LYNNWOOD — Ivan Nikolishin is a talented hockey player, a silky-smooth center who starred for Russian national teams and averaged more than a point a game in his first seven preseason/regular season games with the Everett Silvertips.
He has a reason to be confident about his game, and he’s backed it up with his performances on the ice. Yet, even he was sweating over his future.
But Nikolishin survived Everett’s European dilemma, and now he’s ready to make his mark on the Silvertips’ season.
Nikolishin’s spot on the team is now secure following Monday’s release of Finnish winger Waltteri Hopponen, leaving Nikolishin and Swiss defenseman Mirco Mueller to occupy Everett’s two European roster slots.
“I was nervous because the other players are very good,” the 17-year-old Nikolishin said following Thursday’s practice at Lynnwood Ice Center. “Waltteri, he was my buddy. I was of course nervous, but I’m happy I made the team.
“I just want to help the team win the Memorial Cup, win every game that we have.”
Nikolishin and Hopponen were essentially in a dead heat for Everett’s second European roster spot. Nikolishin’s ability to play center played a large role in breaking the deadlock, as did his exceptional puck skills.
“We had a very difficult decision to make in regarding who we’d keep,” Everett coach Kevin Constantine said. “I thought Hopponen did an equally good job; it wasn’t where there was a clear difference between the two.
“Ivan’s puck skills, his confidence, his vision, his passing, we think are exceptional,” Constantine continued. “That’s a skill not found in a lot of players and it’s a nice additional thing to have on a team. I think he really knows the game.”
When the Tips selected Nikolishin in the second round of the Canadian Hockey League import draft in July, it was largely a speculative pick. There was no question about Nikolishin’s abilities. The 5-foot-9, 160-pounder from Moscow had eight points in six games as Russia took the silver medal at the 2013 U-17 World Hockey Challenge. However, it was largely assumed Nikolishin would remain in Russia this season.
Everett general manager Garry Davidson took a chance on Nikolishin, thinking he may be able to recruit Nikolishin for the 2014-15 season. But Nikolishin surprised everyone by choosing to come to North America immediately.
“It’s because of the NHL draft,” Nikolishin, who is eligible for the 2014 NHL draft, explained about his decision. “If I play here, I have more chances to get drafted, but if I play in Russia, there’s almost no chance to get drafted.
“I would have played the same league as the WHL there in Russia,” Nikolishin added. “It’s called the MHL and the age is the same, from 16-20. But here it’s not just a little bit stronger, it’s a lot.”
This isn’t Nikolishin’s first foray into North America. Nikolishin’s father, Andrei, spent 1994-2004 in the NHL with the Hartford Whalers, Washington Capitals, Chicago Blackhawks and Colorado Avalanche. As a result, Nikolishin was born in the U.S. and spent the first seven years of his life on this side of the Atlantic. He speaks fluent English, which has aided his transition to North American hockey, as well as life off the ice.
“I don’t really remember that time because I was very young, but learning English was easier because I knew it when I was here,” Nikolishin said.
“Everything is good, I really like it here,” Nikolishin added. “The team is very nice, everyone helps me learning English. I have to get used to the ice, because in Russia it’s a little bit bigger. But the coaches are helping me, my billet parents are helping, I really like it here, everyone is kind to me.”
So far Nikolishin’s transition on the ice has been seamless. He finished fourth on the team in scoring during the preseason, tallying three goals and four assists in six games. Then he added two more assists in Everett’s season-opening 8-3 victory over Prince George, including a seeing-eye pass that allowed Joshua Winquist to split the defense for a goal.
“The greatest asset he has is when the puck is on his stick. He generally does the right thing with it,” Constantine said. “He sees the right play, he’s not afraid to keep it himself, he’s very confident with it. We’d like to be a team that tries to have the puck a little more than the opposition does, and to do that you need players who have puck confidence and puck skills. I think he can add that to our group of forwards.”
And now that Nikolishin knows he’ll be with the team this season, he’s ready to aid Everett’s cause.
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at NickHPatterson.