As Nikolai Kovalenko prepares to make his NHL debut next year, trust me when I say this – he’s in great hands.
Entering his second season with Torpedo in the KHL, Kovalenko is playing under the tutelage of one of the more brilliant minds to ever play the game of hockey – Igor Larionov. Nicknamed “The Professor,” Larionov is also entering his second season with Torpedo, but the 62-year old isn’t playing anymore.
After coaching in International tournaments, he took over Torpedo before the start of the 2022-23 season. The team turned things around quickly with him behind the bench. After missing the playoffs the year before, they finished fourth in the KHL, their highest finish since entering the league. Larionov pushed (almost) all of the right buttons.
And to be honest, he sounds similar to the guy Kovalenko will be playing for on the Colorado Avalanche.
“We don’t have any pressure,” Kovalenko said of playing for the hockey legend. “They don’t scold, nothing. They just calmly explain and suggest, teach us to become better.”
Speaking on a season preview video for Torpedo, both Kovalenko and Larionov discussed the growth of the 23 year old winger. The video, of course, is in Russian, but with the help of Chris Stadler, we got it transcribed. As someone whose been trying to get in touch with Kovalenko’s representatives and had no luck, I was happy to see so much of the video focused on him.
Among the many topics discussed were Kovalenko’s decision to sign with the Avalanche, how Larionov is preparing him for the NHL, and where the young player sees himself playing when he comes to North America.
Like I wrote way back in February, Kovalenko wasn’t going to come to the NHL until 2024.
“Immediately, I made it clear to Colorado that I have a contract, so when it ends, then I can come to you,” Kovalenko said. “I wouldn’t want to fly there right away, because I would like to spend one more full season with Igor Larionov, to gain a little experience, as it were, all this, skill and so on, and then to chime in.”
And one thing about Kovalenko – he’s a man of his word.
“To be honest, I won’t deceive anyone. I won’t deceive,” he said. “I really always say that when I’m done, I’ll come to you guys and that’s it.”
Kovalenko wants to be successful in the NHL, and that’s why he’s taking his time getting there. The Avalanche, according to him, have been trying to get him to North America since he was drafted. The young winger, along with his father, former Avalanche forward Andrei Kovalenko, have always felt the slow approach was better.
“I completely agree with him (Andrei) that you need to get stronger in the KHL,” the younger Kovalenko said. “Gradually I try, I will get stronger, gradually, as it were, as this one (year) will be just as good, even better, and then you can already go there (the NHL), and show your strength.”
And improve he has. In 2022/23, he took a massive leap. A concussion sidelined him for a large chunk of the 2021/22 campaign, and after that season ended, he moved on to Torpedo.
It was probably the best decision he could have made.
Under Larionov’s guidance, he finished with the third best points-per-game in the KHL. He led Torpedo in scoring, both in the regular season and in the playoffs. It’s no wonder the Avalanche wanted him to cross the pond.
But Larionov knew what was best for him, and how to make sure Kovalenko was ready to hit the ground running when he gets to the NHL.
And he made sure to tell Joe Sakic what he thought was the best path for Kovalenko.
Sakic, as someone who values Larionov’s opinion, asked the Torpedo coach for his thoughts. Sakic apparently wanted to get Larionov’s opinion about Kovalenko ability to potentially play on the third line in Colorado.
“I told him, Sakic, what I see in your team, players, wingers, I think he should be top six, in my opinion. 100%, but he needs to play another year (in the KHL),” he said. “So I told Joe, and there was such an agreement that he fulfills this year of the contract, plays with us, grows even further, improves, gets better, and you get him the next year, at the end of the season.”
Oh, to be able to listen in on a phone call between Joe Sakic and Igor Larionov. Two of the best, most intelligent players to ever play the game, and they both have one thing in common.
They both want Nikolai Kovalenko playing on their team.
There is one thing Larionov has been preaching to Kovalenko, in regards to his game – stability.
Or, in other words, consistency.
“I just know that the quality of a good player is stability,” Larionov said. “This is forward movement, and what he did last year, he will do this year, too. A lot of components that distinguish a player who wants to be a leader – this is discipline, this is rest, this is return, this is a struggle to every puck, this is leading partners, things which he does well now, he needs to consolidate it. So these qualities, which I started to notice them this year, he matured dramatically.”
And once Kovalenko develops that consistency in his game, he can grow even more in other areas.
Larionov saw that growth last season.
“Before the start of the season, when I saw him on the ice, when he did many things the way he did before, I said it wouldn’t work that way,” Larionov said. “I say, ‘This will not work.’ If you want to be a more unpredictable player, more interesting, which will be interesting for your Colorado team, then these are the things you have to change, and he took it alright. Yes, it took time, but he, from game-to-game, from day-to-day, from month-to-month, moved forward.”
A lot of what Larionov preaches is exactly what Jared Bednar preaches in Colorado. He can deal with dips in scoring if you have consistency in your overall game, so Kovalenko is on the right path.
Ultimately, Larionov said his task for the next year is to get Kovalenko ready for the NHL, and specifically, a top six role with the Avalanche. I think that goal might be lofty, but given the growth he showed last year under Larionov, it’s not impossible.
Kovalenko, himself, has big goals. First, he wants to focus on winning in the KHL this year. Beyond that? He absolutely has his sights set on playing in the top six for the Avalanche.
“These are already such secondary goals,” Kovalenko said. “I want to become better, better, better, and therefore, after the KHL, when I go there, naturally, as it were, I would like to climb into the top 6 there, and not in the top 9, as it were.”
Could he, at least for a moment, allow himself to imagine the possibility?
“I can’t yet, while I have to work.”