recent additions to the list are Martin Marincin, Frederik Gauthier, and Pierre Engvall. It’s an interesting parallel that Engvall is a faster version of Gauthier with better puck skills, and the same can be said of Rubins and Marincin.
Rubins consistently generates offense by tipping the scales on the rush, many of his assists come from a bump pass to the open man on a 3-on-2. He is somewhat selective with his shot, and rarely lets off a booming slapshot from the point. He still has a pretty good, accurate wrister:
The ready-made NHL comparison for Rubins is Carson Soucy, who was claimed by Seattle in the expansion draft. Soucy was drafted his 2nd time eligible and didn’t fully break into the NHL until he was 25. Big, left handed D who produced offensively at a 2nd pair rate in the AHL, consistently improving until they get a chance in the show. The Leafs have a massive opportunity to develop the tall defencemen they tried to draft in Keaton Middleton, Eemeli Rasanen, and Fedor Gordeev. If he can play up to the NHL level like he played up to NHL opponents at the World Championships, they also have a chance to lock up a valuable asset for cheap.
To roll back the expectations a bit, Martin Marincin also looked excellent at the AHL level. Nothing can prepare players for how little time there is with the puck in the NHL, and Rubins has to prove he can improve upon the hot potato act Marincin often put on. Rubins is ranked #20 because he is more likely to top out as a versatile 7th D, but it’s encouraging to have a player of that archetype in house when they are so expensive to acquire on the market.
I think this is my third or fourth time writing about Rubins, from the first time I watched him in 2018 it was apparent that it was rare to find a 6’5″ defenceman with footwork that good. It doesn’t take a genius to bet on tall players when GMs fight tooth and nail to overpay them, I think Rubins’ skating is far more useful to him than his size though. It will take some patience but I genuinely believe Kristians Rubins will be the first Latvian to play for the Leafs, and he could become a staple on the bottom pair and penalty kill.
Currently I would place Rubins 9th or 10th on the Leafs D depth chart, he’s waiver exempt and could get a handful of games. He’ll be waiver exempt in 22-23 as well, if he continues along developing the way he has, Rubins will be a strong contender for the opening night roster. He started out as a longshot, but when Kyle Dubas was asked about players who could challenge for a spot in the NHL, the player he mentioned immediately after Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren on the backend was Rubins (15:45).