Over the next few weeks, The Win Column has ranked the Calgary Flames’ best prospects in advance of the 2022 NHL Draft. Next up in our prospect rankings is the 13th ranked prospect: Ilya Nikolayev.
Nikolayev was drafted by the Flames in the third round of the 2019 NHL Draft. He was ranked as high as the first round on quite a few boards that year—including Craig Button’s list on TSN—but ultimately fell down to the third round where the Flames snapped him up.
A Russian born and raised player, Nikolayev played in the Loko Yaroslavl system until the 2020–21 season, after which he came over to North America and suited up for the Tri-City Storm. After the conclusion of the Storm’s season, he joined the Stockton Heat of the AHL for their playoff run, getting into one game.
Standing at 6’0″ and 190 lbs, Nikolayev is a good sized left-shooting center, who signed an entry-level contract with the Flames just a few weeks ago. He’ll turn 21 on June 26.
Nikolayev’s strengths and weaknesses
Nikolayev has been praised for his speed, even going back to his draft year. He’s a very pure offensive player who can contribute in the defensive zone, but his hallmark is putting up points. Despite being an older player in the USHL, he absolutely dominated the league this year. Constantly putting up a ton of points, there were multiple weeks where Nikolayev was the standout performer across all Flames prospects in our weekly roundup.
He has good vision and playmaking ability, loves to score goals, and shows off in the offensive zone. He’s very patient with the puck as well, and earned his spot as the first line centre for the Storm.
An important thing to note about Nikolayev’s game is that he is truly more of a complementary player than a play driver. He lit up the USHL, but that’s likely due to him being a bit older and experienced than his competition and peers. At almost every level, he has needed a top tier player to line up next to in order to play at his maximum level.
There’s nothing wrong with that, every team needs good complementary players, and Nikolayev has proven that he can line up with the best of the best and make them better. The best example of this is during the World Junior Championship when he played on a line with Vasily Podkolzin. The two were dynamite together, and both players helped each other succeed.
Nikolayev’s on-ice results
Nikolayev was having a tough time getting minutes at the top of the lineup and just couldn’t stick in the KHL. As a result, his stock took a big hit, but the Flames brought him over to North American for this season with the Tri-City Storm. The USHL is essentially the CHL of the USA, but it works a bit differently than the CHL does in Canada. Ideally, a high profile prospect in American will play in the USHL before going to college and playing in Division I in the NCAA.
Being an overseas player, the progression was quite a bit different for Nikolayev. Good players start in the USHL as early as 15 or 16 years old, so being 20 years old put Nikolayev right at the top of the age range of the league. Still, Nikolayev finished 10th in scoring with 23 goals and 72 points in just 58 games.
Tri-City was an excellent team this year, finishing first in the Western Conference but losing out in the second round of the playoffs. Nikolayev scored five goals and eight points in five playoff games. He then joined the AHL Heat for their playoff run, skating in one game. He didn’t have any points, but it was impressive to see him make his professional debut at such an important time for the Heat.
|2021–22||Tri-City Storm||Regular Season||58||23||49||72||83||35|
The USHL totals pop off the page. It was great to see Nikolayev do so well in his first season in North America, regardless of the league and competition.
Nikolayev’s next steps
There really isn’t another way to say it—Nikolayev dominated the USHL. He showed that in the right situation, he can really excel and put up impressive offensive totals. Because of his tough go in Russia, it was important for the Flames to really find out what they had in Nikolayev. On the North American ice surface, could Nikolayev play well and show that he still has potential to play well at the professional level.
Seeing Nikolayev kick butt in the USHL was fine, but what was really interesting is that he played for the Heat during their playoff run. He suited up for a game in the AHL playoffs, and on a crowded roster no less. The Heat had 15 forwards suit up for at least one playoff game; the fact that Nikolayev actually played is an accomplishment.
This was a very important season for Nikolayev. His future in the organization was dependent on him showing up this year, and he did. He was too old and too experienced for the USHL, so the fact that he dominated isn’t necessarily a sign that he’s going to now light up the AHL in the same way. Rather, this showed that he does still have the potential to be a professional hockey player in North America.
If he had struggled in the USHL, the Flames would have known right away that Nikolayev wasn’t a prospect to keep around. Him dominating was the bar he had to hit, and he did. He earned his entry-level contract and will now try to keep improving in the AHL next season.
Can Nikolayev reach the heights that some projected of him when they ranked him as a top-25 prospect in the 2019 draft? Only time will tell, but his first season in North America opened the door, at the very least. Nikolayev is still in the group that has more potential than evidence of being an NHLer, thus the 13th ranking on our list. Once we see him play a full season in the AHL as a 21-year-old, we’ll be able to judge whether Nikolayev is truly worth getting excited about.
It’s up to him to show us he is.