Two-way forward prospect Ilya Nikolaev had a bumpy (but productive) transition to pro hockey

Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Pike
8 months ago
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Sometimes, the progression of a player after their draft year is straightforward. Sometimes, it’s a bit all over the place. For Calgary Flames forward prospect Ilya Nikolaev, his path through hockey since being drafted in 2019 has had its ups and downs, which has likely contributed to him being on the outside of our top 20 prospect rankings in recent years.
He moved into full-time professional hockey in 2022-23, and his transition was productive, albeit a little bumpy.
A product of Yaroslavl, Russia, Nikolaev came up through the local Lokomotiv system in his hometown. His play as a teenager drew attention from the scouts and the national team. In his draft year (2018-19), he represented Russia at three international tournaments, winning medals at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup (bronze) and the men’s Under-18 World Championship (silver). At the club level, he had 25 points in 41 games and helped his junior team, Loko Yaroslavl, win their league championship.
The ninth-ranked European skater by Central Scouting and ranked 45th overall by FC Hockey in 2019, Nikolaev was praised for his competitiveness and hockey sense but criticized a bit for his skating. This snippet from the FC Hockey draft guide is fairly representative of the general scouting consensus:
“The perfect blend of smarts and sandpaper, this two-way centerman plays in all game situations and can hold his own. His skating needs improvement and while it isn’t terrible, he needs to improve on his form. He plays with a buzz and has a high-energy pace to his game.”
Nikolaev was a third-round selection, 88th overall, by the Flames in the 2019 NHL Draft.
Since being drafted, he’s played hockey in a lot of different places. He spent 2019-20 primarily with his junior team in the MHL, where he was their alternate captain. He had 32 points in 52 MHL games. He split 2020-21 between his junior team and Lokomotiv’s team in the minor-pro VHL, Buran Voronezh. He had 18 points in 21 junior games and 13 points in 37 VHL games. He was a focal player for his junior team, but a depth player for his pro team.
As an NHL-drafted player, it was going to be tough for him to find a home for his 20-year-old year. Junior teams tend to prioritize younger players because they can reap the benefits of developing them, while pro teams tend to emphasize older, more developed players because they want to win. In a bit of a curveball, Nikolaev ended up back in junior… in the United States, where he landed with the United States Hockey League’s powerhouse Tri-City Storm. Nikolaev adapted really well to his new surroundings, posting an impressive 72 points in 58 USHL games in 2021-22. He signed his entry-level deal with the Flames after his junior season ended.
This past season, because the Calgary Wranglers had a lot of established forwards, Nikolaev ended up spending much of his time with the ECHL’s Rapid City Rush. He had 13 goals and 33 points in 40 ECHL games, while posting zero points in 5 AHL games during a January call-up.
Here’s how his season unfolded:
  • In his first 19 games, he had 4 goals and 13 points, a plus-4 rating, 43 shots and 23 penalty minutes.
  • He was called up to the Wranglers in early December, but didn’t play.
  • In his next 10 games, he had 6 goals and 9 points, a plus-2 rating, 30 shots and 4 penalty minutes.
  • He was called up to the Wranglers again in January and played five games.
  • In his next 3 games, he had 0 goals and 2 points, a minus-2 rating, 4 shots and zero penalty minutes.
  • He was injured and missed the next 20 games.
  • In his next 8 games, he had 3 goals and 5 points, a plus-3 rating, 20 shots and 4 penalty minutes.
  • He missed the final game of the ECHL season with a minor injury.
Nikolaev’s projected role is as a two-way forward and so it’s worth taking his offensive totals with a grain of salt since that’s not really how success is measured in his role. But in a season where he was adjusting to full-time pro hockey – and the ECHL’s occasional three games in three nights schedule – and in just his second season on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, Nikolaev seemed to consistently generate a lot of puck touches. He had a few stretches where he had a lot of shots (and quite a few points). When you take his two North American seasons into account, he seems like a player that’s shown the ability to adapt to new situations.
It’s tough to determine what Nikolaev could be at the AHL level because he played just five games for the Wranglers in 2022-23 (and when he did, he played in a limited role as a call-up). But at the very least, he was a pretty productive player in the ECHL as a 21-year-old rookie. Time will tell if he can use that first pro performance as a stepping stone to a stronger sophomore season in 2023-24.

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