The 2019 NHL Draft is going to be a busy one for Europeans, particularly for Russians. Several strong Russian prospects are up for grabs and could factor into the first round. Ilya Nikolayev is a bit raw, but he may have teams betting on his immense potential.
Nikolayev is a left shot center who’s spent pretty much his entire hockey-playing life in Yaroslavl working his way up through the club’s system. He’s a June birthday who’s so young that he doesn’t turn 18 until the week after the 2019 NHL Draft.
While he’s spent much of his time in Russia playing in the local leagues, scouts have gotten a look at him outside of that fishbowl in major international events such as the Under-17 Hockey Challenge, the Under-18 Worlds, the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and the World Junior A Championship.
Writing in November, Pat Quinn of Dobber Prospects detailed the first chunk of Nikolayev’s season:
Currently for Loko Yaroslavl in the MHL, Nikolayev has 12 points in 25 games, a solid amount for the 17 year old. In the U18’s for Russia he has eight points in eight games, and managed to put up 31 penalty minutes as he is not afraid to muck it up. Nikolayev will likely be a later round pick but watch what team/system he gets drafted to as he could flourish under the right circumstances. There is top six upside there.
Over at The Draft Analyst, Steve Kournianos provided a detailed rundown of what makes scouts excited about Nikolayev:
Blessed with acute vision and creativity, Nikolayev is a tape-to-tape passer and does so with authority. He executes odd-man rushes with precision while not always choosing the expected passing option. He is poised on zone entries and will delay to allow puck support to appear until he sees the open lane he likes. Nikolayev is not an explosive skater nor does he possess a quick first step, but he is agile in every direction and generates a lot of power behind his wide stride. He also is effective in separating from back pressuring and weaving defensive pairs into a state of confusion. He was named the top forward in the MHL playoffs before he was summoned to play for Russia at the U18 worlds.
By all accounts, Nikolayev is just fine at skating – he gets where he needs to go – but his strengths are his offensive vision and puck management. He also seems to rise to the occasion, as he was strong at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and the MHL post-season.
Nikolayev spent pretty much the entire year with Loko Yaroslavl, Lokomotiv’s junior affiliate team. He had 10 goals and 25 points in 41 games, which put him seventh on the team in scoring. He played fewer games than all six players ahead of him and he jumps to fifth on a points-per-game basis. League-wide, he was tied for 20th among his age group in points.
If you look at Nikolayev when the proverbial lights were on bright, he comes across a bit more impressively – it’s also worth noting that 13 of his points came in Loko’s final 16 regular season games, making up slightly for his slow start. He was over a point per game through two rounds of the MHL playoffs, at which point he was summoned to the Under-18 Worlds. At the major international events this past season, he came across well on the score sheet: he was over a point per game at the Hlinka, he was a point per game at the Junior A Worlds, and he was just under a point per game at the Under-18 Worlds.
Availability and fit
Based on the general projections, it seems like Nikolayev should be available to the Flames at 26th overall: ISS has him 27th, Dobber Prospects has him 29th, the Draft Analyst/Sporting News has him 23rd, my rankings at The Hockey Writers have him 60th, Sportsnet has him outside the first round, The Athletic has him 38th and outside the top 100, and The Hockey News has him 47th.
If you’re wondering why I have him so low, a lot of it has to do with his production relative to other European prospects of similar age. All due respect, but the MHL isn’t an amazingly stacked league compared to Sweden’s SuperElit or Finland’s Jr. SM-Liiga, so it’s a bit flummoxing that Nikolayev couldn’t push his offensive production higher in the regular season on a team that was as successful as Loko was.
The other challenge is the “European factor,” and it’s not even entirely the Russia of it all. The last few exciting Flames picks out of Europe have been Eetu Tuulola, Linus Lindstrom and Filip Sveningsson, all of whom have combined for one season in North America – Tuulola played for Everett for a year and then went back to Finland. The last Russians selected were Rushan Rafikov (who never even came over for a development camp) and Pavel Karnaukhov (who left the Hitmen to play closer to him). Nikolayev has admitted in interviews that he had offers to play in North American, but wanted to stay home and try to make Yaroslavl’s pro team – they have two, in the KHL and in their minor league. If that’s still his goal, he might be over there for another year or two and might throw a wrench in the Flames’ development plans for him.
All things being equal, the Flames might want to buy the toy they can actually start to play with right away rather than waiting.
2019 first round targets