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Welcome back to Shift Work! The series where I take a look at a draft-eligible player and breakdown a game tape. I’ll be bringing you some comprehensive breakdowns of a player’s game as we go over an entire game of tape from a player. We will be focusing in on that player’s shifts and getting a peek at what the average game of that player looks like. We will be highlighting a lot of things that scouts and evaluators look for when they are watching a player’s game.
I couldn’t do this nearly as easy if it weren’t for collaboration with Prospect Shifts. The subscription-based website ($5/$10 options available) that takes a draft-eligible player and produces a video with only that player’s shifts. It cuts out the rest of the game, the commercials and intermissions making it much less time consuming to get a quick view on a player for scouts, writers and analysts alike.
Today’s subject is left-handed defenseman Alexander Nikishin of the Spartak Moskva (Moscow) in the KHL. A draft-eligible prospect who plays in the KHL is always going to regarded highly and Nikishin is no different. He is a defense-first blueliner who has a big frame and the physicality to match. The game that we will be viewing and breaking down is Spartak’s September 10th matchup with Avangard Omsk. Playing in arguably the second-best league in the world, Nikishin showed aspects of his game that bode well for his future and presented some issues in his game that will need to be worked on as he develops. Let’s dive in!
Below we can see Nikishin’s (#10 in red) first shift of the game. While he doesn’t touch the puck, we do get a glimpse of his skating over long stretches as he tracks back into his zone. It’s the first concern that arises in Nikishin’s game. He isn’t a strong skater and grades out as slightly below average. While he is mobile enough to get around, it’s immediately evident that he isn’t going to be a player who carries the puck through the neutral zone in any dynamic fashion.
One thing that Nikishin doesn’t lack is strength. We see in the following clip that Nikishin (#10) is able to effortlessly throw aside not only an opposing player but also a teammate in the process. His loose puck retrieval in the clip is a bit of a concern, however. His first-step quickness is a bit of a concern but he has a long stick and is able to poke the puck from harm’s way. Improving his first-step should be an issue that he immediately addresses.
His next shift shows his good neutral zone gap coverage. He was able to keep the forward in front of him and impedes their forward progress, forcing a dump in behind him. While he is beat to the outside, he isn’t in a panic because he had a covering forward who was able to retrieve the puck before any danger came of it. This neutral zone coverage is an underrated skill because it forces more dump-ins which can mean the possession of the puck likely changes if a covering forward or smooth-skating defensive partner can corral the puck.
As a defensive blueliner, penalty killing will be a big part of Nikishin’s contributions. Here we see his quick, pulsating movement on the penalty kill. He is the primary net-front presence but shoots out to the corner at the beginning of the clip forcing a quick pass from the opposition. He then gets back to the front of the net quickly. As the shot from the point comes in towards the net, Nikishin engages and lifts the stick of the player who is in front which helps prevent a tip in front. He then continues to track the puck, breaking up a pass towards the end of the clip, effectively ending the threat.
Next, we get a glimpse at Nikishin’s only real offensive chance of the game. He starts his shift on the fly as Spartak is in the offensive zone. As he crosses the blueline, he receives a pass and has room to wind up and take a shot. He gets a good wrist shot off but with no screen in front, it is an ineffective chance. While the wrist shot is decent, he takes it from a poor angle. He also had the room to move lower into the zone and make a pass towards the front of the net or create a more dangerous offensive chance.
To start the second period, Spartak starts a man down. Nikishin is again relied upon to help kill off the penalty which is a really good sign for a 17-year-old at the time (he turned 18 on October 2nd). What Nikishin does really well against the rush is take away time and space. As the powerplay enters the zone, Nikishin guides the puck carrier to the boards and knocks the puck off his stick, allowing a teammate to clear.
On his next shift, Nikishin is put in a bit of an awkward position. As the low defender back, when the puck goes to the corner he intends to retrieve the puck but his foot speed fails him and he is beaten to the puck. Due to his decision to chase the puck into the corner, and the complete lack of help from his defensive partner or forwards, the front of the net is vacated and a scoring chance against occurs. Luckily, it doesn’t lead to a goal but the foot speed issues arise yet again.
The next clip again shows his excellent defense against the rush. He gets physical, riding the forward into the boards separating the puck from the man. The puck re-enters the zone after a brief exit and Nikishin is given the puck behind the net. This might be the best display of his edge work in the game. It’s not crisp, specifically on the turn back, but it works in this instance. He is able to stay patient and get the puck to his defensive partner safely.
A defensive lapse in judgment on his next shift leads to a high-danger scoring chance that again, thankfully doesn’t find the back of the net. He shows good patience behind the net but is then chased down from behind and stripped on the puck by a quick forward. Nikishin has the strength to fend off forwards but needs to make quicker decisions with the puck. This could be a factor of him playing in a men’s league, arguably the second-best league in the world, and just adjusting to the pace of play with men.
The staple of Nikishin’s game is his zone entry defense. It may seem like a boring play but it’s an incredibly important one. Here he first pokes a puck loose at neutral ice, followed by closing in on an attacking player as they attempt to enter the zone. He forces the dump in while laying the body on the opposition. His physical presence has been a welcome addition to the Spartak blueline.
On Nikishin’s following shift, he does a good job of moving his feet and taking away the passing option on a two-on-one that almost gets behind the entire Spartak defense. He engages the passing option, allowing the goalie to take the shooter and ensures to drive the player wide of the net. Defending a two-on-one can be difficult from this position as Nikishin was in the process of following a play up the ice before a quick turnaround by Avangard Omsk.
Mid-way through the second period, Nikishin is able to make a good pass to break out of the zone (below). This is the kind of break out pass that Nikishin will make. He isn’t going to make long stretch passes with any consistency but the small, simple passes like this will be what makes Nikishin an adequate option when it comes to exiting the zone.
Below is a continuation of the shift above, which begins with a massive, clean open-ice hit. Nikishin does a good job of choosing his moments for taking a chance with a big hit like this. Following the hit, he retreats back to the net front. After an attempt by Spartak to break out on the opposite side of the ice, Nikishin gets the puck and shows decent hands and draws a tripping penalty as he tries to go around an opposing forward.
Nikishin’s final shift of the second period shows how his physical play can affect the opponent’s mindset. Despite the forward clearly having a speed advantage on Nikishin, he stops up outside of Spartak’s zone and then attempts to pass the puck off for the zone entry. Nikishin’s physical presence can create a bit of an intimidation factor that isn’t necessarily something that can be measured by any metric.
After a couple of uneventful shifts to start the third period where Nikishin didn’t factor into the play, positively or negatively, he is again imposing his presence while defending the front of the net. A skill that Nikishin excels at is tying up an opponent’s stick and keeping the net-front clear for his goalie. Towards the end of the clip, he disrupts the cycle which ends up leading to a clearing of the zone.
The next clip is another example of Nikishin’s delayed decision making. He attempts to make a move on the incoming forward while stationary in his own zone. If he was moving his feet up ice, or if he had passed the puck off to his defensive partner, this issue, and eventual turnover, could have been avoided.
With about a minute left in the game, Nikishin does a good job of using his big frame to impede the path of the attacker and meeting along the boards in a 50/50 battle. Despite leaving the loose puck for his teammate, the puck stays in the zone and cycles around. Nikishin did his part on this shift and the puck is covered without issue by the goaltender.
The game ended up going to overtime where Nikishin didn’t play at all before Avangard Omsk scored to defeat Nikishin and the Spartak from Moscow by a score of 3-2. Nikishin did a good job defensively throughout the game, oftentimes making the correct and safe play. He wasn’t without errors as his decision making seemed to be a bit delayed at times and his skating is average at best but will certainly need to improve in order to excel at the next level.
Review and Evaluations
Alexander Nikishin is a defensive defenseman. He is quite a good defender against the rush despite the flaws in his skating. He excels in that area because of his willingness to close the gap, stay tight and engage physically. His presence in the net-front is top-notch as well. He ties up his opponent’s stick and punishes any attacker who decides to camp out near the goaltender. He chooses his spots well when looking to lay a hit and generally doesn’t take himself out of position defensively to do so. His offensive upside is limited. He isn’t a strong skater but can transition the puck when given space but should be a tertiary option when it comes to a team’s neutral zone transition game. He has a good shot and seems to understand his limitations, opting for safe and simple passes.
When Nikishin is at the top of his game, he is a quiet player who will serve as a physical presence on the back end. He currently projects as a top-four defenseman in the mold of Nikita Zadorov of the Colorado Avalanche. He may never be a power-play option but if put in the situation, he would be a triggerman at best on the secondary unit. He could be an anchor for a team’s penalty kill, however. He has already shown the capability to excel while shorthanded at the KHL level. This is a promising sign for the 2020 draft-eligible prospect. Nikishin has some obvious flaws but he understands the defensive game at an advanced level. He needs to improve his skating to truly play important minutes for an NHL team as the game continues to move towards speed and skill. Currently projected towards the end of the first round, early in the second round of the 2020 NHL Draft. Currently outside of Cam Robinson‘s Preliminary 2020 Rankings, Nikishin is a player that fits into the second or third round, in my opinion, assuming he takes strides, no pun intended, in the skating department.
Thank you for joining me for another edition of Shift Work! I’ll be back for another edition in a couple of weeks. Until then, you’ll find me Rambling here on Dobber Prospects every Wednesday and you can follow me on Twitter at @theTonyFerrari! Which prospects have stood out to you recently? If there’s anyone you want an opinion on or think has been standing out lately, comment below or send me a message on Twitter.
Previous Editions of the “Shift Work” series: