Chibrikov grows up fast
by Andy Potts|21 JUL 2021
Nikita Chibrikov captained Russia to the final of the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship.
photo: Chris Tanouye / HHOF-IIHF Images
A year ago, Nikita Chibrikov was known only to the cognoscenti. But his achievements for club and country in 2020/21 have put his name in the record books alongside the likes of Vasili Podkolzin, Yevgeni Kuznetsov and Alexander Ovechkin. It’s been a whirlwind turnaround in a year that saw the 18-year-old make his KHL debut and represent Russia in Euro Hockey Tour action. That kind of rapid progress sees this creative, offensive winger, currently with SKA St. Petersburg, rated as the stand-out Russia prospect ahead of this season’s NHL draft.

Progress in Petersburg

Chibrikov might already be in North America. This time last year, he was courted by teams in the CHL after his first season in Russia’s MHL, playing for Dynamo Moscow’s juniors. However, when Dynamo signed Dmitri Kagarlitski from SKA, Chibrikov’s rights formed part of the trade – and the youngster saw his chance to make an impact as Petersburg focused on developing youngsters rather than signing up established talent.

“There were a few conversations with teams from the CHL when I was playing for Dynamo,” Chibrikov said. “I thought about leaving, but then I was traded to St. Petersburg and after talking to the management at SKA I decided to stay in Russia and develop here.

“I always wanted a team where I could improve myself, where I could progress and be competitive. I was ready to go to Canada because I wanted more game experience, but SKA also plays a contemporary style of hockey. Plus, the hockey infrastructure in Petersburg is better than I would have found in North America,” Chibrikov said at the time.

His decision paid off. The KHL embarked on a full season on 1 September last year, trusting that the coronavirus would not decimate those plans. Along the way, most teams were affected by outbreaks of illness and SKA was no exception. After a spate of cases hit most of the playing and coaching staff, the Army Men faced Sibir on 23 September with the youngest ever roster in the KHL. Chibrikov was part of that team and, despite a 1-4 loss, remained part of the roster. Learning fast, he helped SKA to a 6-4 win over Sibir on the road a week later, then potted his first KHL goal in a 3-1 success at Amur Khabarovsk on 2 October. In Moscow, meanwhile, Kagarlitski was still awaiting his first goal of the season. 
His goal on Amur saw Chibrikov beat Vasili Podkolzin’s record as SKA’s youngest goal scorer in the KHL. And, aged 17 years and 299 days, he moved into the all-time top-10 youngest scorers in the league, just ahead of Yevgeni Kuznetsov, who opened his account for Traktor Chelyabinsk when he was aged 17 years, 238 days. He was also the first player born in 2003 to score in the KHL. In total, Chibrikov played 18 games, collecting one goal and one assist.

Rivalling Ovechkin

Next came international recognition. When Russia travelled to Malmo for the February stage of the Euro Hockey Tour, the team was once again in the hands of Igor Larionov, head coach of the U20s. He selected an experimental roster, and Chibrikov was taken along.

Most assumed the teenager was simply there for the experience, but he ended up playing a bigger role than expected. He was named as the 13th forward in the opening game but saw ice time after an injury to Marat Khusnutdinov. In game two, Chibrikov played seven-and-a-half minutes and got an assist on Russia’s only goal in its shoot-out win. And in game three, he enjoyed more time on the ice and potted a goal and an assist to leave the competition with 3 (1+2) points. Only one player scored his first goal for Russia at a younger age – one Alexander Ovechkin.

Then, at U18 level, Chibrikov again produced a tournament that evoked memories of the Great 8’s early years. In Fresno, the SKA winger captained Russia to a silver medal, while his 13 (4+9) points mirrored the 13 (9+4) that Ovi scored in the same tournament in 2003. Matvei Michkov’s blistering scoring form dominated the headlines from Texas, but Chibrikov’s productivity and effective captaincy – plus a clutch goal or two in memorable victories over the USA and Finland – plotted his draftability skywards.

“It was a big experience for me,” Chibrikov told Izvestia as Russia returned from the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship. “I tried to give the guys as much help as I could, to make myself useful for them. I wanted to put everything into my game, to show some real leadership. The KHL and the Eurotour gave me greater knowledge, experience and strength.”

Draft hopes

In the same interview, Chibrikov also admitted that ‘many NHL clubs’ were in contact with him during the U18s as interest in his future intensifies ahead of the NHL Entry Draft on 23-24 July.

Those potential suitors are looking at a player ranked #4 among European skaters in the NHL Central Scouting rankings. Standing 5’10 and weighing 161 lbs, Chibrikov is far from the biggest player in the class of ’21. However, his physical game is not notably lacking, while his hockey IQ has caught the eye at each level he plays. Several commentators note his ability to read the action and pick off the key pass or find the space to receive a defence-breaking play. His game has been likened to Rodion Amirov’s, the Toronto-bound forward developed by Salavat Yulayev Ufa and taken in the first round in 2020.

Chibrikov’s first taste of adult hockey suggests that he has the skills to compete. Greater experience should help his decision making to mature and, with a bit more bulk on his physique, he has every opportunity of justifying his current status as a likely first-round pick this month.