Kristians Rubins never seemed to be high on the Toronto Maple Leafs' depth charts, but sometimes, hard work pays off.
Rubins is set to make his NHL debut on Tuesday against the Columbus Blue Jackets with Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin out with injuries. While Rubins was always expected to be one of the top injury callups this season for Toronto, his ascension to become an NHLer seemed like an unlikely one even two seasons ago.
If you haven't followed Rubins' career, it's a great story. He was never drafted, with very few outlets giving him much consideration for the 2017 draft to begin with. He moved over from Sweden's U-20 league in 2016 to spend two years with the Medicine Hat Tigers before earning his first North American hockey contract with the ECHL's Newfoundland Growlers in 2018-19.
Rubins played well enough to earn an AHL deal with the Toronto Marlies, skating in 15 games with the club that year before going full-time with the team the following year. With the AHL on pause in 2020-21, he was loaned to the Frederikshavn White Hawks and had a decent run before heading back to the Marlies to finish the season.
The Leafs signed Rubins to a two-year contract in April of 2020, showing that the team took due notice of Rubins' ability and believed he could be a part of the big club someday. Likely never in anything more than a third-pairing role, but it's a spot he can thrive in.
That brings us to the present day. The physical defender has had a good campaign to date in 16 games with the Marlies, bringing his defense-first mentality to the blueline that has allowed him to be a steady force in AHL action.
Latvia's national team has always believed in Rubins. He first represented his country at the U-16 level during the 2011-12 season and has played with the team all the way up to the men's national team, an event he has played in in 2018 and 2020. Rubins was part of the first three players named to the Olympic roster back in October, a huge accomplishment given his rise up the ranks.
His story, more or less, is that he came from a smaller hockey country and played his way out of the trenches to play for one of the top teams in the NHL this season. Which, if you're not a Leafs fan, probably doesn't matter to you. But for Latvian hockey fans, it's a big deal for a nation that only has four other active NHLers in Zemgus Girgensons, Teddy Blueger, Rudolfs Balcers and Elvis Merzlikins. And it's proof that no hockey development path is equal: the ECHL can be a legitimate springboard for making the NHL.
Rubins' stay could last a few weeks in the NHL, and it's an experiment worth tackling. At best, he's looking to be a third-pairing defenseman who can mix in well with a more offensively minded option from time to time. At 6-foot-5 and over 200 pounds, Rubins has good size, although he could be a bit more physically demanding at points.
For now, the Leafs need help, and Rubins can be that help. But it's always fun cheering for an underdog, and someone coming from a smaller hockey country and going through the ringer to simply get a sniff of an opportunity is an underdog worth cheering for.