Flyers 2016 first-round pick German Rubtsov shuttled between three vastly different hockey leagues last season.
He split the 2016-17 campaign between the KHL, MHL (Russian Junior League) and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League levels. Along the way, he had to work through several injuries, on-ice and off-ice cultural adjustments, a language barrier, and wide fluctuations in his ice time and assigned duties.
Through all of these learning experiences in a single season, Rubtsov gained perspective on the bumps in the road to the National Hockey League. Just as important, when he finally arrived in North American hockey, he often dominated on the ice.
Selected by the Flyers with the 22nd overall pick of last year's draft, Rubtsov transferred midseason from KHL team Vityaz Chekhov to the Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Even in making the adjustment to a new league, a smaller rink and a different culture, Rubtsov shined for Chicoutimi in a small sampling of games.
In 16 games for the Sagueneens, Rubtsov racked up 22 points (9g-13a) and a plus-11 rating. Unfortunately, the injury bug bit Rubtsov multiple times.
During his early season time in Russia, Rubtsov sustained a foot injury that sidelined him for two weeks. At the World Junior Championships, where he was assigned to Russia's fourth line, Rubtsov suffered a broken nose and other facial injuries that knocked him out of the tournament. After joining Chicoutimi and making an immediate impact, Rubtsov missed the playoffs due to a late-season hand injury.
"In Chicoutimi, the first couple of games were not comfortable. Then everything came to normal. I feel comfortable. Being in the United States before and playing in Canada helped, so I'm feeling pretty comfortable and everything is pretty much good," Rubtsov said through translator Slava Kouznetsov.
While admitting that the injury absences were "no fun", Rubtsov believes that his game nevertheless progressed over the last year. The move to North American hockey was a success.
"I think I'm ready to try the league," said Rubtsov, who signed an entry-level contract with the Flyers on March 2, 2017.
Asked to clarify which league he meant, Rubtsov grinned. "THE league, NHL."
The Flyers have multiple options available with Rubtsov for next season, even if he does not play in the NHL. In addition to the option of assigning him back to the Quebec League for a full season, Philadelphia also has the option of having him play for the American Hockey League's Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
As a player drafted from a European league, the 19-year-old Rubtsov would not be subject to the AHL's age restrictions, and his contract could "slide" to the AHL. Even if he were to play in the AHL the entire 2017-18 season, Rubtsov would not count against the NHL-mandated 50-contract maximum nor would the assignment burn a year off the player's entry-level contract. This was also the case for defenseman Robert Hagg as a 19-year-old Phantoms rookie back in 2014-15.
Flyers general manager Ron Hextall indicated in July that no decision has been made yet on where Rubtsov will play next season. That issue will be determined based on training camp beginning this week.
Last season, Rubtsov received very limited ice time during his time with Vityaz (which is usually the case for teenagers in the KHL) and was assigned to fourth-line defensive duties as an 18-year-old competing in the traditionally 19-year-old-dominated World Juniors.
While every player is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, Hextall is usually a believer in seeing young players dominate their own age group and add muscle before being sent out to compete among pro players.
"When you see a kid playing with his peers, it's a lot different than playing in the KHL. You saw it a little bit with Ruby. Ruby goes from KHL and all of a sudden, he goes to Chicoutimi with his own age group and you're like, 'Woah!' We certainly weren't surprised by that," Hextall said.
While Rubtsov is a highly skilled with the puck on his stick, he is also a responsible defensive player who is quite advanced in his reads without the puck for a player who didn't even turn 19 until June 27. This combination enabled him to dress in 15 KHL games last season, although he still arguably lacked the physical strength to compete against seasoned pros. At the MHL level, he was a point-per-game player.
Rubtsov's destination for the 2017-18 season will be based on wherever the Flyers feel is best for his long-term development, whether it is the American Hockey League or Quebec League. Even the NHL is a hypothetical possibility, although Rubtsov would need to have a spectacular performance in his first NHL camp for the Flyers' roster to become a realistic immediate destination.