You could be forgiven if you had forgotten about Calgary Flames prospect Ilya Nikolayev. The Russian product was drafted by the team back in the third round of the 2019 NHL Draft, but he’s fallen off the radar a bit.
Nikolayev was signed to Metallurg Zhlobin in the Belarusian Extraliga for 2021-22, but he was released late last week. Metallurg club sources told FlamesNation the release was due to a North American opportunity for Nikolayev.
On this side of the Atlantic, Nikolayev has a few options.
Nikolayev wasn’t ever selected in either the Canadian Hockey League’s import draft or the United States Hockey League’s drafts, but as a 2001-born player he’s age eligible to play in either league. The CHL limits teams to two import players and three 20-year-old players, while the USHL limits them to four imports and four 20-year-olds. Nikolayev, as a 20-year-old Russian, would count as both an import and a 20-year-old in both circuits, so it may be tough to fit him in.
If he opts to go pro, Nikolayev could sign a minor league pact with either the American Hockey League’s Stockton Heat or the ECHL’s Kansas City Mavericks. That way he’d be within the Flames’ system, but he wouldn’t need to be signed to an entry-level deal right away and so the club could try him out as a pro.
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The challenge may be that Stockton is jam-packed full of NHL-contracted players. Presuming that Glenn Gawdin makes the Flames roster as their fourth line centre out of camp, that leaves Nikolayev jostling with Adam Ruzicka, Byron Froese and Luke Philp for ice time up the middle. It’d be tough for a 20-year-old to get many key reps in Stockton, and the ECHL is the wild west and may be tough for a fresh-faced Russian kid to adjust to. (Nikolayev played Russian pro last season, but the language barrier and the playing style changes may be too much to ask him to tackle at once.)
Needless to say, the Flames have a few options at their disposal for Nikolayev in 2021-22, but all of them carry with them peculiarities and complications. It’ll be interesting to see where the young Russian ends up when the dust settles and the puck drops on the upcoming season.
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