7Ilya Nikolayev
Photo Credit: courtesy MHL

A closer look at Ilya Nikolayev

Calgary Flames first round pick Jakob Pelletier gets a decent number of comparisons to Boston Bruins megapest Brad Marchand. Maybe not so much on the dirty play and/or licking people levels, but more so on the small but high energy side of things. It’s meant to be a positive.

Maybe it was accidental, maybe it was on purpose, but the Flames’ next pick was spent on Ilya Nikolayev, a player who draws comparisons to Marchand’s pal, Patrice Bergeron. Highly praised for his two-way play and his hockey intelligence, the 6’0″ left shooting centre hopes to become a top six forward in the National Hockey League in short order.

So: what’s he all about, and can he reach that goal?

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The numbers

Games Played  Goals Assists Points Primary Points 5v5 points 5v5 primary points NHLe
41 10 15 25 23 21 20 15.5

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The thing that first stands out for Nikolayev is his strong primary point generation, falling in line with the playmaker label scouts have attached to him. Even better is that almost all of this production is at 5v5, where he really excelled last season. Nikolayev is more of a distributor than a shooter, having only tallied 77 shots on goal last season (1.87 per game), but he does have a bit of sharpshooter in him: he hit 13% shooting throughout the season, and upped it to a ridiculous 50% in the playoffs. That’s definitely not sustainable, but he sure can shoot the hell out of a puck.

The major issue for Nikolayev is the lack of volume. Only scoring 25 points in 41 games in a low level league like the MHL (Russia’s equivalent to the CHL, kind of) is not that great. Part of that is ice time, as Nikolayev was fifth among Loko forwards who played more than 20 games in TOI (14:49 per game in all situations), and part of that is lacking special teams time. Loko trusted him more in shorthanded situations than power play situations, and it shows.

Part of that lack may also have to do with age, as MHL teams tend to prioritize older players. Among U18 Loko forwards, Nikolayev was the leader in points per game at 0.61, up 0.07 on second place. Relative to the rest of the U18 MHLers, Nikolayev fares pretty well. He ranks 14th among all U18 skaters who played at least 20 games in points per game, which is in the upper tier considering there are 219 such skaters, though there is a pretty steep drop off from the top seven players (0.96 PPG to 0.71 PPG) to the next seven (0.71 to 0.61). He’s kind of the second tier of the elite tier of the MHL, so to speak.

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Another issue might be his sporadic production on a game-by-game basis. Nikolayev rarely strung together back to back good performances, and there’s really no excuse for it. He consistently saw second line minutes throughout the season, but couldn’t do much with them. Maybe that’s inexperience and age, as he always made a major impact when he was dialed in, but it’s an issue that he should hopefully resolve this upcoming season.

Another reason for optimism is Nikolayev’s international appearances. He impressed with Russia’s U18 team, picking up 22 points in 27 games. He often centred the top line with 10th overall pick, Vasili Podkolzin, and finished tied for second in scoring on the team. If the Flames are betting that this is the Nikolayev they drafted, they will be handsomely rewarded.

Final thoughts

I’ll be honest and say that I really don’t know what to make of Nikolayev. He seems well regarded, and has some production to back it up, but there are some caveats. He wasn’t the best in his age group, and the league he’s in doesn’t have a great reputation for churning out NHLers. Typically, the Russian players who do make an impact in the league are a bit further ahead (i.e., playing in the VHL or even the KHL) in their draft season than Nikolayev. He’s probably going to need to make a pretty large jump to even consider coming overseas.

Not to write him off completely: Nikolayev has enough intriguing things about him to be worth the gamble at 88th. If he can really asset himself and become one of the all-around dominant forces in Russia’s lower leagues, Nikolayev will be an absolute steal of a player. He sees himself in North America after two years (aka: the duration of his KHL contract). Let’s see if he can make it.


Jakob Pelletier

  • Garry T

    The Flames have a Russian translator now. So get him on the phone and get him eating better. He looked heavy. Also talk to MacTavish because this guy is in his system and see what he thinks during the season.

  • Jobu

    Glad to see the Flames have broken through the Russian boundary. Too much talent to ignore there.
    Question is, how good are our scouts there?

    Nikolayev seems like a gamble at 88. Hopefully his international numbers are more representative of the player than his meager numbers in a meager league.

    • Baalzamon

      Nikolayev seems like a gamble at 88.

      Not if you go by consensus. He was universally ranked as a late-first/mid-second round talent.

      Also, his numbers were pretty similar to Vasili Podkolzin, who was widely considered a top five talent in the draft for some reason.

      • Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis

        Vasili Podkolzin is unfortunately a STUD. He was the best forward by a mile at the Ivan Hlinka for me. He has likely the best hands in the entire draft getting out of a phone booth whenever he needs to and he is an absolute horse who loves to play in traffic and has a really high relentless motor. Russia played him way too much last year and he ran out of gas late. They even acknowledged to most people at the spring U18s, that’s the only reason he fell outside of the Top. 5 and he shouldn’t have.

        • everton fc

          I think Nikolayev is was a steal, at #88. We shall see, someday down the road. But I liked his post-draft interview, as well. Seems poised, mature… I like this pick.

  • Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis

    “Typically, the Russian players who do make an impact in the league are a bit further ahead (i.e., playing in the VHL or even the KHL“

    This has really changed in recent years with the MHL becoming the top junior league now where everyone goes through it. Only two U18 players even played a game in the KHL this year and no one scored a point (Podkolzin was the only one to play in more than two games and he only played in three) and all the top talent is staying in the MHL now as of last season.

    Ilya Nikolaev turned it up in the MHL playoffs posting 1.33 PPG helping his really deep team to a championship, which is clearly why he didn’t play earlier in the year. He had a 30+ NHLe during that playoff run and was among the most productive draft eligible players anywhere during that stretch. I was at the Ivan Hlinka last Summer and he was really good there. To be honest the only player I would have drafted ahead of him from that tournament were Josh Nodler (we got him) and Yegor Spiridonov, but Nikolaev is super talented. Last year was a really good Russian crop of players. Nikolaev is a fanatic skater who contributes everywhere and he can really make creative plays at speed. He also possesses great passing vision and he works really hard for loose pucks in traffic. Solid, solid pick for a third rounder.