You could be forgiven if thought the Calgary Flames forgot Russia. Forward Ilya Nikolayev, their third round pick at the 2019 NHL Draft, was their first pick out of a Russian league since Rushan Rafikov in 2013. The club hasn’t had a Russian-born player dress for them since Andrei Zyuzin in 2006-07.
But Nikolayev, a two-way forward, is hoping to buck that trend. He’s FlamesNation’s 11th-ranked prospect of 2019.
How did we get here?
Originally from Yaroslavl, Russia, Nikolayev played at home and worked his way up through the ranks of his local club team, Lokomotiv. His high-level hockey began in 2016-17 when he put up 50 points in 29 games in Russia’s under-16 league. The next season he graduated to the under-17 circuit and had 19 points in 20 games, earning some time in the secondary under-20 National Junior Hockey League (NMHL) where he had 13 points in 20 games. He even spent some time in the top junior league, the Junior Hockey League (MHL) and suited up for Russia in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
Nikolayev was selected by the Flames 88th overall in the 2019 NHL Draft.
Stats, numbers, and everything therein
Nikolayev played a ton of hockey in 2018-19 and really cemented his draft status.
He traveled a lot. He was in Edmonton for the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in August, then headed home to begin the Russian season. After a few months he trekked back to North America to represent Russia at the World Junior A Championship in Dawson Creek. Then he headed back to Russia to finish the second half of the MHL season and begin the playoffs. Midway through the playoffs he left Loko Yaroslavl to heed Mother Russia’s call for his third international event of the year, the World Under-18s in Sweden.
Despite having such a disjointed year due to all the travel, he performed fairly well – seventh on his team in scoring in the regular season – and won championships both at the club level and a silver medal at the U18s. League-wide, he was 21st among under-18 skaters in points.
While Nikoleyev’s offensive output was fairly understated, scouts fell in love with the kid based on his three international appearances. He featured prominently on the Russian national team, playing center for 10th overall pick Vasily Podkolzin and a rotation of left wingers. He had three strong appearances and his two-way play helped his linemates cheat a bit offensively, giving the Russians a very dangerous unit when he was on the ice.
Those in the know
Flames director of player development noted that the Flames aren’t quite sure where Nikolayev is going to play in 2019-20 – he’ll be somewhere in Lokomotiv’s system – but the key is for him to play a lot and keep fleshing out his game.
We were ecstatic to be able to get Nikolayev in the third round. He’s going to play over there, he’s got a couple years left on his deal. The one really neat thing: we’re not 100% sure where he’ll play. He’ll probably play a little bit with all three teams – meaning the junior team, the minor league team and the KHL team. The one thing that’s nice for me is the assistant coach for the KHL team is Mike Foligno, who was my assistant coach in San Antonio, so we’ve got a guy on the ground who can give us an idea of how he’s doing. We’ve got [European scout] Robert Neuhauser over there who does a lot of our Russian stuff, so he’s gonna be helpful to me. But I think for Ilya, it’s more a case of let’s get playing, getting working on his skating, getting working on his body, and hopefully he has an opportunity this year to play for the World Junior team.
On the horizon
Nikolayev has two seasons remaining on his current pact with the Lokomotiv organization, so he’s likely hanging out in Soviet Russia through at least the 2020-21 season. Depending on how well he performs, and how much he wants to challenge himself, he could find himself migrating to North America before too long. The Flames retain his rights perpetually (due to the lack of a transfer agreement with the Russian Federation), but nominally until June 1, 2023 (presuming Russia eventually becomes treated like every other European association).
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