It's an unusually quiet year for Russian prospects. There's always at least one or two we're talking about as potential top five targets.
This year? There isn't one, but Nikita Chibrikov is one of the top candidates to get called early this coming summer. very time he has represented Russia internationally, including in Euro Hockey Tour action earlier this year, he was among the offensive threats in the tournament and scouts have taken a loving to the winger.
"When his shot is coming near you, get out of the way," a Russian scout said prior to the tournament. "It's all speed and strength. Once he hits top speed with his skating, you don't want him taking a shot because you're basically screwed."
That's one way to put it. And the United States felt his wrath on Monday night in the opening day of the World Under-18 Hockey Championship in Texas. USA held a 5-1 lead at one point near the midway point of the second period and Chibrikov himself was forced to miss 10 minutes with a misconduct for an elbow to the head. At the time, it looked like Russia had simply no chance at a comeback – only to win 7-6 in overtime off the backs of Chibrikov's overtime goal. It was a weak one against Gibson Homer in the American net, but a great effort that Chibrikov completely earned and was rewarded with the game-winning shot.
Ranked 19th in Ryan Kennedy's pre-tournament top 40 rankings, some scouts felt like Chibrikov had a lot to gain in Texas. Chibrikov split his time between the KHL, VHL and MHL, and while his MHL performances were up to par, the numbers - and the ice time - were nothing to get too excited about at the other levels. But scouts knew Chibrikov was talented, and when given a chance to play against his own age group, they were looking for a breakout.
A three-point effort in a comeback victory is a good start. It definitely helped that Chibrikov was fully rested in the second period - and once he returned, the momentum completely shifted. Chibrikov does a superb job of bringing energy to every shift - even if it means playing a little bit too close to the edge. The elbowing penalty received flak from the commentators and internet users alike, but once he returned in the second period, all perceptions changed.
"I saw the opportunity to just shoot the puck. It was a good goal and a good effort from the team," Chibrikov said through a translator on Monday. "We were able to change the way the game was played."
Chibrikov's offensive ability and his high-end skating is unquestioned, and he's got the physicality that makes him a dangerous energy forward. But his decision-making is something scouts want to see improved, and that's why the elbowing penalty – and the way he made up for it – was so notable. Chibrikov's redemption ark was big for the team's captain.
"I said to the team that I was very sorry about the situation. Hockey is a game where you have to believe every minute. And we did."
It's not often that prospects are compared to other prospects ahead of the draft, but one Russian scout, in particular, sees a lot of future Toronto Maple Leafs winger Rodion Amirov in Chibrikov. "Offensively, he always seems two steps ahead of the play," he said. "He's not afraid to punch up a class physically, either. Once he irons out the mental side of the game, the tools are there for Chibrikov to succeed. Just needs to put it together consistently.
"It was telling how well he played after the penalty – you could tell he wanted to make it up to his teammates and he was the best player on the ice in the second half of the game, no question."
Racking up points against lesser teams moving forward won't mean a ton for his draft stock, but it's performance against teams like the United States that will matter the most. Russia came in as one of the tournament favorites despite not having a do-it-all, game-changing prospect on the team, but beating the United States ahead of a game against a rested Finnish team could go a long way when the quarter-final matchups are determined.
If the Russians can get that same determination from Chibrikov to be a difference-maker, they'll be in good shape. The question is whether Chibrikov is ready to be the everyday man the team needs — and if so, it's time to heat up the draft talk for the potential first-round pick.