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Alexander Nikishin Creating Decisions for the Carolina Hurricanes

Main Photo: George Walker IV-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Hurricanes selected Russian defenceman Alexander Nikishin out of the KHL in the third round of the 2020 NHL Draft. While Carolina may lack elite-level prospects in an otherwise fairly deep prospect pool, Nikishin has risen to the top of that list. However, complications between the NHL and KHL may leave the Hurricanes deciding between sitting patiently waiting on Nikishin’s NHL arrival or moving him for assets.

The Carolina Hurricanes Will Need to Wait On or Trade Top Prospect Alexander Nikishin

In the 2020 NHL Draft the Carolina Hurricanes only used two out of their eight picks to select defencemen. One was Ronan Seeley in the seventh round out of the WHL. The other was a six foot three inches, 196 lbs, 19-year-old Russian defenceman from Spartak Moscow in the KHL nicknamed “Boom” in Alexander Nikishin. Currently under contract with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL, Nikishin has developed into a top KHL defenceman and a top prospect for the Hurricanes since his draft year. However, his contract with SKA creates some complications for the Hurricanes.

Selected in the Third Round of the 2020 NHL Draft

The Hurricanes have lately developed a reputation for acquiring large quantities of draft picks and taking risks to find high upside value in later rounds. When drafting Nikishin, many considered this to be somewhat of a safer pick for the Hurricanes that year. NIkishin was a big defenceman playing for Spartak in the KHL as a 19-year-old. He was a defensive defenceman with a knack for throwing big hits, landing him the nickname “Boom.” For such a big defenceman he could move well, had decent hands and resembled a sort of hybrid between a modern-day defenceman and a bruising defenceman from the nineties. Since he only scored three regular season points for Spartak during the 2019-20 season, most projected his ceiling as not much more than a bottom pairing defenceman in the NHL depending on his offensive development.

Alexander Nikishin’s Rise and Accomplishments

Since being drafted, Alexander Nikishin’s offense has taken off. He has quickly risen in prospect value and recognition. He was a selected as a member of Russia’s Olympic men’s hockey team for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics as a 20-year-old. Nikishin put up 12 points in 46 games for Spartak during the 2021-22 season. Following that season, Spartak traded Nikishin to SKA in exchange for nine players. That trade showed the value that SKA put on Nikishin.

This season, Nikishin has exploded to put up ten goals and 40 assists in 60 games played for SKA. This has him leading all KHL defencemen in points this season. In doing so, he broke the record for most points in a season by a SKA defenceman previously held by Sergei Zubov. He has also moved into fifth for all-time single season points scored by defenceman in the KHL. The Russian Ministry of Sports awarded Nikishin with the Master of Sports of Russia this year.

Due to Nikishin’s drastic performance explosion he has risen fairly high on most NHL prospect rankings. In fact, his contract situation in the KHL may have even slight hurt his ranking. While once considered a defensive defenceman, Nikishin’s offensive ability has exploded since being drafted and he could be a legitimate number three of four (or higher) two-way defenceman in the NHL.

Contract Complications: Stuck in Russia

In August of 2022, Nikishin signed a three-year contract with Spartak. For most international players, this is not a huge deal as far as the NHL team owning their rights. However, because this is the KHL it makes things a little more complicated. Unlike other international leagues, the KHL does not have a player transfer agreement with the NHL. There is a memorandum of understanding that provides that the leagues will respect the contracts of each other and exchange player information.

However, the NHL suspended the communications aspect of that MOU following the situation in Ukraine. With that suspension, communication between an NHL team and the KHL, a KHL team, player, or agent is very difficult. Due to this, the Hurricanes would need to honor that contract. Generally speaking, the only way Nikishin could leave Spartak before 2025 is if they agreed to terminate his agreement. Given how many players they gave up to obtain Nikishin, it seems unlikely Spartak would have much of an appetite for that.

Asset Management

Asset management is always vital for any NHL team. Whether to hold and develop or move prospects for other assets is rarely a clear-cut decision. There are many factors that affect this including the current “phase” of the team. For Carolina, their window to win is now. This could affect how they analyze holding or moving prospects such as Nikishin.

Reasons to Wait on Alexander Nikishin

Nikishin is showing signs that he could become something special in the NHL. While it’s not fair to assume anything out of anyone, there is a lot of a “high reward” element in Nikishin. If the Hurricanes determine that Nikishin’s future value is greater than his present value, they may wait on his arrival.

While asset management is important from a standpoint of getting the most value out of your assets, cap management plays into that as well. This is relevant as Carolina could potentially bring in a solid number three or four defenceman (or better) in Nikishin in 2025 at a relatively affordable price. Cap saved in one position is cap gained in another. Notably, after the 2024-25 season, both Jaccob Slavin and Brent Burns will need new contracts. Having Nikishin could provide further defensive depth and cap savings as well as insurance in the event Slavin or Burns are not resigned.

The saying patience is a virtue applies as well. It is not uncommon to see teams give up on prospects or players early on to later see that player develop into a star. Development is not guaranteed and because we are talking about humans the trajectory of development is rarely linear or equal. Maybe a player develops into his full potential at 25 years old and played entirely in Europe before the NHL. Maybe another does so at age 28 playing in the AHL. Tracking Nikishin’s statistical and physical progress is a task the Hurricanes certainly take seriously. Nikishin’s situation is a little more complicated as that equation involves not only his NHL potential skill wise, but his likelihood to leave the KHL in 2025. Nikishin has the tools to be a solid NHL defenceman and you’d hate to give up on a potential Norris trophy winner.

Reasons to Trade Alexander Nikishin

As stated above, the Hurricanes are in a win-now mode and have their eyes on the Stanley Cup. If it wasn’t for Nikishin’s contract situation he may be playing in Carolina right now. But because of that contract, some of the reasons to keep Nikishin may also be used to argue to trade him. What I mean is that the Hurricanes would determine that his future potential makes the present value of a trade worth more than Nikishin’s future value as a player.

With the trade deadline arriving soon and Carolina eyeing players like Timo Meier of the San Jose Sharks and Ryan O’Reilly of the St. Louis Blues, it may be worth using Nikishin in a trade. His value is high due to his play, but his NHL impact may be questionable due to his contract. There is always the risk of his development turning south too. The Hurricanes do have other solid defensive prospects in Scott Morrow and Aleksi Heimosalmi so moving Nikishin wouldn’t leave the Hurricanes cupboard bare.

Just as you see teams giving up on players too soon, you also see the other side of the coin. Holding onto players too long hoping for something down the road can also lead to wasted assets. For the Hurricanes the difference is that they (likely) would be moving Nikishin for a proven asset that could help right now. Is a bird in the bush worth two in the hand? Again, it is a gamble and the Hurricanes could lose out on a Norris-caliber defenceman. But if that move assisted them in winning the Stanley Cup, maybe that doesn’t matter.

Possible Suitors for a Trade

Nikishin’s progress in the KHL and internationally makes him an intriguing trade target for many teams around the league. While his KHL contract likely holds him out of the NHL until 2025 and this could lessen his value, teams that are closer to a rebuilding phase may not care as much. It is similar to trading prospects with NHL expected arrival dates years out, but the potential is there. The difference is that Nikishin is already likely NHL-ready, but his contract situation causes the delay. At 21 years old, he would still be relatively young when potentially moving to the NHL. Teams could see a more affordable, high-caliber defenceman down the road in Nikishin. A rebuilding team looking to acquire a unique asset such as this may find a lot of value in Nikishin.


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