Between inking John Tavares, the team’s captaincy situation, plus contract extension talks for William Nylander, Auston Matthew and Mitch Marner, it’s been a busy summer for the Toronto Maple Leafs and its fan base.
One Maple Leafs storyline that hasn’t gotten much attention this summer, however, is the fact forward prospect Martins Dzierkals chose to leave North America and sign with Dinamo Riga in the KHL.
Dzierkals made his pre-season debut with Riga on Tuesday, the same day the team officially introduced him and on Wednesday he scored a goal in his second game. Dzierkals is Latvian and Riga is the only Latvian team currently in the KHL.
Following Tuesday’s game, the 21-year-old winger spoke with reporters where he went into detail about his decision to go back home.
“I was in Toronto and we spoke about the contract for the next season. What they offered me wasn’t good enough,” Dzierkals said via KHL insider Aivis Kalnins. “I had talked to [Dinamo Riga GM] Girts Ankipans and he expressed interest to see me in a Dinamo jersey, he said that I would help the team. I spoke to Ankipans, then had a discussion with my agent and we decided to spend the year in Riga.”
Dzierkals was selected by the Maple Leafs in the third round (68th overall) of the 2015 NHL Draft when he was with Riga’s junior program. After being drafted he spent two seasons with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the QMJHL where he registered 45 goals and 116 points in 106 total games, although his production dipped from year one (67 points in 59 games) to year two (49 points in 47 games).
He went pointless in four games with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies in 2017-18 but spent the bulk of the season with the Orlando Solar Bears in the ECHL, where he finished fourth on the team with 15 goals and 36 points in 51 games.
Dzierkals never once saw regular-season action in a Maple Leafs uniform and didn’t appreciate his demotion to the East Coast league.
“During the negotiations for my next contract, there weren’t any guarantees that the same thing wouldn’t happen to me again,” he explained. “The team front office said the same — that I would play in the AHL. I spent some time there but they sent me down. I wasn’t happy with their rules. Eventually, I got tired of waiting, I texted [Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas] myself so I could figure things out. I don’t know if I can tell you this but I had made a trade request because I wasn’t happy with my contract. They had told me that they liked me and that they don’t want to move me.”
Dzierkals joined Riga on a one-year contract and hasn’t ruled out an eventual return to North America.
“My NHL dream isn’t gone,” Dzierkals said. “I think that spending a season in the KHL will be a good thing for me. Just get out there and show what you can do.”
Dzierkals got a taste of what playing in Toronto could’ve been like back when he represented Latvia at the 2017 world juniors. Playing games at Scotiabank Arena led to him expressing his excitement about joining a burgeoning Maple Leafs team.
“They’re going to keep building every year and they’re going to get a Cup for sure in the next couple of years and I want to be a part of it,” Dzierkals said at the time before adding, “This is not going to be the only time I’m going to play here.”