An NHL draft year can be a season of excitement.
It can be dream march to the ultimate goal that’s been a part of one’s life since the first time a young boy laces up skates. But for others, that dream can quickly become a nightmare — and it takes perseverance to push through when times get tough.
For Moscow-born Kirill Nizhnikov, now with the Sudbury Wolves, he’s under not false illusions about how this, his draft-eligible season, has been progressing.
“It’s not so good,” Nizhnikov said. “I’m not playing the game I’m supposed to play — skill hockey, taking the puck to the net. It’s just not working for some reason. One day it’s going to be back.
“But in the meantime I have to keep working and not give up.
“Hopefully it’s coming soon.”
Nizhnikov started slowly this season, with three goals and 11 points in 25 games with the Barrie Colts. Since a mid-season trade to Sudbury, the 6-foot-1 winger has added six goals and 11 assists in 23 games with the Wolves.
While his assists are up, his goal totals are down from his rookie season last year, when he scored 12 goals in 43 games as a rookie with the Colts.
“We picked him up in December and I think, at that time, he had lost some confidence. He was playing on the first line, fourth line — I think he may have even been a healthy scratch,” explained Wolves’ head coach Cory Stillman.
“We were a young team. He’s getting an opportunity to play here. He plays on the power play, four-on-four, we don’t use him to kill penalties — you can see the skill that he has. Even last night [a Feb. 9th game against 6-3 victory over Flint], he brought it out.
“He can beat guys one-on-one. I think for a young guy that’s doing it consistently — and when he does that and he realizes how good he can be and play the right way. Once you get him to buy into a system: to check, to play with the puck — when he has the puck he can do whatever he wants with it.”
Nizhnikov has the talent and potential.
But the challenge is dealing with that lack of confidence, Stillman added.
“There’s no drill for confidence,” he said. “I guess the drill is jumping over the boards, knowing that every game you’re in the lineup, you’re going to play every period, and you’re going to get an opportunity to play with good players.
“He’s come over, he’s put up some decent numbers for us. I think as a kid he still wants to do better — and that’s what we’re here for. He’s made strides, he’s coming, and he’s young, and I think he will get better.”
Having come to Canada early, the Moscow-born winger was not subject to the OHL’s import rules. Instead, he was drafted with the seventh overall pick of the 2016 OHL Priority Selection by Mississauga.
Nizhnikov said he feels that experience has been a positive and gives him an advantage over other Russian players.
“For sure. I got here before some other Russian guys got here, so I got used to the game — the Canadian style — so I got to play that for a couple of years and then get drafted into the OHL,” he said.
“I think it’s a bit easier for me than for some of the guys coming over from Russia and going straight to the OHL because I know what type of game is expected.”
He added that the transition wasn’t that big of a challenge for him and he lobbied hard to make the jump to North America.
“To be honest there wasn’t a big change,” Nizhnikov said. “I was really excited to get to Canada. I was begging my parents because I wanted the opportunity to play in Canada really badly.
“In 2014 they gave me that chance and that first year I was successful, so I stayed. I’m really, really happy I’m here now.”
Successful may be a bit of an understatement.
During that first year with the GTBHL’s Mississauga Rebels Bantam AAA squad, Nizhnikov scored 31 goals in 34 games, adding 14 assists. The next season he tallied 23 times and accumulated 37 points in 27 games.
The Steelheads drafted Nizhnikov, but traded him to the Colts in September 2016 for a boatload of draft picks.
The Wolves acquired him in December 2017 for four picks, including a pair of second rounders.
“It’s good in Sudbury. It’s a really good opportunity. For me it was a fresh start — the team’s great, the coaches are great, the barn is really good,” Nizhnikov said. “It’s hockey — as long as the team is good and the coaches are good, I’m happy.”
Nizhnikov said he frustrated with his lack of performance, but he’s not letting the pressure of his draft year compound the issue.
He’s committed to working on power skating, defensive play, and recovering his offensive game.
“To be honest, I don’t think about it anymore,” Nizhnikov said. “I’m just working and I’ll wait until the season ends. You just don’t want to think about it right now and keep fighting every day. It’s obviously never good enough, but I’m just working hard everyday to get better and better.”
Stillman takes a more pragmatic approach to the draft, trying to offset the pressure of multiple eyes watching a player.
“It’s on the kid, too,” he said. “It’s not the end-all, be-all about being drafted. You look at the guys that have gone on to the NHL without being drafted.
“For him it’s just to relax. You’ve played this game all your life — and now you’re 17, 18 years of age. You know how to play. It’s just coming to the rink, being excited, having that feel that you can make a difference.
“He scored last night and that’s a start. If we can continue to build on that, by the end of five, 10 games from now he may say, ‘This is great and I’m moving in the right direction.’”
And Stillman added that when he does put it all together, fans are going to be amazed at what they see.
“Like any 18-year-old kid, to play at the next level you have to get bigger, faster, and stronger. You’ll hear those words all the time,” Stillman added. “He’s a strong kid, but he can get a lot stronger. He can accelerate. I think for me, right now, the biggest thing for him is skating. He can skate.
“If he does it every shift, you’ll see him score goals, and people will leave the rink saying, ‘Wow, this kid has a lot of skill.’”