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Where to Set Your Expectations With Nikolai Kovalenko



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When Nikolai Kovalenko makes his way over to North America to play for the Colorado Avalanche, I have a lot of faith that he’ll be an effective NHL player for the team.

Heck, I wrote three separate film room pieces (1, 2, 3) to showcase why I think he’ll be a good NHL player. But in that final film room, I tried my best to set expectations a little bit about his offense. With the news this past week that Kovalenko signed his 2-year ELC, fans are pretty excited.

They should be. He’s a good player, and when he comes over, should be able to step right into the NHL. I think he’d be able to help out on opening night, but that’s obviously not happening with the loan to the KHL. Either way, the Avalanche are desperate for cheap, young talent at the NHL level, and getting someone like him on an entry-level deal is a big win.

But what I’m seeing is names like Kirill Kaprizov and Andrei Kuzmenko thrown around as comparisons. It makes some sense. They’re the two most recent high-profile KHL players to make their way across the pond and succeed, so naturally, people will make the comparisons.

I would, however, caution fans to take a step back if that’s what you’re expecting, and I’ll dig into their KHL numbers to show why I’m saying that.

Now, this is all subject to change. After all, Kovalenko is going back to play for Igor Larionov and Torpedo again this fall. He could take another step offensively, and turn me into an even bigger believer. If that happens, the hype train might be through the roof, and for good reason. But for now, I’ll go off what I’ve seen, and compare his KHL production to that of Kaprizov and Kuzmenko.

I’ll start with this – I think Kaprizov is one of the best players in the NHL. Expecting anyone to be him is already setting the bar very high. He hit the ground running when he got to North America, and has not looked back. When you look at his KHL numbers, it’s easy to see why.

In his final two KHL seasons, he scored 63 goals. That alone is impressive enough, but what makes it even more impressive is that 50 of those goals came at even strength. That accounts for nearly 80% of his goal production.

Let’s compare that to Kovalenko’s breakout year. He deposited a very respectable 21 goals, but only 12 of them came at even strength, accounting for 57% of his production. Eight were on the powerplay, while one was shorthanded, where he’s a menace. The Torpedo powerplay was fun to watch, and Kovalenko was a big reason why. His distribution skills fit right in with how Larionov wants to play.

There’s nothing wrong with powerplay goals, but how much powerplay time could he realistically get with the Avalanche? On Torpedo, he mainly set up on the right wall. That’s Mikko Rantanen’s office, and he’s not losing that spot anytime soon.

Let’s compare to Kuzmenko, who scored 39 goals in his first NHL season. Now, he shot 27% for the Canucks, and I doubt that’s going to happen again, but he was a very productive player in the KHL. 15 of his 20 goals in his final year came at even strength, which accounts for 75% of his goal production.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with scoring on the powerplay, but you aren’t always going to get those opportunities across the pond. Even strength production is just easier to project, and far more likely to translate at the next level.

The reason you should be excited about Kovalenko is because the rest of his game projects well to the NHL. He’s not someone who needs to be scoring to be effective. He’s a complete player whose motor never stops, and that’s why I believe, 1) fans will like him immediately, and 2) the coaching staff will take a liking to him quickly.

Everything about his game is tailor-made for North America. He’s small, but built like a tank, much like his father. He heads to the dirty areas of the ice, and forechecks like a mad man. Defensively, he’s very trustworthy, and played a lot on the penalty kill for Torpedo. And on top of all that, he blocks shots, and isn’t afraid to throw his body around physically.

Do I believe he’s at the level offensively of Kaprizov or even Kuzmenko? No, not at the moment. Another big year in the KHL might start to convince me, but as of right now, I’d say he’s at least a notch below those two when it comes to his offensive ceiling.

And that’s okay. Why? Because it’s the rest of his game that should excite everyone. It excites me. And when he makes his way to the Avalanche, I think fans will see why that is.

If he steps in and becomes a third line player for the Avalanche, that’s huge. This is a 6th round pick we’re talking about. When was the last time the Avalanche had a 6th round pick become an NHL player? David Jones? Brandon Yip? It’s been a while.

Avalanche fans should be excited about Nikolai Kovalenko. He’s a good player, and should be able to help them the second he arrives. But he’s a very different player than both Kaprizov and Kuzmenko.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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