Finally now is the time to examine in detail the draft selections the Avalanche came away with at the 2018 NHL Entry Draft in Dallas. First up is Nikolai Kovalenko who was selected in the sixth round at 171st overall and has already fast become a personal favorite.
Standing st 5’10 174 lbs with a stocky frame, the 18 year-old left shot right winger was born on October 17th, 1999 in Raleigh, NC of all places when his father Andrei Kovalenko played for the Carolina Hurricanes. Andrei was a draft selection in 1990 of and then eventually played for the Quebec Nordiques as well as the Colorado Avalanche briefly before he was included in the Patrick Roy trade to Montreal. Nikolai could be the first second generation Avalanche some day.
Despite holding an American passport Kovalenko grew up in and has only played in Russia. This season he suited up primarily in the MHL (Russian junior league) for Loko Yaroslavl. Kovalenko eventually went on to win the MHL championship with teammate Florida Panthers first round selection Grigori Denisenko. Kovalenko even outscored his teammate Denisenko with 31 points including 10 goals in 33 games and and 12 points including a goal in 13 playoff contests.
Kovalenko’s successful season wasn’t just in the MHL as he recieved six games including four in the playoffs with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the KHL. He hasn’t scored his first KHL point yet but the wait won’t take long plus he should have already had one due to his hard work on this goal as seen below. Kovalenko also had another highlight moment in the KHL when he fought former NHL player Slava Voynov. It is likely Kovalenko will spend the next season full-time in the KHL and hopefully will not see the usage issues that Igor Shvyrev did when he made the jump up to the men’s team.
On his KHL play-off debut RW Nikolai Kovalenko (#51, in front of the net) wasn't awarded with an assist on this play (although replay showed that he touched the puck), yet he reminded everyone that his father was nicknamed the "Russian Tank". #2018NHLDraft pic.twitter.com/T71xpc2MT7
— Russian Prospects (@RUSProspects) March 3, 2018
Kovalenko also made an impression at various other events. He showed so well at the MHL all-star game that he was invited to the KHL all-star game and even scored two goals there as well including one as seen below. Then in late May Kovalenko was invited to the U20 Black Sea Cup for team Russia and was one of the top scorers in that event scoring two goals and two assists in four games. That type of performance should certainly put Kovalenko on the World Junior Championship radar.
It seems Kovalenko was an off the board draft selection but those who were watching closely knew this was a talented draft eligible player. NHL’s Central Scouting had him ranked at 33 on the International skaters list and a couple draft publications such as HockeyProspect.com’s Black Book ranked Kovalenko 66th and The Athletic’s Corey Pronman had him at 48th in his rankings. The Avalanche did well to nab Kovalenko in the sixth round.
— МХЛ – Лига сильных! (@MHL_rus) January 14, 2018
It was a welcome surprise to see Kovalenko in attendance at the draft in Dallas. He was then available to travel to Denver for Avalanche development camp. Kovalenko did not disappoint there as he consistently flashed his skill with some dazzling passes in the 3-on-3 game and even won the shootout portion of the game with a nasty backhand shot. He showed his physicality and tenacity especially for his size going against and defending Cale Makar very well. Kovalenko has good ability to hold on to the puck around the net down low and showed why his nickname is Tank Jr. after his father. At times Kovalenko showed his age and will need to keep improving his speed and consistency but against his peer group and draft class especially he stood out on the ice and is someone to keep in mind and look forward to in the future.
The bottom line on Kovalenko is that he’s potentially the total package of dynamic skill, compete and speed that the organization is looking for and is a prospect for the Avalanche that has real potential at a future as a scoring winger despite where he was selected in the draft. With his father currently holding the position of chairman of the KHL Players’ Association and also the indicators of an early career in the KHL, it may take some years for Kovalenko to finally make the jump to North America but his willingness to attend the draft and development camp is a good sign that the NHL is sometime on the horizon. Kovalenko’s contract in Russia does end after the upcoming season so he will have the chance to at least consider making the transition. It will be well worth the wait on this very talented and intruiging player.
And finally, check out Kovalenko in action in a playoff contest in the MHL with this shift by shift video from Rudo3.