Veteran defenseman and Team Russia captain Ilya Nikulin may leave the KHL to play in the NHL this season according to a report by Sports-Express’ Slava Malamud.
Nikulin has been the captain of the Russian national team since 2011, though didn’t wear the C during the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the owner of three World Championship gold medals, one silver medal and a bronze medal.
The 33-year-old defenseman was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft (31st overall) by the Atlanta Thrashers, but never played a game in the NHL. He has instead played in the KHL since that draft, spending the last 10 seasons with Ak Bars Kazan. Last season, through 58 games, he scored a career-high 13 goals and 15 assists.
The report is vague, not citing a team that the six-time All-Star Nikulin may be headed to, though Malamud does note that Nikulin is Alex Ovechkin’s “best friend,” hinting that there may be interest in the Capitals from one direction or another. Confirming this is rSport.ru, who reports that there is at least preliminary interest from the Capitals in signing Nikulin, whose ability on the power play could help the Caps replace Mike Green.
In 2013-14 Nikulin wore the C for Ak Bars Kazan and he wore the A last year, a part of team leadership that also figured in Ak Bars defenseman Evgeni Medvedev. That’s notable because Medvedev, 32, has signed a contract for the 2015-16 season with the Philadelphia Flyers. Medvedev has never played in North America either, though he was not drafted. He was the alternate captain the for Ak Bars last season and was the alternate captain for the Russian national team this year.
That may not have sealed the deal, if this report is true, but the departure of Medvedev, who has played for Ak Bars in the last eight seasons, certainly could be a contributing factor to Nikulin’s reported departure.
If Nikulin should head to the Capitals, it will make it a tough offseason for the KHL, who will have lost a good number of players to the NHL, as well as having players like Alexander Radulov and Andrei and Sergi Kostitsyn talking about making a departure. On the other hand, it will likely make the Capitals the favorite team of every Russian hockey fan with Nikulin, Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov on the team.