Who is Vladislav Kolyachonok?
Vladislav Kolyachonok may have drawn the short straw for his first season in North America, but that hasn’t stopped the 17-year-old defenseman from Belarus from making waves in the prospect pool. Kolyachonok was drafted 67th overall in the 2018 CHL Import Draft by the London Knights. The Knights, arguably one of the best teams in the OHL and this season’s Midwestern Division Champions, had every team’s favorite kind of problem—they had too many talented defensemen. When defenseman Adam Boqvist, the younger brother of Devils prospect Jesper Boqvist, was assigned to London after training camp with the Chicago Blackhawks, the Knights didn’t have enough room on the bench for the 6’2”, 181lb Kolyachonok. He was waived, and immediately claimed by the Flint Firebirds—the second to last place team in the OHL this season. For Flint, this was a huge acquisition. For Kolyachonok, it was opposite day—the Knights would finishing the season 46-16-6, while the Firebirds went 16-46-6.
Kolyachonok refused to allow the unfortunate switch early in his OHL career — he played just one game with the Knights before being waived — to bother him, and instead seems to have taken the challenge in stride. Kolyachonok has stepped up to the challenge for his struggling team, netting 4 goals and 25 assists in 53 games (his point total for the season is 30 due to an assist he earned in his first and only game with the Knights). He leads all players on the team with 11 power play assists and has scored 2 power play goals of his own. He averaged just under 2 shots per game and just over half a point per game at the close of the OHL regular season. He is 3rd in points among all draft-eligible defenseman from the OHL, despite only having played 53 games out of the 68 game season due to difficulties with his visa on the way from London to Flint.
With post-season way out of reach for Flint, Kolyachonok suited up for his second time at the World Juniors for Belarus. After two years with Belarus’s U17 and U18 teams, Kolyachonok attended last years WJC and put up 1 goal and 1 assist in 5 games and was honored as a Top 3 Player on the Team. At this season’s tournament his recent success was awarded with a shiny letter C on his chest, and he put up 1 goal and 4 assists in those same 5 games before being held off the score sheet for the final 2. He was again voted a Top 3 Player on the Team. Back in the Canada, he was added to the OHL’s First All-Rookie Team, making him the first Flint player in history to receive the honor.
Where is Vladislav Kolyachonok Ranked?
Kolyachonok’s play for Flint this season caught most scouts and prospect-watchers by surprise.
Steve Kournianis of The Draft Analyst originally ranked Kolyachonok as a possible 6th round pick at 184th overall in the preseason rankings. He was upgraded to 116 in the December midterms, and jumped again to the 3rd round for a final ranking 84th overall in April.
Larry Fisher of The Hockey Writers made a similarly large swing on Kolyachonok, who didn’t make his top 124 in October but leapt up to 43rd overall on the December update. He has stayed steadily pleased with his play since then, ranking him similarly at 41st overall in February and a final ranking of 44th in April.
Future Considerations did not rank Kolyachonok among their top 100 prospects in the preseason or in their fall update. Kolyachonok finally graced their list at 84th overall in their winter update, and climbed to 68th on their spring update from March 5th.
TSN’s Craig Button also apparently decided he was sleeping on Kolyachonok, who did not make his top 62 in October’s preseason rankings but has subsequently been considered at 37th in December, 34th in January, and up one more to 33rd overall on his most recent rankings in March.
NHL Central Scouting seems to be the only list on which Kolyachonok has done any king of downgrading— He was upgraded from a B-ranked prospect at midterms to an A-ranked at 22nd overall on their midterms, then settled to 31st overall on the final list.
A Few Bonus Rankings
Kolyachonok participated in this year’s Sherwin Williams NHL/CHL Top Prospects Game and Sport Testing Combine in January of this year, giving us a look at some more direct comparisons to others considered to be among the top 40 CHL prospects for the coming draft. Kolyachonok impressed all-around at the event, coming in 5th overall in the standings in on-ice testing. Kolyachonok took top spots in several on- and off-ice events; he ranked 3rd in the 30M Forward Skate with Puck, 2nd in Transition Agility (w/o puck) and the off-ice Broad Jump, and took 1st place in Reaction (w/o puck), Transition Agility With Puck (shown below), and Pro-Agility Left.
What Have Other People Said About Kolyachonok?
Before we get to what I think, a few opinions on Kolyachonok from people smarter than me—who all utterly disagree with each other.
Dominic Tiano of OHL Writers described Kolyachonok as a “very raw player— a project” who “has all the tools to be a solid two-way defender at the next level”. Tiano referenced his skating ability with “tremendous agility and very good speed” and “excellent mobility”. Defensively, he considers him to have high intelligence and sound positioning, a smart and quick player with an “active stick” and good enough skating to make him extremely difficult to beat. This line— “His transitioning from defense to offense is excellent. He has the ability to skate out of danger and out of the zone but he is also capable of making an excellent first pass”— stands out to me the most from this profile. Offensively, Tiano stated he’ll read plays well and jump in where needed but is careful to not take too many risks, rarely making a bad pinch and tending to choose the safe play. When Kolyachonok does more up, Tiano felt that he sees the ice well, has a good pass and a hard accurate shot he tends to use to try to collect tips or rebounds more than sniping corners or trying to bury a slap shot. Tiano’s areas of concern for Kolyachonok’s play are his somewhat lack of physicality in his game given his decent size and a possible lack of confidence which may be what prevents him from taking more risks in the offensive zone.
On the other hand, Prospect Pipeline’s analysis of Kolyachonok’s play is the complete opposite. Skill-wise, Kolyachonok’s skating is again his most impressive trait— “[He] is an impressive skater who utilizes his explosive speed and ample agility in order ro rush the puck up ice or smother attackers within his defensive zone. Once in posession of the puck is when Kolyachonok’s skating shines brightest, as the native of Minsk, Belarus can blow past opposing players and [is] endlessly confident in his ability to do so”. PP references Kolyachonok’s extremely high puck confidence several more times and cites it as one of the main reasons the young defenseman is such a strong and dynamic offensive player. Like Tiano, PP also noted that he “loves to possess the puck and will not hesitate to skate the puck out of trouble rather than simply clear it off the glass”, though they considered this a strong offensive driver rather than Tiano’s attribution of it to his defensive prowess. PP considered Kolyachonok’s defense and positioning to be one of his weakest areas, noting he can be caught out of position due to his offensive attempts.
DraftSite’s Bill Placzek seems to have the answer to the huge gap in assessments of Kolyachonok’s confidence and playing style. Placzek agreed with Prospect Pipeline that Kolyachonok “possesses natural flair with his offensive instincts” but “still needs to progress to where his defensive awareness is instinctual” though he does feel he breaks up plays well and makes good, hard outlet passes. However, he also noted that during the CHL Prospect Game, Kolyachnok backed off his offensive style extensively, holding back from opportunities he would normally take during his regular season with Flint and playing a more conservative style of defense.
Hockey Prophet’s Brian Fogarty seems to have noticed the same change in his demeanor at the CHL prospects game— he noted that on several instances Kolyachonok would start to skate the puck up ice but each time drop the puck backwards instead of continuing and breaching the zone on his own.
Kolyachonok’s playing style may have raised some questions but there seems to be no difference in the assessments of his skills around the league. Oursportscentral.com described Kolyachonok as a “smooth skater with a relentless motor”. NHL Central Scouting’s Karl Stewart also described him as having “elite mobility, speed, and a strong understanding of his position” NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr agrees: “He has a high IQ with or without the puck and is ultra-deceptive with moves and body fakes”.
For Firebirds GM Barclay Branch, however, there is no question about Kolyachonok— on the ice, or off. “Its not rocket science with players like Vladdy. You go and you watch him and it’s right there for everybody to see, his ability to just play the game.” Kolyachonok quarterbacks the Firebird power play and makes his presence known on the ice despite the team’s struggles, but it is off the ice that Kolyachanok really seems to stand out for Branch. He considers Kolyachonok to be composed and mature beyond his years both on and off the ice, which help make him “one of the best at his position in the 2019 NHL Draft class”. Any GM that claims a player off waivers is going to make a case for the kid and talk him up to defend the decision, but Branch goes well beyond that with Kolyachonok saying “I’ve worked in the league for over 20 years and I’ve never come across a guy like him... Vladdy is so unique. I’ve never seen anything like it before. That’s the thing. He’s an extremely driven hockey player. He brings with that his attitude and work habits” which have “become contagious within the rest of the group”. (Quotes from separate stories here and here).
A Few Visual Aids...
You be the judge—Offensive or defensive? Confident or not?
This clip of Kolyachonok’s first OHL goal highlights almost every positive area mentioned in his scouting reports. He’s calm in his positioning off the face-off and stays put to wait for the pass rather than jumping forward the second the puck appears loose. He carries the puck with absolute confidence and takes his time surveying the open ice that comes with the power play. His skating with the puck is a extremely agile—his stance keeps his options to pass, spin back, or make a break for it open as do the little fakes and kicks to keep the defender guessing. He makes a good choice to take the shot but doesn’t try to do too much with it, leaving as much chance for a tip, deflection, or rebound as there is for it to go in cleanly, which it does here.
#SWTP #CHL/#NHL Top Prospects Game#Flint #Firebirds @Kolyachonok First Shift: ✅— Flint Firebirds (@FlintFirebirds) January 24, 2019
TV: @NHLNetwork (U.S.)
TV: @Sportsnet (CAN.)
Video Stream: https://t.co/eJuv4BcSkH
#⃣ #FlintFirebirds pic.twitter.com/24mkrV4gdD
In the Prospects game, Kolyachonok pulls back hard from his usual offensive fireworks and presented himself as a player with a more defense-first approach. In this clip of his first shift for Team Orr (white jerseys) we see a bit of that. He stays high when play transitions to the offensive zone in the middle of the clip instead of trying to jump in to push the play. Defensively we see two rushes from the other team. In the very beginning of the clip, Kolyachonok steps up at the blue line on an attacking player—the timing of the pinch was appropriate and his body was in good position to make sure he could disrupt either the player or the puck in case he isn’t able to get both. He’s involved in the battle on the boards further down and engages well. Later in the clip as Team Cherry collects the puck and exits their own zone we see him caught a little bit too far to the middle of the ice and he seems to be beaten by the puck carrier, but he does well to stay with him and keep him outside.
The Czechs are getting worked by Belarus in the 1st game of the #WorldU18s. 2-0 Belarus after the 1st period and they don’t have a lot going for them. Belarus is showing they are competitive this year. Vladislav Kolyachonok scores here. #2019NHLDraft pic.twitter.com/Xb7xRB9U2S— TPEHockey (@TPEHockey) April 18, 2019
At the World Juniors here, Kolyachonok is back in the saddle quarterbacking Team Belarus’s power play. This time we get to see more of his actual ice vision and PP-QB skills as he makes pass after pass to his teammates and remains open and ready for the return, and takes the return passes calmly even when they’re in his skates rather than to his stick. His feet are constantly moving but especially with the puck on his stick, and we again see his strong wrist shot move the puck through traffic and on net. What I like about this play is the timing when he chooses to take the shot rather than the pass. He’s had the puck three times now, and passed it up to each of his teammates on the half-wall positions first, forcing both the goalie and the penalty killers to make lateral moves—by the time he takes the shot, all four Czech players are lined up single file directly in front of the goalie. Kolyachonok kept the goalie guessing, moved the puck to forwards for possible better opportunities first, and pulled the entire penalty kill out of position and into the goalie’s line of sight before choosing to take the shot.
The Verdict-To Draft, or Not to Draft?
Vladislav Kolyachonok is brings two completely different games to the table— you get a player with strong skating abilities and puck movement who can play both careful defense and explosive offense when called upon. While the change in his style at the Prospect Game is concerning to some and could spell lack of confidence among more skilled players, it could also be an intelligent adjustment for a player who has gauged the needs of his current team—Flint needs the offensive support, whereas the Prospect Game was by definition filled with some of the best offensive players in the world at that age group. In my opinion, it may have been a bit of both—the offensive is better on both teams than he is used to, and he adjusted as such, which suggests maturity more than a lack of confidence at least to me. The sudden pressure of playing in a prospect game rather than one of the worse teams in the league may have also played a factor in his game. His performance in the skills combine impresses far beyond the game, having scored leaps above players projected to be drafted much higher than himself.
At only 17, his confidence, positioning, and instincts have plenty of time to grow, and the skills are more than ready to be utilized as they grow. Time and experience may serve to make this outside pick a very dangerous offensive-defenseman. With his rankings he could go early in the second round to as far back as the third. Depending on the defensemen still available when the Devils make their second round pick, I would oppose seeing him added to the Devils prospect pool at that level. If he’s still available in round three or further, I’m definitely voting for the Devils to draft him— he’s got the potential to develop into a possible 2nd pairing version of Ty Smith, and building a strong blue line with good offensive capabilities and intelligence as well is one of the biggest things I want to see for the Devils rebuild.
Does Kolyachonok have what it takes to be an NHL defenseman? What do you think of his play overall? How about his two different playing styles? Leave your comments below and thanks for reading!