Once you get beyond the first round of the NHL entry draft, you won’t always find players who lit up the scoresheets in their draft year. Some players with gaudy point totals will still be available in later rounds, but to find good players you have to sometimes be willing to look beyond point production alone.
Enter a player like Danny Zhilkin, who definitely didn’t have those gaudy totals in his draft year, but has other attributes that are desirable, and some puck skills that suggest untapped potential on offense as well.
Birthplace: Moscow, Russia
Date of birth: December 19, 2003
Weight: 183 lbs.
Team: Guelph Storm (OHL)
Concern about Russian players coming over to North America is likely to be greater this year than ever before, but there is none of that with Zhilkin. He is a product of the Toronto Marlboros minor hockey program, and represents Canada internationally, so whoever selects him will definitely see him competing to be on their roster in the future.
Like many players in this draft, he saw his sophomore season in the OHL completely cancelled due to the pandemic, and struggled to get much going offensively with the Guelph Storm when returning to action in 2021-22. As a result, his stock has slipped somewhat, but he could represent a bargain pick for a team willing to overlook his lackluster point totals.
A stat line of 55 points through 66 games doesn’t suggest a can’t-miss prospect, so what is it about Zhilkin that has some scouts talking about him as if he could be a first-rounder?
He is a big 6’2” centre with above average skating and a willingness to go to the dirty areas. He also has a good wrist shot, but his preference seems to lie in driving the net, which is something that will generally be favoured by NHL teams.
What really stands out when you watch Zhilkin, or take a look at his underlying numbers, is how strong he is defensively and in transition.
He boasts solid numbers in terms of controlled zone exits and entries, and one of the more impressive parts of his game is how he can take the puck through all three zones. In particular, his off-puck awareness and hockey IQ are praised as major strengths, and likely a big part of why his offensive totals haven’t seen him fall too far on mid-season draft lists.
Though his point totals don’t quite suggest it, he also has pretty solid puck skills, and can pull off some impressive moves when given the chance.
As shown in the video above, he is capable of some wow-factor goals, but these impressive offensive efforts are a little fewer and farther between than one might like to see. The biggest thing that will hold him back at the next level is his limited offensive upside, which appears to be an issue caused by awareness rather than skill. While his off-puck awareness draws praise, it seems to take a hit when he’s forced to make a decision on where to go with the puck.
He often misses opportunities to set up his teammates for high-danger chances by not realizing when passing lanes are open, and ends up skating himself into situations where the danger is all but nullified.
When in open ice without checkers closing in on him, he can complete passes with ease, as evidenced by his setup pass to Shane Wright during the CHL top prospects game.
It is when the pressure is ramped up by defenders that he seems somewhat panicky, and can’t figure out to go with the puck. This concern is likely a big one for NHL scouts, as pressure at the next level will be even more fierce, so it is something he will need to work on.
I wanted to combine the rankings and discussion portion of this profile, because there will be a lot of movement on pre-draft lists this season, so the numbers below have a high chance of changing between now and July. Zhilkin will be one of those players who could either rise or fall on several lists, so he’ll be an interesting name to watch before and during the draft.
Elite Prospects: #43
Bob McKenzie (TSN): #31
NHL Central Scouting: #35 (North American Skaters)
Dobber prospects: #42
Smaht Scouting: #59
Corey Pronman (The Athletic): N/R
Scott Wheeler (The Athletic): #58
Most rankings seem to have him going in the second round for now, but some all the way into the later third. Given his 0.83 point-per-game rate in the OHL, I could see him falling on lists and ending up in the late second, potentially the third round.
If he is available for one of the Montreal Canadiens picks in the third, depending on who else is there, I would take him. He projects as a capable two-way, middle-six centre in the NHL, and if his situational awareness under pressure can be improved, there could be more offensive upside to his game that can be unlocked.
I see a little Phillip Danault when watching him, and though I don’t think Zhilkin will ascend to the top-six shutdown wizardry of the former Canadiens pivot, I think he would be a worthwhile project for a new brass that has emphasized their focus on development.
I wouldn’t use anything higher than a third, however, as Zhilkin will be a project that could take several years before being ready to play for the team. As a rebuilding team, they can definitely afford to take on such a project, but I believe that the second round will have some better options available.
His probability of making the NHL seems very good, so a third-round selection could be a safe choice for a team that will have two other picks in that round to swing for the fences with.