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Russian hockey has really begun to focus on turning the MHL into one of the top developmental junior leagues in the world. With the amount of talent available, they have quickly had success in doing so. One of the best prospects coming out of that league this year is centre Ilya Nikolayev. He led the Loko Yaroslavl to the MHL title. Nikolayev put up 10 goals and 25 points in 41 regular season games. He was even better in the playoffs, with five goals and three assists for eight points in six games.
Nikolayev has represented Russia on a number of occasions. He put up two goals and an assist in five games at last season’s Under-17 World Hockey Challenge. Nikolayev really shined at last summer’s Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, putting up one goal and six assists for seven points in five games, and winning a silver medal. He also played well at December’s World Junior A Hockey Challenge, with one goal and five assists for six points in six games. Nikolayev helped Russia to a silver medal at the IIHF Under-18 World Championships with two goals and four points in seven games.
Ilya Nikolaev Scouting Report
Centre — shoots Left
Born June 26th, 2011 — Yaroslavl, Russia
Height 6’0″ — Weight 190 lbs [183 cm/86 kg]
Nikolayev has very good top-end speed, which makes him dangerous off the rush, and he can get behind the defence to get open for a long breakaway pass. His acceleration is good but his first few steps could still be improved even more. This would make Nikolayev even better in short races to retrieve loose pucks or trying to quickly shake a defender and get open in the zone. His agility and edgework are also good but not great. He is better moving in straight lines than he is when asked to cut and make sideways movements. Still there is enough there to give defenders some issues. Nikolayev could stand to improve his lower-body strength as well. This would help him to be stronger on the puck and improve his balance. It is something that could come as he matures. Overall, his skating is adequate, but there are little improvements that could take him to the next level.
Nikolayev can be a bit frustrating as an offensive player. There are times that he looks great, and there are others where he seems to disappear in the offensive end. His hockey IQ, in the offensive zone, is something that can be questioned as he doesn’t always seem to make the smart play. At his best, he moves the puck well through the neutral zone and in the offensive zone with smart passes. He finds open teammates and sets up scoring chances. He is able to protect the puck and slow down the play, allowing teammates time to get open.
Nikolayev is much more of a playmaker than a shooter. His wrist shot is accurate, but it lacks power and he could improve his release. He played the point at the IIHF Under-18s, where he did have a chance to show off his slap shot. It was decent, but not overpowering. He is willing to play a physical game though. Nikolayev is not afraid to be physical in the zone or to get to the dirty areas of the ice needed to make plays and generate offensive chances.
Nikolayev is a smart defensive player. He is extremely well positioned, always between his man and the front of the net. He forces the puck to the outside and cuts down passing lanes. Nikolayev has been a key penalty killer on his international squads. He reads the play well and anticipates where it will go. His upper body is strong, and he provides support down low, containing forwards on the cycle game. He could still stand to add more strength in his lower body to improve his battles on the boards. Once a turnover is created, he is good at transitioning the puck up the ice and creating offence.
Projection and Comparison
Nikolayev could become a top-six centre at the NHL level if his development goes properly. He needs to improve his skating as well as his offensive consistency though. His strong defensive game gives him the opportunity to excel in a bottom-six role if that offensive consistency continues to elude him though. Nikolayev is expected to spend at least one more season in Russia and possibly two. He will also likely need some time in the AHL before he is ready. If a team is patient and can help him develop, it could be well worth the wait. Nikolayev’s game is reminiscent of Mikael Backlund. This is a stylistic comparison only though and not one based on skill or ability.
The following is a compilation of some of the highlight packages and features of Ilya Nikolayev that are available on youtube.
Check back tomorrow for the next prospect in our NHL Draft series.
Main Photo via KHL, engmhl.khl.ru