KHL defenseman and Team Russia captain Ilya Nikulin is looking make the move to the NHL and at least two reporters have linked him to the Capitals.
According to an article on the KHL's English website, Nikulin is looking to follow fellow Ak Bars' teammate Yevgeni Medvedev to North America this season. Head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov seems to think the move is all but certain.
"I can understand why players like Medvedev and Nikulin want to try and play in the NHL,” Bilyaletdinov said. “It’s a good league, and it’s an honor to play there. I’m sure Ilya [Nikulin] will make the right choice and will get his contract over there.”
Medvedev signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in May.
Given the fact that Nikulin is a close personal friend of Alex Ovechkin and Ovechkin is even reported to be godfather to Nikulin's son, it's not hard to see why there is speculation he could be headed to Washington. Alexander Rogulev also reported Friday that Nikulin and the Caps were in talks for a contract, so there may be some actual fire to the smoke.
Nikulin was selected by Atlanta in the 2000 NHL draft, but did not sign with the team and has never played in an NHL game. During his past two seasons in the KHL, he tallied 18 goals and 35 assists over 110 games and is known as an effective offensive contributor from the blue line. The loss of Mike Green as well as the unproven pairing of Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov leaves an opening defensively for the Caps that Nikulin could fill.
But there are a few roadblocks that could prevent a deal. The first is cap space. According to generalfanager.com the Caps have less than $470,000 of cap space remaining. With Justin Peters likely headed to the AHL the Caps could have about $1.4 million of cap space to play with.
Medvedev signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Flyers in May. How much is Nikulin worth?
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Nikulin played in fewer games the past two seasons (110 to 164) and is one year older at 33 than Medvedev. Nikulin, however, is better offensively with 12 more goals and 13 more total points. A reasonable argument could be made to say both players are worth a similar amount.
The Caps, however, cannot afford to offer Nikulin a similar contract without making some significant roster moves. Perhaps he would be willing to sign for less in order to play with Ovechkin, but it would have to be substantially less.
Let's say the Caps did manage to find the money for such a move. Would it even make sense? At 33-years-old, what kind of production could the team reasonably expect?
Cat Silverman of Today's Slapshot compared Nikulin to other players drafted in 2000:
Some of the draft class’ stars are still thriving in the NHL — Marian Gaborik doesn’t show signs of slowing down, nor does Justin Williams or Henrik Lundqvist — but Dany Heatley is in the AHL, Ilya Bryzgalov has retired, and a handful of other names (Antoine Vermette, Scott Hartnell, and Niklas Kronwall) are all being watched for regression. If Nikulin wanted to make an NHL appearance, now seems like a strange time.
You hope he still can be effective, but $3 million is a lot to gamble on a 33-year-old who has never played an NHL game before.
There is an adjustment for all players from the KHL who transition to NHL given the different style of play and rink sizes. At his age, it's hard to see how Nikulin could crack the established top four of the Caps' defense. That means he would likely slide down to the third pairing. That's a lot of money to spend on a third-pair defenseman.
The possibility of adding Nikulin to the roster is certainly an intriguing one for the Caps, but there are a lot of hoops the team would have to jump through to make it even possible. If the rumors linking him to Washington are indeed serious, you should expect to hear more news from the team in the coming days as they adjust to squeeze him into the roster.
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