Maple Leafs Call-up Grades: Alex Steeves vs. Kristian Rubins

Last night the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Chicago Blackhawks by a score of 5-4. Aside from the actions of the game itself, there have been some interesting backstories within the recent contests the Maple Leafs have been playing.

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Specifically, the past three games have been an audition of sorts for two potential Maple Leafs’ prospects – Alex Steeves and Kristians Rubins. In this post, we’d like to review their small body of work to suggest how these Maple Leafs’ prospects have done in their audition with the big club.

Alex Steeves Background with the Maple Leafs

In March 2021, 21-year-old Alex Steeves signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Maple Leafs. He was an undrafted NCAA player with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and during his junior season with the team scored 15 goals and 17 assists (for 32 points) in 29 games. That tied him for ninth in NCAA scoring. He was one of the top university free agents available and the organization was pleased he chose to sign in Toronto. 

On December 7, after playing 12 AHL games with the Toronto Marlies where he scored seven goals and five assists (for 12 points), Steeves was called up with the Maple Leafs as an injury replacement. In his time with the team, he’s played limited minutes on the team’s fourth line. 

Kristians Rubins Background with the Maple Leafs

In April 2020, Kristian Rubins signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Maple Leafs. He had played 47 games with the Marlies during the 2019-20 season, scoring two goals and 14 points. Like Steeves, Rubins was un-drafted. However, he had signed an ECHL contract with the organization in August 2018.

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Interestingly enough, Rubins has already been named to Team Latvia’s roster for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Although Rubins had been up and down between the Marlies and the Maple Leafs this season, he was called up with Steeves on December 7. This time he made his NHL debut.

Assessing Steeves’ and Rubins’ Play with the Maple Leafs

For the most part, both players have played well enough during their three-game audition so far with the team. They’ve made rookie mistakes, but then veterans also make mistakes. They’ve also played in three games in which the team as a whole could have played much better.

Rubins has size and length, and he’s made a few plays where he’s leveraged that size and length to his advantage. Steeves is an offensively-gifted player, who is playing in a depth position. He’d likely have more success playing with more offensively-talented players in the team’s top six, but he’s also just starting to earn his stripes.

Last night was Rubins’ 24th birthday, and he didn’t celebrate it with his best game. During the game, Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe cut Rubins’ minutes as the game wore on. After the game, Keefe noted that he reduced Rubins’ ice time because he thought that “there were a number of things happening behind Rubins tonight that were problematic.” 

Keefe also noted that later in the game, he was “trying to give a young guy a break in that sense and relying on the more experienced players in that situation.” 

Rubins Not at Fault for Two Negative On-Ice Issues

However, to our eyes, Rubins wasn’t totally at fault for two negative things that happened to him. First, on the interference penalty he took against the Blackhawks’ Ryan Carpenter, Carpenter had just chipped the puck by him. Interference should be called when a player is prevented from playing the puck. However, that play shouldn’t have been a penalty because Rubins had engaged Carpenter a split second after Carpenter had played the puck.  

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[As a note, obviously, after that call the referee made a makeup call on Riley Stillman, calling him for interference on Kyle Clifford. Stillman was complaining to the referee on his way to the box. We wonder if the conversation went like this: Stillman: “That wasn’t a penalty.” Referee: “Neither was the last one I called.”]

Second, on Dominik Kubalik’s goal, after the game Keefe seemed to blame Rubins because he was beaten on the play by Kurashev. However, although Philipp Kurashev got to the puck first, Rubins had the inside position. Justin Holl made the bigger mistake by leaving his position and his man to come to Rubins’ aid. That move left Kubalik open and all alone. 

Analyzing What the Statistics Show About Steeves and Rubins 

It was good to see Steeves get a point in last night’s game. Looking at both players’ advanced statistics after three games played, here’s how the analytics play out. 

Statistic Kristians RubinsAlex Steeves
Shot Attempts53.6%47.2%
Actual Shots57.1%45.0%
Scoring Changes53.3%47.1%
High Danger Chances50.0%50.0%
Actual Goals25.0%33.3%
Expected Goals58.6%34.1%
Overall49.6%42.8%

When analyzing what the numbers say, the only statistic Rubins is a negative in is Actual Goals (at 25%). He’s been on the ice for one goal for and three goals against. Looking at his expected goals, according to naturalstattrick he should have just over a goal against (1.25) and just less than a goal against (0.88). Those are solid numbers for Rubins.

Steeves has not fared as well analytically. He’s a negative in everything except High Danger Chances, where he breaks even at 50%.

Overall Rubins is a slight negative at 49.6%; however, his 25% actual goals really drags his statistical average down. If the actual goals’ statistic were removed from the equation, his overall effectiveness jumps to 54.5%.

Steeves, on the other hand, is a negative overall with or without counting his actual goals. In fact, his actual goals (33.3%) statistic has pretty much matched his expected goals (34.1%). 

What Do the Numbers Tell Us About the Two Prospects’ Grades?

For three games, the two prospects’ analytical numbers are below average. However, considering the three games that Steeves and Rubins have played, that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Those three games have been clunkers for the team. It’s been mistake after mistake, and only last night’s lucky bounce lifted the team to two victories over those three games.

Considering that both these young prospects were un-drafted signees, they’ve played well thus far in their first auditions. Steeves has played good hockey for a player just out of college, and he had a pretty good game last night. He has a lot of potential, but he clearly needs more development time with the Marlies. 

That’s likely true for Rubins as well. However, in grading both players, it seems clear that Rubins is more ready for NHL primetime hockey than Steeves. 

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Likely both Steeves and Rubins would benefit from more time with the Marlies, but both also look as if they have upsides that will benefit the team somewhere down the line.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]

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