WINNIPEG - Nikita Chibrikov appreciates the comparisons to his Russian counterparts, but by the time the skilled forward comes over to play in North America, he’s hoping that he’s already established his own definitive style.
After being chosen by the Winnipeg Jets in the second round (50th overall) of the 2021 NHL Draft, Chibrikov showcased comfort in speaking his second language in a Zoom call with reporters that lasted nearly 10 minutes.
Chibrikov was quick to express a team-first attitude and referenced his hockey sense, which is a quality the Jets have clearly coveted in the NHL Draft.
“I want my team to win and that’s the first rule,” Chibrikov said from Russia, where he was attending a world junior camp. “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.
“Nikita Kucherov (of the Tampa Bay Lightning) 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.’”
After watching the impact that Kirill Kaprizov made in winning the Calder Trophy as a member of the Minnesota Wild, it’s natural for Jets fans to wonder if Chibrikov could eventually follow in those same footsteps.
“I saw how Kaprizov played in the KHL, how he progressed in Russia, so he’s a good player, a good style of player. I like him,” said Chibrikov, a right-winger who shoots left-handed. “A smart player, good shot, he (makes) good decisions on the ice. His progression is really good after one year in the NHL and he is the best man (in) the first season. I like his style, but I want to be myself. I watch all good players and take the best from them.”
Chibrikov is scheduled to spend the next two seasons with SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League, but he’s also expected to be a contributor with Russia at the 2022 World Junior Hockey Championship.
“So a long time, two years. I need to do a lot to become a good NHL player,” said Chibrikov, noting he had several discussions with scouts and hockey-operations staff from the Jets leading into the draft. “So my decision is to work in Russia these two years and (work on) progression. Now I know Winnipeg picked me, so I’m working for the future. But I don't know how it will be yet. Just work and we will see what it will be.”
No stranger to suiting up for his country, Chibrikov was Russia’s captain at the World U18 Championship, which was an experience that resonated with him.
“I’m really proud to be named the captain of the national team. It was unbelievable, good memories for me. It really helped me,” said Chibrikov. “I know more (about) leadership and how I need to work with guys. It’s really helped me. I (will) try to be a leader next year and (for) the rest of my career.”
Viewed by many draft prognosticators as first-round talent, Chibrikov was another highly skilled forward chosen by the Jets to help replenish the organization’s prospect pool, following 2021 first-rounder Chaz Lucius.
“Chibrikov’s got elite offensive hockey sense and skills. He’s a player that finds the right routes to the puck,” said Jets director of amateur scouting Mark Hillier. “He’s always in the right spot offensively. Pays the price to score goals. He was really good at the under 18 tournament at the end of the year where we had a good contingent of scouts there to see live games. And we just feel really good about the skill level there. We think he has top-two-line, power-play-type potential there in the future.”
Chibrikov’s name came up for the Jets' staff following the conclusion of the first round, then things fell into place on Saturday.
“We regrouped and looked at our list and saw a player sitting there without a line, or without a highlight mark on it, surrounded by players that had already all been drafted,” said Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff. “We talked and said ‘this might stare us in the face tomorrow, what are we going to do? Are we looking to take a player like that?’ The resounding remarks from all our scouts was ‘you can’t pass this guy by if he’s there.’
“Obviously there were 17 picks ahead of us, so you certainly don’t know what’s going to happen as the day unfolds. As we got to our pick, we sat back, we ended up calling a timeout to have a discussion once more with everybody. No one wavered. It was one of those seminal moments where all those guys, the scouts, are saying ‘we’re taking this guy.’ So we did.”
In the third round on Saturday, the Jets chose blue-liner Dmitry Kuzmin of Belarus and with their final choice in 2021, at 142nd overall in the fifth round, right-winger Dmitri Rashevsky was selected.
Kuzmin is a skilled defenceman who suited up in 64 games last season, including five for his home country at the World U18 Championship.
He was chosen 46th overall by the Flint Firebirds in the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft in 2020 and is expected to suit up in the Ontario Hockey League this season.
“You know, it's funny. I think he's closer to five (foot) ten,” said Hillier. “Some players, you look at and you see a small player. With him, I don't see a small player. The way he plays, I just see a good player.
“He's got a dynamic side to his game. He can skate, he can move the puck. He can run a power play. I'm sure you've seen the lacrosse-type goal that he scored that's on all the video clips, but he's just a character kid, too. Plays really hard and competes. Has a great stick.
“He's one of those guys, it's a challenge obviously to play pro or NHL at that size, but he has all the intangibles. The heart. The work ethic. The grit and determination. We just think it's a good pick, regardless of size.”
Rashevsky, 20, got a taste of the KHL with Moscow Dynamo last season, but spent the majority of his season playing at the junior level in Russia, and the Jets see him as a prototypical late bloomer.
In his previous season, Rashevsky produced some eye-popping numbers with MHK Dynamo St. Petersburg, racking up 44 goals and 74 points in 61 games in the MHL.
“It’s an interesting story. Obviously he’s gone through the draft twice,” said Cheveldayoff. “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... we kept coming back to ‘why not draft this player?’ He’s further down on 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, he can play either wing. He’s six-foot-one, but I think there is still room to grow into his body.”
It was the second consecutive draft where the Jets had only four picks at their disposal. During that span, the organization added five forwards and three defencemen.
“We were fortunate that we were able to have some skilled players at the positions where we were drafting,” said Cheveldayoff. “You don’t know how that’s going to unfold in front of you but we like our draft. We didn’t have a lot of swings of the bat.”
With the draft coming to a close, the Jets immediately shift gears to upgrading the roster for the upcoming season.
Whether that’s with a trade or a free-agent signing, the Jets' top priority is easy to identify, but the organization has some other important decisions on the horizon as well.
In addition to bolstering the defence corps, likely with a player to be used on one of the top two pairings, the Jets are expected to be in the market for a backup goalie (whether that’s bringing back Laurent Brossoit for a fourth season or looking at an alternative if he chooses to consider an opportunity elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent).
One thing we know about the goalie market is that there could be a lot of movement, and many teams are going to place a high value on the position.
“We’ve had some conversations with LB and his group. I guess I wouldn’t rule anything out when it comes to that point, but I think he’s a guy that’s going to take a look at free agency and see where it goes,” said Cheveldayoff. “We’ll look at it here over the next couple of days and make some decisions.”
After losing right-winger Mason Appleton to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft, expect the Jets to also target an experienced forward during the coming weeks.
But the biggest area of need for the Jets remains upgrading the defence corps, and that’s going to be the priority during the coming days and weeks.