Ilya Nikolaev is an interesting prospect because of how divided scouts are regarding his potential. Some peg him as a first-round talent, others see him more as a third-rounder, most would feel comfortable picking him up in the second.
Why is that? He has a few glaring flaws, notably his skating, but on the other hand has tremendous puck skills and hockey sense.
Birthplace: Yaroslavl, Russia
Date of birth: June 26, 2001
Weight: 190 lbs.
Team: Loko Yaroslavl (MHL)
This isn’t to say Nikolaev is a bad prospect. Far from it. He was one of the better centres in his age group within the last few years, and has fared relatively well in the MHL.
At 6’0” and 190 pounds, he isn’t small either. He’s strong on his skates, possesses a decent physical game, and has very good puck skills and hockey sense.
Some would look solely at his stats in the Russian Junior league and think he’s nothing special, yet when you dig a little deeper with Nikolaev, you see incredible tools and great vision that could translate to the NHL.
He was very impressive at the international level this year. He was the number-one centre at the U18 level, and got progressively better as the year went on at the Junior level.
Nikolaev is wearing #19 for Loko Yaroslavl (red team)
In the video, you can see how nifty and soft his hands are. He’s able to take the pass on his backhand, settle it down, and lift it to the top of the net before the defender and the goalie have time to react.
In the second part of the video, you also see him winning his faceoff and passing the puck to his teammate, who then proceeds to score.
Nikolaev understands how to impact the game in several ways, but one trend you’ll keep observing in most of his games is that he’s able to see the entire ice surface. His vision is great and he computes the game at a high pace. He matches the plays developing in front of him with a great set of hands.
When he has the puck on his stick, he’s showing how highly skilled he truly is. He’s a wicked playmaker due to his vision, easily making plays through defenders to create great scoring chances. He knows how to move the puck well and can show off his vision quite well in the offensive zone.
Even though he isn’t the biggest guy out there, he still plays a mean, physical game. He doesn’t shy away from playing with contact, and competes hard on both the power play and the penalty kill.
The biggest drawback is his skating. At best, you could say his skating is average. For a player with his frame, he should be able to have more power and better strides. He hunches over too much and limits his explosiveness by using an awkward motion. His technique would certainly need to be tweaked if he wants to keep up with the NHL trending faster every year.
What’s more, he is a high-character, hard-working player. He plays any sort of role as long as he can help his team win. He’ll play the checker, the scorer, the passer ... as long as it benefits the team, he’ll put in the effort. His strong hockey sense and vision help him achieve that versatility.
Rankings (not all rankings are final)
Dobber Prospects: #42
Elite Prospects: #53
Future Considerations: #45
Hockey Prospect: #74
NHL Central Scouting: #9 (EU skaters)
Pronman/The Athletic: #38
Nikolaev has some of the best hands I’ve seen on a prospect, but his fee are dragging him down. He has enough talent to reach the NHL, and his versatility would be very useful to any team down the line.