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Third-round pick Ilya Nikolaev excited to come to Calgary: "I've looked into the city and team before. Really nice place. It's a great team and a great organization"

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / calgaryflames.com

VANCOUVER - In his heart, he was already home.

Despite growing up more than halfway around the globe, far from the glitter and gold of the NHL spotlight, there was nothing Ilya Nikolaev didn't already know about his future hockey haven. 

His agent, Dan Milstein, had already sold it. 

"He told me lots of interesting things about (Calgary)," Nikolaev, speaking through a translator, announced after being drafted by the Flames in the third round, 88th overall Saturday.  

"I've looked into the city and team before. 

"Really nice place. 

"It's a great team and a great organization, and they play the style that I like. I'm very happy to now be a part of it."

Milstein represents a fellow Russian, highly coveted UFA forward Artemi Panarin, but is best known around these parts for his recent involvement with Brad Treliving and the Flames. 

Another client of his, fellow Flames prospect Dmitry Zavgorodniy, recently signed a three-year entry level contract with the club after a strong showing in his first year under the big top of the pro development program.

With this latest asset, along with the signing of free-agent goaltender Artyom Zagidulin earlier this off-season, the Russians are, indeed, coming. 

Like Zagidulin and Zavgorodniy before him, Nikolaev fits the mould of what head amateur scout Tod Button wanted to add at this year's draft.

"He's a solid, two-way centre that played with the 10th-overall pick (Vasily Podkolzin) and they were really good together," Button said. "They had different wingers, but he was the hub of that line. 

"He's a guy that connects the defencemen to the wingers. Solid playmaker; smart, competitive, and we're very happy we got him."

 

Video: "This is a great team and a great organization"

 

In Nikolaev, the Flames get a 6-foot, 190-lb., centre that tallied 25 points (10G, 15A) in 41 games last year in the Russian Jr. League. He's currently under contract with his hometown Yaroslavl for two more seasons, but is eager to come to North America soon after, with the right amount of seasoning under his belt. 

"I want to continue developing and improving every component of my game," he said. "Then, I would be happy to come over and play."

Until then, there's work to be done and big goals to achieve. 

Players this young rarely tout their defensive prowess over all else - but he does, carefully sculpting his game after four-time Selke Trophy winner, Patrice Bergeron.

And like Bergeron, he, too, is a natural-born leader that is also one of the most dangerous players on the ice, offensively. 

Nikolaev served as an alternate captain for Team Russia at the 2019 World Under-18 Championship, scoring four points (2G, 2A) in seven games to help his country earn silver. He also appeared at the 2018 World Junior A Challenge, where his half-dozen points ranked third in tournament scoring as part of another second-place finish. 

 

 

He's known as a good skater with exceptional top-end speed, which makes him particularly dangerous off the rush. 

His edge-work, though, is what makes him a defensive ace. 

So, while the Flames were understandably looking to draft the 'best player available' in their spot in the third round, that skill-set - combined with the ever-increasing need for depth down the middle - made the pick a home-run. 

"You've got to have the right player there," said general manager Brad Treliving. "It's best player (available), yes, but it's a premiere position (centre). 

"Really, really responsible player. Has a great two-way game and plenty of skill."

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