The Colorado Avalanche prospect pool is pretty bare at the moment. After trading two of their top prospects last Spring, in addition to high draft picks, there isn’t a whole lot left in the system.
That’s what makes Nikolai Kovalenko so intriguing to Avalanche fans. The 23 year old, who was drafted in the sixth round in 2018, has been a regular in the KHL since he was 19 years old.
And this season, he has really taken off. This past summer, he signed a two year contract with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod. Under the tutelage of legend Igor Larionov, who is Torpedo’s Head coach, Kovalenko has broken out. He currently leads Torpedo with 54 points in 56 games, which places him top 10 in the league in scoring. In terms of points per game, he’s third at .96.
After speaking with a source who knows Kovalenko’s game well, this is “not exactly a sudden and unexpected breakout, but more like something that should have, more or less, happened in the previous seasons.” He described Kovalenko as “a very smart player, who plays with passion.”
Why didn’t that breakout happen in previous seasons? Well, two seasons ago he was stuck in the coach’s doghouse at Lokomotiv, and last season, he dealt with concussion issues that really slowed his game.
This season, his “pass-first mentality” has really clicked under Larionov. That’s a sign he could be a good fit with Colorado’s current style of play.
All of this is great, but Avalanche fans wants to see him in North America. To date, there really hasn’t been much of an indication Kovalenko will cross the pond. Will that ever happen?
“I think it’s pretty possible in 2024,” the source said.
Last summer, he signed a two year contract with Torpedo. That contract runs through the end of the 2023-24 season, meaning the earliest he could come over is in 2024. The Avalanche will still be in need of entry level deals at that point.
There is another catch.
The AHL is likely not going to be an option. Like many high end Russian prospects, they would rather play in the KHL until they are ready for NHL action, skipping the AHL. That means if he does come over, it will likely happen with an AHL “out” clause.
In an interview from September, Kovalenko himself said “I think that the KHL is better than the AHL.” He says that he maintains good relations with representatives from the Avalanche, “but I think that we must first get stronger in the KHL, and then think about playing in the NHL club.”
If Nikolai’s last name rings a bell, it’s because his dad is former Avalanche player Andrei Kovalenko. In a similar interview, Andrei says “You need to go to the NHL in the right status – one of the leading hockey players in the KHL, a player in the main team of Russia.” Like his son, he also believes that the KHL is a better league than the AHL.
While nothing is set in stone, if Kovalenko does stay healthy and continues to progress in the KHL, the NHL looks like a real option after his current contract is up. And that’s great news for the Avalanche.
Meet Torpedo's new points leader — Nikolai Kovalenko (53 pts, 54 GP). pic.twitter.com/L3SfVdy9cv
— KHL (@khl_eng) February 20, 2023