The Winnipeg Jets took a road less travelled Saturday, venturing to Eastern Europe to add a pair of Russian forwards and a defenceman from Belarus to their prospect pool.
"I’ve said before it doesn’t matter where they come from, if we have a passion to take the players and think they’re the best players," said Mark Hillier, the director of amateur scouting. "I have to give all our scouts a lot of credit. We’ve really pitched in on the video side at the start of the year. Especially when the North American leagues weren’t playing. We really made a commitment to go at Europe hard on the video side and have as many as eyes on as many players as we could."
Nikita Chibrikov, 18, was taken in the second round, 50th overall. The 5-10, 170-pound winger from Moscow had been projected by many to go in the first round, so there was palpable excitement within Winnipeg's draft room at the chance to grab him. The Hockey News, for example, ranked him 14th-overall.
"The resounding remarks from all our scouts was ‘You can’t pass this guy by if he’s there,'" said Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.
"When we went through the interview process with him, he’s a very serious player. He was captain of the U18 team. He looked like a very driven kid in the conversations we had prior to the draft with him. I spoke with his agent shortly after I spoke with the player. He was excited for his player to come to Winnipeg and certainly shocked at the value we got him at."
Chibrikov is considered an elite playmaker for his age, and the Jets project him to eventually be a top six forward and power-play specialist in the NHL. He spent last year with St. Petersburg of the KHL playing against older, more polished pros, with a goal and an assist in 16 games. He really emerged at the World U18s, where he had four goals and a tournament-best nine assists in seven games.
"What can I say about my game? I’m a team player. I want my team to win and that’s the first rule," Chibrikov said in a Zoom interview shortly after his selection.
"Also, I have a combination (with how) I play. A lot of passes, I have a good sense, a good hockey IQ. I can skate and use this very much. As for style, more of a playmaker but I can adjust myself to go one-on-one and score goals from unreal positions, making passes to my partner and into the empty net. Good hockey sense. A combination on the team."
Chibrikov is under contract for two more years in the KHL and hopes to emulate the success another Nikita has had in the NHL.
"Nikita Kucherov is a good player, but it’s not my idol. Also, I want to be myself. I like his style and I love watching him play. There’s something I can get from his game for my game, but I will work towards the next years where you will say that you know 'Chibrikov’s style'," he said.
Dmitry Kuzmin, 18, was taken in the third round, 82nd overall. The 5-9, 178-pound left-shooting blue-liner from Kholstovo had three goals and nine assists in 46 games with Dinamo-Molodechno of the Belarus league. He also had a goal and an assist in five games for Belarus at the U18 World Championship.
"He’s a real skilled defenceman. We joked about the lacrosse style goal (he scored at the tournament). I asked him how many times he’s done it outside of the U18s and he said he’s done it three times." ‐ Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff on draft pick Dmitry Kuzmin
"He’s a real skilled defenceman. We joked about the lacrosse style goal (he scored at the tournament). I asked him how many times he’s done it outside of the U18s and he said he’s done it three times," said Cheveldayoff.
"He’s pretty talented, good hands, moves well, sees the ice. He’s not the tallest player. He’s got good thickness to him, good strength to him, so we project he’s got a pro style of body along with the skill."
Kuzmin is slated to come to North America this fall and play in the Ontario Hockey League with Flint.
Dmitri Rashevsky, 20, was taken in the fifth round, 146th overall. The 6-1, 165-pound winger from St. Petersburg is an overager, having been passed over last two drafts He played at three levels in Russia last year, including 12 games with Dynamo Moskva in the KHL where he had an assist. Rashevsky led the MHL — the top Russian junior league — in scoring in 2019-20, with 44 goals and 30 assists in 61 games.
"He’s a late bloomer physically. He’s still got a ways to go with respect to getting bigger and stronger. Watching a ton of video on him and seeing the progression he’s had and the breakout year with 44 goals two years ago, and not getting drafted, and watching him play in various leagues in the KHL — we kept coming back to ‘why not draft this player?’" said Cheveldayoff.
"He’s further on down the development curve, he’s got one year left on his deal over in Russia, the conversations we had with him were that he’s willing to come over, and willing to play in the American Hockey League to develop. It’s a special thing for those players that get passed over a couple times. There is a bit of a chip on their shoulder. I think there is a lot of skill, can play either wing. He’s 6-1, but I think there is still room to grow into his body."
Prior to Saturday, the Jets had only selected two Russian players in their 10 previous drafts combined — forward Pavel Kraskovsky in the sixth round in 2014 and goaltender Mikhail Berdin in the sixth round in 2016.The fear among teams is the ever-present risk the player never comes to North America, which was the case with Kraskovsky. But there have been enough success stories, from Kucherov to reigning rookie-of-the-year Kirill Kaprizov, that it's a risk worth taking.
"So a long time, two years. I need a lot to do to become a good NHL player," Chibrikov said of his plans. "So my decision is to work in Russia these two years and progression. Now I know Winnipeg picked me so I’m working for the future. But I don’t how it will be yet. Just work and we will see what it will be."
Winnipeg made a splash in the first round of the draft, grabbing American centre Chaz Lucius with the 18th-overall pick Friday night. The Minnesotan was ranked in the Top 10 by many pundits, but an injury-shortened season likely caused him to fall. A standout scoring star with the U.S. National Development Team, Lucius is committed to play next year with the University of Minnesota's Golden Gophers.
"We think that, when he matures physically, more in another year or two, he's going to be a special player for us," said Hillier, who believes this year's draft was a case of quality over quantity for a Jets team that had previously traded away three of its seven picks.
"We feel really good about the talent and the skill we added to the group," he said.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.