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Vitaly Abramov: Belleville’s Unsung Hero

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With every deep prospect pipeline comes great fanfare for those at the top. This week, we’ll take a look at Vitaly Abramov’s second season with the Belleville Senators and why he shouldn’t be disregarded as a contender for a roster spot.

AHL: FEB 29 Belleville Senators at Cleveland Monsters Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In every great movie, there is a star that carries the action. If you’re looking for examples, simply check out Meryl Streep’s IMDB page. But, while Streep is an impeccable actress with a mantle decorated with accolades, there are few films she’s starred in that are without an excellent supporting cast. In The Devil Wears Prada, Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of Nigel was a wonderful compliment. In Julie & Julia, Amy Adams’s sense of innocence and curiosity is what creates the intrigue that is Julia Childs. In It’s Complicated - a vastly underrated comedy - Alec Baldwin’s performance as Streep’s ex and/or current partner, depending on where you are in the plot, shows us a side of Jane Adler we’d be unable to see without him.

I know what you’re thinking... isn’t this an Ottawa Senators blog? I’m getting there.

While none of the aforementioned roles are played by particularly underrated or unrecognized professionals, it goes to show that a great film can’t just be about the star. This past season, the Belleville Senators put together a campaign that was surely going to send them on a deep run into the play-offs. A Calder Cup was not out of the question for this group as Head Coach Troy Mann’s BSens were built, top to bottom, for high paced, intense hockey. With an immense amount of space between the end of the Bellevile Senators season and the beginning of the next, we have what feels like an eternity to discuss and debate who’s ready for what. What I’ve noticed, especially of late, is the same few names keep coming up.

Drake Batherson. Josh Norris. Logan Brown. Rudolfs Balcers. Alex Formenton.

If you were to jump to pick224.com and sort the performances of Belleville’s forwards, you would see all of the aforementioned names right at the top. But one name you’ll see in virtually every category, right up there with the names we talk about all the time, is Vitaly Abramov.

Today, I’ll be doing a deep dive into Abramov’s performance with Belleville. We’ll take a look at his even strength and primary points production relative to his peers, while jumping into how Belleville performed as a team while Abramov was on and off the ice. Finally, we’ll take a quick peek at his year-over-year improvements in his two seasons of AHL action.

In an effort to make the visuals more digestible, I’ve removed a few names like Chris Clapperton and Nathan Todd — because they ranked far below the rest — as well as players like Max Veronneau and Jack Rodewald who are no longer with the organization.

Even Strength and Primary Points

When reviewing the offensive production of a player, I always look for two things:

  • How does secondary point production inflate a player’s overall point totals?
  • How does the player fare at even-strength compared to their power play production?

To start, Abramov’s secondary point production at even strength only accounts for seven of his 33 EV points (21%). Relative to his peers, you have one end of the spectrum in Formenton and Batherson, whose secondary assists only account for 2.8% and 8.5% of their respective EV totals. That’s pretty wild. The remaining big names however, are far closer to Abramov in this stat - Norris (22.5%), Balcers (26.1%) and Brown (29.4%).

Now, don’t get me wrong, a secondary assist can be vital to a scoring opportunity. The perfect breakout pass or the battle in the corner to find the open player whose shot is deflected into the net. But, what we can see by removing secondary production is just how much a player directly impacts the goal scored, as for every great breakout pass, there’s an assist that started with a puck off a glass that just happened to end up bouncing the right way. There is also a strong body of research that has shown primary points to be a better predictor of future NHL success than total points including secondary assists.

When we take a look at even strength and power play production on a per game basis, we can once again marvel at Batherson’s body of work this past season. However, two things stick out for me about Abramov.

First, his even strength primary point production per game was almost tied with Balcers, barely behind the team’s Rookie of the Year, noted speedster Formenton, and ahead of first-round pick Brown. Second, his power play production, or lack thereof, is a likely contributing factor to his lack of spotlight within the Senators system. After all, had he produced more like Brown or Norris on the man advantage, his overall point totals would have been higher and he likely would have been close to a point per game player.

Even Strength Goals For

Next, I want to look at two different metrics measuring Abramov’s impact on his team while he was on the ice. First, let’s examine his even strength goals for percentage (EV GF%).

In this metric, you’ll see the only big name player who outperformed Abramov was Balcers. Let’s also take a moment to appreciate Joseph LaBate, who is definitely not known for his offensive contributions, but provided key checking line minutes for the BSens this season. What this shows us is that, at even strength, Belleville’s ability to drive goals positively with Abramov on the ice was better than when he was off the ice. In other words, Abramov’s line was really good at getting the most important job done.

What we do need to consider with this particular metric is the quality of Abramov’s linemates and competition. Abramov spent some time skating alongside Norris and Batherson but, for the most part, he was playing more of a second line role. This means he was unlikely to be playing against the best possible opponents. Unfortunately, there is no available tracking data to prove this point, but I feel confident making the statement based on the games I covered this year. So, we have to take this particular metric with a grain of salt because Abramov was able to accomplish this excellent performance playing against second-tier opponents. That being said, it’s worth noting that 64.29 EV GF% is very good. So good that he ranked 16th in the entire AHL for players with more than 40 games played in this metric.

Finally, let’s take a look at his EV GF%Rel - measuring each player’s EV GF% minus the percentage of even-strength goals scored by the player’s team while the player was not on the ice.

What we can take from this is, once again, Belleville’s ability to drive goals positively was better with Abramov on the ice.

Year Over Year Growth

In Abramov’s two seasons in the AHL, he’s played with two teams. When he was acquired from Columbus, he was coming out of Cleveland where he posted a respectable 0.42 points per game, eventually providing Belleville with a similar 0.38 for the final 18 games of the season.

This year there was marked improvement in Abramov’s game. His play away from the puck improved while he, as we have already covered, had a positive impact when looking at goal-based metrics.

Once again, we do have to take this with a grain of salt. The Belleville Senators were a better team overall this past year than during Abramov’s first year. But, if this was just a case of playing for a better team, we wouldn’t see the above metrics literally double (or more) in each category.

With experience generally comes improvement. But what has Abramov done, in particular, to see this positive change? First, for a 5-foot-9 forward, he uses his body extremely effectively. That’s a change from the concerns surrounding Abramov as recent as July 2018, as you can see a comment on DobberProspects about how Abramov’s lighter frame might hold him back from being an effective NHLer.

With his assist above, Abramov lays a bit of lumber on the Laval defender before picking up the puck. What he does next is what’s most important here — he positions himself between the defender and the puck. This gives him enough time to get his head up and find Norris out front for the one-timer.

Second, Abramov’s speed has been an asset of his since his draft year, as noted in his Draft Profile from The Hockey Writers. It’s one thing to blow past defenders in junior, but when you’re able to do it at the AHL level, that’s a sign that you have the wheels to skate with the big club.

What you’ll notice here is Abramov approaching the blueline at a decent pace. This makes the defender feel confident in his gap as it appears Abramov is flying. As soon as Abramov crosses the blueline, he moves the puck towards the boards, away from the defender, and starts a series of quick crossovers, enabling him to take advantage of the false confidence this Moose pivot has in his gap control.

A final piece of Abramov’s game to highlight is his love of scoring goals. I know, it’s not something you can measure but you can see it with every goal he scores. His puck control and ability to put some silly moves on in real time is always impressive to watch.

In this clip, Abramov undresses not one but two Laval players for a highlight reel tally. If you think this is the only display of filthy skill from Abramov, you’re wrong.

Oh, and this one.

Also, from the Senators rookie tournament in September.

Look at his face after scoring a goal in a rookie tournament game - his second of three in this particular game, I might add. That’s a guy who loves putting the puck in the net.

Moving Forward

The Ottawa Senators have a lot of decisions to make between now and opening night next season. With a boat load of selections in the 2020 Draft and a plethora of openings on the roster, all eyes will be on Belleville’s stars to force D.J. Smith to name them to that opening lineup. You can almost guarantee Batherson’s name will appear on that game-sheet. It’s likely you’ll see Balcers there as well. Depending on off-season moves, there’s a decent possibility one or more of Brown, Norris or Formenton is there as well.

It’s also arguably more important for a player like Abramov to get a look over someone like Norris or Formenton from an asset management perspective. After poor production from Jonathan Davidsson’s rookie season in North America, Abramov and Lassi Thomson are the only promising pieces left from the Matt Duchene deal. Further, with the expansion draft coming up, the Senators need to figure out if Abramov is worth protecting — whereas neither Norris nor Formenton will require protection.

An argument can and should be made for Abramov to be just as much in the mix as these players purely because of his ceiling. After all, it was just this past fall when Abramov was praised for outworking everyone at camp by Smith. People forget that if Abramov had not been sidelined with a concussion in training camp, it’s possible he could’ve made the team right out of camp.

With his ability to flip between the left and right wing, the left-handed Russian should be looked at as, at the very least, a dark horse to suit up for the Senators next season. If not right out of the gate, certainly as a top injury replacement option.

The worst case scenario for Abramov is he gets sent back to Belleville and immediately becomes the star winger for the BSens, further growing his game and patiently awaiting his inevitable recall.

All statistics appearing in this article are courtesy of pick224.com.