Avalanche Film Room: The Nikolai Kovalenko Experience

Colorado Hockey Now

The eagle has landed. Nikolai Kovalenko has made his way across the pond and is officially in Denver. It’s just a matter of time before he makes his debut in a Colorado Avalanche jersey, but for most people, they have no clue what type of player he is.

As someone who watched a little too much KHL hockey this year, I figured I’d try and help with that.

Now, there’s no telling just how much of an impact Kovalenko will make down the stretch with the Avalanche. He’s a young player coming over with no NHL experience, and the Avalanche are deep up front. Injuries will occur, they always do, but if they don’t, is there a spot for him in a healthy lineup? That’s up for him to prove, and he will get a chance to show that (once he’s healthy). He’s not a kid. He’s a 24 year old with six years of KHL experience. Jared Bednar didn’t hesitate to throw Alex Newhook and Sampo Ranta into action in the playoffs right out of College, so if Kovalenko shows he can play, he’ll get a chance.

The Avalanche clearly believe in him. Chris MacFarland made that clear a few times around the trade deadline (“We think he’s going to fit somewhere in that bottom six and hopefully grow from there.”), but they also know there will be an adjustment. Is there enough time left in the season for him to adjust to the NHL? That’s what we’ll find out, but I’ve made it no secret that I love a lot about his game.

He’s a chaos agent, and someone who very much plays the a North American-style game. I did a few film rooms last summer on him, but this is an updated one with only clips from this season. There are A LOT of clips, so it may take a second to load in. Over the last two years in the KHL, he’s got 100 points in 113 games, and that includes the playoffs, but it’s not just about offense with him. It’s the total package that makes him so enticing.

Here’s a taste of the Nikolai Kovalenko experience. In all the clips, you’re watching for #51, the same number his dad wore for the Avalanche nearly 30 years ago.

He Hits Everything

There are players in the KHL who produced more than Kovalenko, but the reason why there’s a lot of excitement around him is because his game isn’t all about offense. Over in Russia, he was often referred to as the “most NHL ready” player in the league just because of how he plays. Don’t get me wrong, there’s skill there (we’ll get to that below), but it’s his physicality and intensity that should get folks excited. He gets in on the forecheck and looks to finish most of his hits. He’s not a big guy, but he can get some real power into his checks, as you can see above. A willingness to finish his checks will get him in the good graces of the staff right away.

Not Just Physical…But Nasty

One thing I like to say about Nikolai Kovalenko – he plays with a real attitude. And that’s a good thing, in my opinion at least.

He’s listed at 5’10”, but he doesn’t play like it. It’s not just that he’s a physical guy on the ice. He’s got a real mean streak out there, and that’s how he has to play to be successful. In the playoffs, he was the fighter for his team. Some of these clips are from the playoffs this year, and it’s no wonder the opposing team was sick of playing against him. He’s a pain in the butt for the opposing team, and he’s not going to back down from anyone.

That first clip is evidence of that.

He’s built for playoff hockey. Will he get a chance to show that with the Avalanche right away? Only time will tell.

Relentless And Fearless…Injury Risk?

There are plenty of reasons why I think he’ll work out as an NHL player, but his willingness to work and pressure the opposing team is one of them. He’s relentless on the forecheck with his pressure, which should fit perfectly with how the Avalanche like to play. He’s a worker, and he’s not afraid to get his nose dirty, heading to the tough areas all over the ice.

Unfortunately, that might catch up with him at some point. Kovalenko missed two large chunks of time this season due to mysterious injuries. I’m not quiet sure what those injuries were, as the KHL is very secretive about that stuff, but he definitely plays a style of hockey that will wear on the body, especially for a smaller guy. He takes the puck to the net, battles in the corners against guys much bigger than him, and does have a tendency to play with his head down from time to time.

Take a guy like Artturi Lehkonen as an example. He’s not a big guy, and he goes to all the hard areas on the ice. That also results in him taking a beating and missing some time. He’s dealt with injuries in his time with the Avalanche, but what else would you expect with his style of play? That’s how he has to play to be successful and effective on the ice. Lehkonen is someone I see as the high-end for Kovalenko in terms of his upside, and I’m not sure you can expect either to play full 82 game seasons with how they play the game. They’re both guys you love to have on your team and would go to war with, though.

Playmaking Ability

Okay, let’s get to the skill portion of his game. I talked to a scout who believed he could score 25 goals in the NHL. I’m not sure about that, but from my point of view, his best asset is his vision and playmaking ability. If anything, I think he could stand to shoot a bit more. While his goal scoring numbers took a dip from last season, his assist rate stayed at the same, so that part of his game is no fluke. Look at the sauce on some of those passes. He can dish the puck, that’s for sure.

Torpedo’s powerplay essentially ran through him, as they moved him to the right circle or left circle, depending on how they wanted to set up. That’s because he sees the ice well and can hit the seam pass pretty well. He also has enough of a shot to keep the opposing teams honest. This part of his game really improved playing under Igor Larionov. How could it not? Larionov said his goal this past year was to get Kovalenko ready for a top six role with the Avalanche. I’d be surprised if that happened down the stretch, but in the future? Who knows.

He Can Score, Too

Yes, Kovalenko can score goals as well. His goal scoring took a dip this year, and part of me wonders if that’s because of the injuries. Like I mentioned, his injuries were very secretive, but there was some belief that the injury that took him out early in the year was to one of his wrists, which would impact anyone’s shot.

He’s got touch around the net, but how much of that translates to the NHL is something I haven’t quite determined for myself. One thing is for sure – like most Russian players, he loves scoring goals.

Trusted In All Situations

Torpedo used Kovalenko in every situation imaginable. He ran the powerplay, he killed penalties, he was on the ice when they needed a goal late, and he was out there to protect leads late when they were winning.

The Avalanche have A LOT of penalty killers, and all of them are wingers, so I’m not sure how much he would be used there (especially this year), but he can do it. Like Miles Wood, he’s a bit of a chaos agent on the penalty kill. The first clip is probably my favorite from this past season. The opposing team goes for the drop pass and mess it up. Kovalenko sees it and wastes no time attacking, nearly scoring a shorthanded goal. Nice skill play in there as well.

One thing I wish I had caught more video of was him blocking shots. He is not afraid to do that at all, so just another box that he checks.

If Kovalenko is able to earn the trust of the staff quickly, it’ll be because of the things he does away from the puck.

Position Versatility

Kovalenko played every forward position this year with Torpedo, including both wings and a short stint at center, but it does seem like his preferred position is that right wing. He can see the ice well on his off-side, and loves to cut to the middle on his forehand. That something he’ll need to be a bit more aware of at the NHL level with more folks looking to take his head off. As you can see in some of the passing clips, he’s pretty adept at dishing the puck with his backhand.

I don’t see him as a center at the NHL level, but having that versatility never hurts, and versatility makes a player more valuable to any coaching staff.

Has Been Known To Take Some Penalties

Kovalenko plays with passion, he plays with emotion, and yes, that does lead to him taking his fair share of penalties. That’s something he’ll have to clean up at the NHL level, and while most of them come from a good place with him just trying to battle for the puck, sitting in the box is an easy way for a young player to lose out on ice time.

The Excitement Of The Unknown

I’m excited to see Kovalenko in an Avalanche jersey, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. While I love a lot about his game, I see his ceiling being somewhere between a Logan O’Connor and an Artturi Lehkonen. That is not a bad thing at all, especially for a sixth round pick, but I just want to keep expectations realistic. This isn’t Kirill Kaprizov, but he can still be a valuable player at the NHL level. He’s a fighter, he’s got an edge, he’s got skill, and he battles for the puck all over the ice. It’s never a question of effort with this guy, and his willingness to pressure the opposing team all over the ice is why I think the coaching staff will take a liking to him.

He’s not a perfect player by any means, and no prospect is ever a sure thing. His skating isn’t bad, but I certainly wouldn’t call it a strength. He’s not a big guy and it remains to be seen if he has enough talent to play in the top six, but I still think there’s enough there for him to become a valuable member of the Avalanche.

There’s not a lot of time left in the regular season, so who knows how much of an impact he’ll make this year, but he is the ultimate wild card for the team down the stretch. If he really adjusts quickly, this team has some real depth up front. This isn’t a one month tryout, either. He’s under contract for next season, and the Avalanche clearly believe he can contribute.

Let’s start the show.

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