Ilya Nikolaev won’t be playing pro hockey this season.
After a fairly up-and-down season back in Russia, Nikolaev will be spending 2021-22 adapting to North American hockey with the junior Tri-City Storm of the USHL. He got his first taste of North American hockey on Monday night in a rookie game against the Edmonton Oilers.
The Flames’ third round pick in 2019 – selected after Jakob Pelletier – Nikolaev was regarded as a smart, two-way player in his draft year who projected to be a 200-foot forward in the same mould as a Michael Frolik type. He was a fixture on Russia’s national team throughout his teens due to his smarts and versatility.
Since his draft year, though, he’s struggled to find a consistent role: in 2020-21, he bounced between the minor pro VHL’s Buran Voronezh and the junior MHL’s Loko Yaroslavl, and after the season he was cut loose by the Lokomotiv organization.
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After he briefly landed in Belarus, he trekked over to North America to join the USHL’s Storm. In Monday’s game, he showcased many of the traits that had scouts excited about him initially. Playing on a line with Pelletier and Dmitry Zavgorodniy, Nikolaev didn’t seem a bit out of place. He played a simple, solid two-way game, was always in position and he assisted on Martin Pospisil’s first period power play goal.
Following the game, Stockton Heat head coach Mitch Love (running the bench for the rookie games) shared his thoughts on Nikolaev’s game:
I thought he was really good. We were talking about that in the coaches’ office there. You know, again, didn’t play the other night. Came in, makes a lot of little plays out there. He was good on the power play. He wasn’t really scheduled to even be on the power play and then Zary went down and he’s right there and he fit right in. There’s a hockey player.
With the USHL season getting going at the end of this week, Nikolaev likely won’t stick around Flames camp for terribly long. There’s a benefit, though, to him having a positive series of first experiences with the Flames before returning to Tri-City.
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“Well I think a lot, for sure,” said Love of the benefits of Nikolaev’s time with the Flames. “Again, confidence, too. Through this hockey game tonight and practice [Tuesday]. Again, he comes to the rink with the right attitude. Very coachable. Asks the right questions on the bench during the game, practice. He’s a good hockey player.”
Very few seasons are undone by a flat rookie camp performance, but getting off to a positive start is something that can cascade through to other parts of the hockey calendar. Nikolaev has a lot of work and a pretty big transition ahead of him, but he’s off to a good start based on what we saw in Monday’s win.