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Hurricanes Prospect Profile: Alexander Nikishin

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The 2020 third round pick has established himself in the KHL and will be poised for an NHL role in the future.

2021/2021 Kontinental Hockey League: Spartak Moscow vs Admiral Vladivostok Photo by Stanislav Krasilnikov\TASS via Getty Images

This profile is a part of a series profiling some of the top prospects in the Hurricanes’ pipeline. Previously, we covered some members of the 2021 draft class.

Alexander Nikishin’s nickname might be simple but there’s no denying that he lives up to it: Boom. Yes, his nickname is “Boom” and it’s easy to see why.

Nikishin is more than the big hits, although those will feature prominently in this profile. My job is to show you why I believe that Nikishin is the likeliest to make it to the NHL out of the Hurricanes’ defensive prospects.

Skating

Nikishin’s straight line skating is a strength, especially for a player of his size. A lot of 6-foot-4 skaters struggle with their skating ability for a while, but Nikishin has always been an above average skater with and without the puck. Nikishin can accelerate to top speed quickly and can carry the puck confidently in transition, which is a strength. One of the misconceptions that I had about Nikishin was that I thought he was a physical shutdown defenseman. I’ll talk more about his offensive game in a bit, but I’m more convinced that Nikishin is a strong defender and a player with offensive potential as well, making him more of a two-way defenseman. Nikishin’s skating allows for him to close gaps in the defensive zone quickly, as seen in the clip below.

Notice how he sees the forward moving past his teammate and immediately closes the gap before the attacking forward can get any deeper in the offensive zone. He completely seals off the play with a couple of steps and a massive hit. Nikishin’s skating gives him an advantage in the KHL because he’s so much more mobile than opposing forwards expect him to be. It helps in the offensive zone, too. He can cycle throughout the offensive zone, play the puck near the circles and provide a net-front presence. His coaches know that they can trust him to do this and still get back on defense to cover his assignments.

You’ll see examples of the power in Nikishin’s first couple of strides in a lot of clips in this article. That power allows for Nikishin to accelerate to top speed quickly and set the pace against strong competition. Some defensemen can only hope to keep up at the KHL level, yet I find times where Nikishin dictates the pace on a rush.

Defense and Physicality

These two go hand in hand with Nikishin’s game. His physicality is how he cuts off the play a lot of the time, as referenced in the above clip. Nikishin is all about preventing offensive opportunities before they have a chance to start. Nikishin’s defensive hockey IQ is above average, giving him the ability to anticipate plays and get in the way of offense a lot of the time. Nikishin supports his teammates when they’re struggling and is aware of where everyone is on the ice, meaning that he won’t make many bad passes or turn the puck over often. Take a look at this play, where he supports a puck battle and clears the puck on the penalty kill.

It’s a simple play that shows how smart and aware Nikishin is on the ice. This is something that stands out to me because Nikishin is just 19 years old and doing these types of things in the second best league in the world. His positioning in the defensive zone is a strength as well and he knows exactly where to be in order to either disrupt a play, block a shot, get in the way of a pass or make a hit. I’m bringing back the first clip referenced in this article to talk about how Nikishin notices an opportunity to start a breakout as opposed to forcing the puck forward and possibly turning the puck over.

Nikishin could have passed to the forward, but that could have led to a turnover because there were a few forwards nearby ready to pounce on that pass. Instead, he chooses a safer option and passes it to his defense partner, allowing for a breakout to start to form.

One thing I’d like to see Nikishin improve upon in the defensive zone is his one-on-one defense. His backwards skating needs improvement and forwards can get past him when facing him one on one. Here are a couple of clips which highlight what Nikishin needs to work on.

Nikishin has to turn in order to keep up with the attacking forward and is unable to get in the way of the shot because of it. I do like his speed on the ensuing rush and his move to protect the puck and get the puck to a teammate, however.

Again it’s an example of poor defense on the rush and one on one, but he doesn’t make the second mistake and creates some offensive zone time because of a timely block. Nikishin’s subpar one-on-one defense is not a cause for concern in his game because he’ll continue to improve over the next three years in the KHL. It’s something that will need to be worked on, however.

Lastly, Nikishin’s discipline is a strength in his game. He’s physical but doesn’t toe the line with player safety that some other players do. Sure, he’ll hit you so hard that you fall into the Shadow Realm, but he won’t go for the head or leave his feet. He’ll take a player out of the play with a big hit but won’t injure them or take charging, boarding, or other penalties. In fact, this is the only hit I’ve seen him penalized for. I’m still trying to figure out where the penalty is, though.

He got called for roughing for, um, being stronger than the attacking player. Got it.

Offense

Nikshin is just starting to come into his own in the offensive zone. From the handful of games that he has played in this season, I’ve seen Nikishin gain the trust of his coaches and given free rein in the offensive zone. He’ll play in a net-front role, he’ll switch with a forward and play along the wall both on the power play and at even strength, he’ll carry the puck in transition and more. Nikishin has a lot of confidence with the puck on his stick and his speed makes him a threat in transition. I’d be worried too if there was a 6-foot-4, 216-pound freight train coming towards me.

Nikishin can man the point on a power play and likely will as he matures in the KHL. He has been used as a screen for the goalie, but as he starts to mature and improve on his passing, I think he could be a good second power-play unit option.

Take away Nikishin’s shot and he’s still a strong presence in the offensive zone. I would say that he’s limited to mostly simple passes in the offensive zone at this present moment, but I’ve seen gradual improvement early on this season. Nikishin is getting better at seam passes and is trying to make more happen in the offensive zone rather than simply getting the puck to the closest teammate. He knows where to be in order to create scoring chances, too. Take a look at his first goal of the current KHL season.

Somehow Nikishin sneaks past everyone and gets an easy tap-in goal for the lead. It’s a smart play and something that I expect to see more of as Nikishin matures. We’ll also expect to see Nikishin grow more confident with his puck-carrying abilities and start to see more plays like this clip I referenced earlier in all three zones.

Nikishin has shown flashes of offensive potential since the Hurricanes have drafted him but hasn’t put it all together yet. He is mostly limited to simple passes and will occasionally surprise you with a deke, shot or seam pass. Those moments don’t happen on a consistent basis, however, so I don’t see him as much of an offensive threat at the present moment. Still, the glimpses of offensive potential that he shows occasionally are enough to make me think that Nikishin will at least be average to above average in the offensive zone. You have to remember that he is a 19-year-old playing in the KHL. This clip is an example of one of those times where he’ll make a great play with the puck, take a smart shot for an assist and then make a simple pass and wind up with an assist.

A lot of Nikishin’s assists are similar plays to his second assist. He makes a pass to a forward and the forward does the rest of the work, netting Nikishin a primary assist. Still, the two plays prior to that are more impressive, especially when you look at the first clip and see that he’s a big, physical defenseman with that kind of agility and puck skills.

Projectable Tools and Summary

When I look at Nikishin, I’m seeing a player that will be able to step into the Hurricanes’ lineup as soon as his KHL contract ends on April 30, 2024. Nikishin is a top-four defenseman on a good KHL team as a 19-year-old and will continue to improve as he gets more experience in that league. His strong defense, emerging offensive game, skating and physicality make Nikishin one of the most complete defensemen in the Hurricanes’ pipeline. Before, I thought that Nikishin was a lock for the third pairing. Now, I see Nikishin as a future top-four defenseman for the Hurricanes, getting time on both the penalty kill and power play.

Player comparisons are tough because no two players are alike, but Nikishin reminds me of Hurricanes assistant coach Tim Gleason in a lot of ways. They’re both gritty defensemen that will sacrifice the body in order to play their position effectively. Nikishin undoubtedly has more to give in the offensive zone and will likely be more of a two-way defenseman more than a shutdown defenseman like Gleason was, but there are some similarities. It’s going to be a bit of a waiting game for Nikishin since he is unable to sign an NHL contract until May 1, 2024. Assuming that he signs shortly after, though, it’s very likely that the Hurricanes will be able to insert Nikishin into the NHL lineup immediately. I’m already seeing Nikishin go up against strong competition and have success, which gives me the confidence to say that Nikishin could average well over 18 minutes as a rookie in the NHL.

I believe that Nikishin’s ceiling caps as a second pairing defenseman that sees time on special teams, but I could see him playing on the first pairing given how well he fits into the Hurricanes’ current system. He works hard, plays well along the boards and plays with a ton of pace. Over time, we could be talking about Nikishin being the top defenseman in the Hurricanes’ system. Here are some more clips that may not have any major impact on the game, but the hits and fights are still good to see from a younger KHL player.

This was in Nikishin’s second KHL season and he had recently turned 19. To be this involved on the forecheck is something that you don’t see too often from a defenseman. What a hit, too. Nikishin is one of the prospects that I’m highest on, especially after watching his games in the KHL this season. If he continues to develop as he has, the Hurricanes will have a future NHL defenseman on their hands.