The majority-Russian-based leagues, including the KHL, VHL, and MHL, had arguably the closest to “normal” season of all the major hockey leagues. Not only did all three leagues operate, with teams playing in multiple countries, they were also able to award a championship, with the KHL’s Gagarian Cup being awarded to Avangard Omsk. Fun fact, this is where former first overall pick Nail Yakupov plays, and the team is coached by former Flames bench boss Bob Hartley.
The Eurasian teams are broken down broadly into three leagues—KHL, VHL, and MHL. The KHL is the highest professional men’s league in the region, with teams for six different countries. It is arguably the second most competitive league in the world after the NHL. The VHL is most closely comparable to the AHL, a development league of teams mostly owned by KHL clubs. The MHL is the Eurasian junior hockey league, with 33 teams across four countries. Younger players are often shuttled between different leagues throughout the season based on performance. For a more detailed breakdown of the leagues, check out our guide to all hockey leagues outside North America.
For the Calgary Flames, they have three draft picks in these leagues: 2019 3rd round pick Ilya Nikolayev, 2020 4th round pick Daniil Chechelev, and 2020 7th round pick Ilya Solovyov. They also hold the NHL rights for Pavel Karnakhov and Rushan Rafikov indefinitely, but it seems unlikely that either will ever come across to North America. Let’s break down how the three main prospects with NHL ambitions did this year.
Ilya Nikolayev – Centre
Nikolayev was drafted just around two seasons ago, after playing very well for Team Russia at the World Under-18 Tournament. He centred the top line for good chunks of the tournament, alongside noted Canucks prospect Vasili Podkolzin. Nikolayev looked decent, if not exceptional in his first season, putting up almost all of his point at 5v5. That being said, he did not get all that many of them in his final full season of junior hockey.
This season, he bounced between the two leagues, but started to find a depth checking kind of role in the VHL. He again did not put up tons of points, and had trouble stringing points together week in and week out. As a two-way centre, he relies on being sound at both ends of the ice as opposed to putting up tons of points.
Think of this year as being similar for him to when a player first joins the AHL—it takes time to settle in to the faster speed of the game. Under contract with Buran for next season, 2021-22 will be a big year for Nikolayev to show whether he can be a player and if North America is for him. He drew strong comparisons to Patrice Bergeron in his draft year, but will need to have an incredible season to make the Flames give him a look this side of the pond come the 2022-23 season.
Daniil Chechelev – Goaltender
|2020-21||MHL||Russkie Vityazi Checkhov||2.49||0.924||11-7-1||0|
|2019-20||MHL||Russkie Vityazi Checkhov||2.20||0.922||24-20-3||5|
This year was a tale of two seasons for Daniil Chechelev. He started in the MHL going 10-0 before being promoted to the VHL, where he put up some very decent numbers in his first five or so games. He even got called up to the KHL, but did not find his way into any games. Unfortunately, things went downhill from there. The losses came and they just wouldn’t stop. He won one of his last nine games in the MHL, lost more than he won in the VHL after his hot start, and was not offered a contract renewal by Ryazan at the end of this season. He will be looking for a new home for the fall.
Chechelev finished the year as the 21st best netminder in the MHL and the 40th best netminder in the VHL, yikes! Not great on either front for him. Although he started incredibly strong, something clearly did not click with him towards the end of the season. Here is hoping he can return to his early season form and prove the doubters wrong going into next season.
Ilya Solovyov – Defenceman
Solovyov is has probably the most interesting story of all of the Flames’ current draft picks. Passed over not once but twice in the draft, he jumped from the Belarusian national team system to the OHL with Saginaw where he put up a boatload of points as a defenceman prior to being selected in the seventh round of the draft by the Flames.
He then moved over to the KHL this season with Dinamo Minsk, where he put up decent numbers in the KHL as a 20-year-old. Most defensive prospects take years to be ready for KHL duty, but Solovyov found his way into regular action as a bottom pairing defenceman, and still managed to put up nine points in a slightly injury-shortened campaign.
In what was a surprise move to some, given how little he was talked about this season, Solovyov was signed to an entry level contract with the Flames and will report to the Heat come the fall. He will also be representing Belarus at the upcoming World Championships in Latvia. While he has flown completely under the radar this season, don’t sleep on Solovyov. He has the skills and experience to rise through the Flames’ system quickly next season and could be wearing the Flaming C sooner rather than later.
What to watch for?
The Flames have started a little Russian community in Stockton recently, with Artyom Zagidulin, Alexander Yelesin and others having to form a foundation for Yan Kuznetsov and beyond. While we have spoken about Kuznetsov’s NCAA season here and will get to the Flames’ Stockton Heat prospects later in the off-season, this is a make-or-break year for Nikolayev and Chechelev. Both had some great moments this season, but likely have more to prove before they can make the case for a North American call-up.
For Solovyov, next year will be an adjustment year, however expect him to push hard in the Heat’s defensive system. He will be fighting with Kuznetsov as well as Swedish signee Johannes Kinnvall for minutes, while Connor Mackey makes a push for a full-time role with the Flames. The battle of the blueliners down in Stockton next year is going to be fun to watch and refills excitement into the Flames prospect cupboard.