The Calgary Flames have had some good luck of late in the seventh round of the draft, most notably in selecting Dustin Wolf at virtually the end of the draft in 2019 with. This year, Ilya Solovyov’s name was called with the 205th overall pick, but there was not much hype around him. Having been passed up in the draft over the last two years, Solovyov did not know what to expect going into this year’s draft.
We recently caught up with the new Flames prospect to discuss what his hockey journey has been and what it’s like to have an NHL invested in his talents.
“It was really a surprise,” said the 20-year-old Belarusian defenceman with a smile when asked about being selected. He found out after a game in the KHL when his girlfriend told him that he had been picked by Calgary. While the Flames shown interest in him having spoken to him previously, being selected was still a shock for him.
How did Solovyov get here?
Solovyov’s path to the draft is different from many others. He grew up playing in Belarus in the national team system. Unlike in North America, hockey in Belarus is not as formalized or organized. In fact, there have only been 14 Belarusian players to have made the NHL, with Ruslan Salei and Mikhail Grabovski being the most well-known of the group.
“Salei is a guy I really look up to as a Belarusian defenceman. He played for a long time in the NHL, and I want to do the same,” said Solovyov.
Can you guess which other NHL defenceman Solovyov admires? It’s no other than the Flames’ own Mark Giordano, whose game Solovyov tries to emulate. “He’s an older guy, but he plays like he is young,” Solovyov said with a laugh.
After being passed over in his first two years of eligibility, Solovyov consulted with his advisors on next steps, and they advised him to try his luck in North America. This is how he found his way to the OHL, where he played alongside Cole Perfetti with the Saginaw Spirit. That year he put up 40 points in 56 games, good for seventh on the team, and second amongst defencemen.
Moving over to the OHL was a big step for Solovyov. “It was a lot faster and the rink was smaller than I was used to” he said. Unlike in Belarus where as a defenceman, he had a few seconds with the puck to think about what play to make, forwards would press high and force him to move the puck much more quickly. Solovyov credits his coaches and teammates for helping him to adapt to the North American game. “I changed my whole game in Saginaw” he said with a smile.
Solovyov describes himself as a strong two-way defenceman, but the type of player who plays with edge. He loves throwing big body checks, and generally frustrating oppositions. The penalty kill is where he excels, keeping players to the outside and not allowing the opposition to generate chances on net. Being 6’2″ and 187 pounds definitely doesn’t hurt.
Don’t think of him as another Yan Kuznetsov though. Solovyov is gifted offensively and can put points on the board. He finished 16th league-wide in points among defenseman last season in the OHL, not bad for a first year defenceman in a new environment. “I love scoring- love it!”, Solovyov said when talking about his offence. He brings it at both ends of the ice and can play almost all situations.
Speaking of Kuznetsov, both he and Solovyov share a few things in common. They both made the jump over to North America to increase their odds of making the NHL, both signed their entry-level deals this season, and both wore the number 2. For Solovyov, the number holds a personal connection to him. Growing up, his dad idolized Red Wings’ defenceman Viacheslav Fetisov, who also wore number 2. It was for him that Solovyov donned the number. Of course, #2 was also worn by an all-timer Flame, Al MacInnis.
Whether it was good luck from the number 2 or just an incredible breakout season, the scales tipped for Solovyov, and he ended up being drafted in his third year of eligibility by the Flames. However, being both an over-ager and an import, there was no space for him in Saginaw for another season, and instead went back to Belarus and made the jump to the KHL with Dinamo Minsk.
“It was a big jump to the KHL. Players are really clever, and lots of players want to make it to the NHL” he said. It was a big adjustment no doubt, but he still put up 9 points in 41 games in Russia’s highest league. Keeping in mind that he is just 20, with only one season in the OHL under his belt, this is an incredible accomplishment. While he has flown under the radar this season, being able to produce points in the KHL is a huge feat, and helps explain why the Flames chose to sign him this season.
What’s next for Solovyov?
While there was some hope that Solovyov would be able to join the Heat before the end of the season, that will not be happening. The goal now is to prepare for next year, and Solovyov has only one goal in mind. “I want to make the Calgary Flames,” he said boldly.
Whether it is this upcoming season or the following one, Solovyov is determined to find his way into the NHL conversation. While he is a dark horse pick, do not sleep on him. Not only does he have the numbers and experience playing professional hockey in the KHL, he has the drive and determination to keep growing his game and improving to make it to the next level.
We wish him nothing but success.