The Curious Case of Arthur Kaliyev

Arthur Kaliyev was drafted early in the second round, falling out of the first round where he was expected to go. Kaliyev has an elite skill set and has very few comparables that haven’t amounted to excellent NHLers. Why would he fall out of the first round?

Kaliyev, an OHL product, registered an NHLe of 37 in his draft year. Kaliyev was also one of the younger forwards in the 2019 draft, born June 26, 2001. Those features alone are generally enough for a player to be drafted in the first round. Since 2000, only 21 forwards meet the parameters of CHL product, NHLe over 30 in DY and summer-born. 16 of the 21 of these forwards were drafted in the first round.

Kaliyev’s season, conversely, is even more remarkable. Kaliyev is a pure goal scorer. He registered 51 goals in his draft year, which, given his age, is truly remarkable. He is one of five CHL forwards since 2000 to register a 50 goal season before turning 18. The others on this list are Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, Jeff Skinner and Alex DeBrincat.

If we update our initial list to also include only players to score even 40 goals or more in their draft year as well, we’re left with eight forwards. Kaliyev is the only one that wasn’t drafted in the first round.

Fast forward to 2020, Kaliyev’s D+1 year, Kaliyev returned to the OHL and upgraded his NHLe to 42. With that improvement, Kaliyev has improved his stock dramatically. The total group (all leagues) of younger players that have progressed from an NHLe of 30 in one’s draft year to an NHLe beyond 40 in one’s D+1 year is exceptionally small. Since 2000, only 14 players have done this. All but one have made or are on pace to make the NHL, half of them turned into stars. Some examples include: Malkin, Pastrnak and Vilardi. Before Kaliyev has ever played a game in the NHL, he is in some remarkable company.

Kaliyev has many of the features that teams covet at the draft: he’s big, he’s younger than his peers, he’s a goal scorer and he’s a CHL product. So why did Kaliyev fall out of the first round?

One thing for sure is he’s a bit different. His combine interviews were odd and not as polished as the other high-end hockey prospects that would have been interviewed by every team. The other reason is, despite owning an elite offensive toolkit, he lacks in many other areas of the game.

To find out more about Kaliyev, I reached out to my friend Jack Han (@JHanHky on twitter), former Assistant Coach with the Marlies and Hockey Ops Assistant with the Maple Leafs. Han is someone who personally scouted Kaliyev prior to the 2019 draft and has a unique perspective on him.

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BB: You’ve mentioned that Kaliyev has faults but he’s also brilliant… what makes him brilliant?

JH: In one critical way Kaliyev is exactly like any elite hockey player: he changes the parameters of the game to suit his skill set. While his conditioning, acceleration and defensive effort are subpar, those factors become irrelevant when he is playing to his strengths which are his knack for finding effective routes to the puck and his ability to make plays once it is on his stick.

When I watch Kaliyev play I see two different types of shifts: ones where he is able to get a touch early and ones where he is not. When he gets a possession early in his shift he looks dominant, because he can move the puck in a certain way (up, laterally or even backwards, almost always a short distance (i.e., less than 20 feet)) that allows him to be involved later on in the sequence.

Jack provided a few clips via @InStatHockey to show Kaliyev at his best and at his worst. This is him at his best. Notice how he supports, tracks, make short passes to regroup and start the offense the other way. Notice how hungry he is when he senses there’s offense brewing. Especially, if he senses he’s going to get a piece of that offense.

BB: Where does Kaliyev really struggle?

JH: Defensive play, conditioning, effort. When he doesn’t get that critical first possession, the game passes him by and he tends to disengage. I’ve also heard a wild rumor that he is older than his birth certificate says (BB: I also heard this around the draft last year). I don’t believe that rumor simply because a lot of what I see driving his success is superior software in terms of his skills and hockey IQ. He’s not producing in the OHL just by the virtue of being more mature physically.

Here Jack provides some bad Kaliyev moments. Notice how disinterested and disconnected he is when there’s hard work to be done in the defensive zone to get the puck back.

BB: What is Kaliyev at the next level? What is he going to need to thrive?

JH: He will struggle at the next level if he can’t consistently manufacture that critical first touch, which usually comes in the DZ, under pressure and maybe with his back to the opposing net. He needs to improve that aspect. Also he will have a hard time producing if he is not playing with linemates who are good at creating and sustaining offensive sequences. The more touches he gets and the more possession sequences his line generates, the more he is going to score and the better his defensive play is going to be.

The ideal linemates for him would be strong at transitioning the puck and using the width of the ice to make plays while Kaliyev catches up. Alex Turcotte is certainly a very promising center, but I’m curious what Kaliyev could do with Akil Thomas as well – another player whose sense and skill make up for a lack of top speed. On defense prospects such as Jordan Spence and Kim Nousiainen play the type of modern, possession game that could maximize time-on-offense, which certainly helps.

BB: Who are some current and former NHLers he compares with?

JH: Obviously there are very few NHLers in his mold. In terms of current players, Alex DeBrincat comes to mind, in the quality of his first touch and ability to sniff out space to get his shot off. Thomas Vanek is a player who had terrific scoring numbers but wound up becoming closing to a replacement-level player in the second half of his career because of how much he gave up defensively. He basically did not care about getting pucks in the DZ at all, not dissimilar to Kaliyev. If we go further back in time perhaps a good comparable is Luc Robitaille, who ironically is the president of the team that drafted Kaliyev. Slow boots, questionable defensively, fantastic knack for scoring goals.

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Kaliyev and DeBrincat, specifically, are nearly identical in their progression thus far. Kaliyev was six months younger than DeBrincat, comparing when they were drafted. If we rewind Kaliyev’s draft year to be his D-1, to put DeBrincat and Kaliyev on the same playing field, they are identical.

Can we expect Kaliyev to go back to the OHL, register an NHLe over 50, and make an immediate impact in the NHL in the 2021-22 season? I wouldn’t say no!

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