Fast forward a few weeks, and his role on the team seems to be growing by the day.
The 18-year old defenseman, who the Avalanche took 31st overall in the 2023 NHL draft, started the year as the clear #6 defenseman. Strong play, coupled with the team winning almost every night, has seen his ice-time go up dramatically.
On Saturday, in the team’s 5-1 victory, Gulyayev finished second on the team in even strength ice-time. For an 18-year old in a league where coaches tend to lean on veteran players, that’s remarkably impressive. It’s also a great sign moving forward the rest of the season. On average, he’s playing 22-23 shifts a game. Not bad at all for someone his age.
Avangard isn’t giving him good minutes because they’re a bottom feeder and don’t have anyone else to play. They’re off to a hot start, winning 5 of their first 6 games this year. They’re playing him because he’s doing well and improving as the season goes on.
I’ve been able to watch a few of his games this season, and he’s impressive. For a teenager, he’s not afraid to play his game, even if it won’t always be perfect. He gets outmuscled here and there, as was the case for one of the goals in the clips below, but he makes up for a lot of it with his incredible skating. He’s able to use both his skating and his passing to break the puck out to his teammates. What I love the most is that he’s pretty versatile on the back-end. He’s left shot, but for the most part, he plays the right side. Coaches prefer players on their strong side, but showing you can play both sides effectively is a very good skill to have.
Mikhail Gulyayev (COL, R84) vs. Avtomobilist – 07/09/23
15:20 TOI | 1A | 1 Shot Attempt
His mobility and creativity are certainly at the level they need to be, but he’s quite held back by his physicals. Some nice flashes of rush defense, but should add more aggression#GoAvsGo pic.twitter.com/hMO3pvLHgi
— Dylan Griffing (@GriffingDylan) September 16, 2023
Size will likely always be an issue for Gulyayev. At Development Camp back in July, despite being a smaller guy, he looked to be built pretty well, but he’s still always going to be an undersized defenseman. Strength is something he’ll have to work on during the summer, as you can’t really add muscle during the season.
One thing he can work on is aggressiveness. I’m not talking about physicality, but more using his skating to create some offense. He’s been pretty timid with the puck in the offensive zone, and tends to defer to teammates. That’s not the worst thing in the world right now, because he’s building trust with the coaching staff, so playing it safe may be best, but it’s something you want to see develop over the course of the year. He’s pretty much only being used at even-strength by the staff, as there’s not really room for him on the powerplay.
Overall, outside of tearing it up offensively, which is unrealistic given his age and the league he’s in, this is about as good a start to the season as you could have hoped for if you’re the Avalanche. Gulyayev has locked down a regular spot in the top league in Russia, and is already earning the trust of the staff in the first month of the season. That can be difficult for a teenage defenseman to do in the KHL. Perhaps more importantly, the team is winning, so they don’t have much reason to change up the formula.
I’ll keep providing periodic updates on Gulyayev as the season goes on, so stay tuned to CHN. Like Nikolai Kovalenko, he’s a fun player to watch.