Maple Leafs’ Semyon Der-Arguchintsev trying to be like Marner

The Toronto Maple Leafs selected forward Semyon Der-Arguchintsev in the third round (76th overall) of the 2018 NHL Draft. (Maple Leafs/YouTube.

Semyon Der-Arguchintsev was 13 years old when he left his family and flew across the world to live in a country with two official languages he couldn’t speak a lick and one in which he was fluent: hockey.

To those on this side of the Atlantic who stumble over the pronunciation of the Russian’s name, the ones who call him “Sammy” or “SDA” for short, imagine how Der-Arguchintsev felt packing a suitcase and his trusting parents’ support, then jetting from Moscow to Ottawa to pursue his dream at the same age most kids are barely allowed to babysit or mow the lawn.

Now a mature – if slight – 17, with a remarkable grasp of English, the affable Der-Arguchintsev is one giant step closer to realizing his mission.

The Toronto Maple Leafs made Der-Arguchintsev the youngest player of the 2018 draft class when they selected the crafty Peterborough Petes centre with the 76th-overall pick. That’s some shrewd use of the bonus third-rounder GM Kyle Dubas scooped from St. Louis by trading down four spots in Round 1 from 25th to 29th.

That gif-ready smirk Dubas flashed to the camera before adding the Der-Arguchintsev pick could ripen into a full-blown LOL if the undersized forward develops into the impact player he believes he can become.

Leafs first-round defenceman Rasmus Sandin may be the safest bet to crack the big leagues, but of all the franchise’s picks in June, scouts believe SDA has the most potential to become a star.

Generously listed as 5-foot-10 and 159 pounds, Der-Arguchintsev looks up to another playmaking Maple Leaf draftee.

“I like the game of Mitch Marner. He’s such a good player. He’s not very big, but he plays big. He’s strong on the puck. He wins puck battles. He plays hard. I really like that,” Der-Arguchintsev told Sportsnet in a recent interview.

“It gives you more hope that if you’re not the biggest guy, you have a chance of making it. You have to understand that you have to work hard. I’ve talked to some people about him, and they all say he worked really hard to get there. That’s what I’ll have to do as well.”

Der-Arguchintsev won’t turn 18 until Sept. 15. Despite exploding for 51 points in 68 OHL contests as a sophomore — the highlight being a six-point outburst versus Oshawa in mid-March — he knows he’s at least two seasons away from turning pro.

He hopes to grow taller and will spend his summer back home in Russia, around his hockey-loving father and KHL-drafted older brother, building his strength and, like Marner, adding weight to his shot.

Der-Arguchintsev trains with CrossFit champion Artem Nehoroshih alongside friend Nikita Zaitsev, the Leafs defenceman who grew up skating with the prospect’s older brother and was one of the first people to text him congratulations in Dallas — where Der-Arguchintsev sat alone and anxious, only his agent by his side to watch his life change.

“My family couldn’t make it. It’s too far,” Der-Arguchintsev explained. “It’s still shocking for me. I was pretty nervous, I’m not going to lie. I was just hoping for the best. My agent was like, ‘Relax. Don’t be nervous.’ But you can’t listen. You’re nervous. Is anyone going to take me?

“Then, when you get your name called, it’s super exciting. Whew. Just excitement. Especially because it’s Toronto and I live not far from Toronto and I’m a fan. I watch a lot of games.”

Over the past two seasons, Zaitsev would score tickets a couple times a month for Der-Arguchintsev and a few friends to attend Leafs home games, and he would make the two-hour commute to Air Canada Centre and marvel at Marner. Der-Arguchintsev wonders if his friendship with Zaitsev helped the Leafs pick him.

“[Zaitsev] says it’s so nice here,” Der-Arguchintsev said, smiling. “He just likes this city, the fans, the organization. And the team, he said, is very close, so he’s excited to be here.”

The Marner-esque work ethic isn’t an issue for SDA. When he arrived at Rockland, Ont.’s Canadian International Hockey Academy four years ago, he devoted himself to the game and to his English studies. And when he had free time to kill at his house parents’ place, he’d happily toil away on his stickhandling in his bedroom.

“I was homesick my first year,” admitted Der-Arguchintsev, but only when pressed. “I just practised, went to school, had hockey. You try not to think about it much, so it wasn’t too bad.”

Now he’s quick to deliver a scouting report on himself, as if he’s memorized his own Elite Prospects page: “Playmaking centreman. Good hockey IQ. … Not the biggest player, but I’m a good puck protector.”

As he strives for Marner’s strengths, he shares the Leafs star’s weakness too: his brain always thinks pass.

“It’s just inside of me. I was born like that. When I was a kid, I just always passed more,” Der-Arguchintsev said. “I need to shoot more because you have to score as well, right? I’m more of a playmaker, but I should know how to score goals. So this year I’ll work on shooting.”

Come fall, the kid who could’ve been a Blue is determined to improve on 2017-18’s 51-point showing.

“Then two years from now in junior I need it to be a really big year. We’ll see what happens when I’m 20 or 21 years old,” Der-Arguchintsev said.

“I don’t want to say much about it. Just work hard every day.”

And let actions speak louder.

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