GP: 693, G: 108, A: 259, Pts: 367, +/-: +129, PIM: 678
Teams: Ak Bars, Dynamo Moscow
Some players are natural talents, with flashy skating and golden hands. Instead, other players emerge with their composure, leadership, loyalty, and ability to perform the best when it matters the most. D-man Ilya Nikulin certainly pertains to the second category, even if he always showed offensive competence and an excellent shot from the blue line. As an example, in the second KHL season, Ak Bars had to deal with injuries to its most representative players — Denis Zaripov and Alexey Morozov. With the two forwards out, Nikulin took the responsibility on his shoulders, wore the “C,” and lifted the Cup over his head as Ak Bars defeated HC MVD in the finals. Not only did he step up for his team in the most needed moment, but he was also awarded Playoffs MVP honors, so far the only defenseman to ever get this hardly-sought award.
Naturally, the KHL era tells only a part of Nikulin’s legacy. He took part in more than 1,100 games at the highest levels of Russian hockey, and on September 20, 2018, he became the top-scoring D-man ever in Russia, surpassing Kirill Koltsov. A veteran of nine pro seasons before the rise of the KHL, Nikulin won two back-to-back Russian Superleague titles (one with Dynamo Moscow, and one with Ak Bars) and a gold medal at the 2008 IIHF World Championship. After winning two Gagarin Cups and several accolades with Ak Bars, in 2015, Nikulin returned home after ten years and signed with Dynamo Moscow, initially on a one-year deal.
However, Nikulin didn’t manage to win the title in Moscow as he did in the old Russian Superleague days. In his four seasons with Dynamo, he still provided the great leadership he’s capable of, and still pulled down some of the most exceptional hockey of his career while honoring the Dynamo jersey in the best possible way. Nikulin won three IIHF WC gold medals and played in countless tournaments with the national team, becoming one of the players with most appearances on the international stage for Russia. Thanks to his vast number of personal and team achievements, Nikulin is one of the most decorated defensemen in Russian hockey. His peak with the national team was probably the 2012 triumph in Helsinki, where he captained the team that downed Slovakia 6-2 in the finals.
After an incredible career and seven calls to the KHL All-Star Game — other than a long list of accolades and achievements — Nikulin failed to receive any suiting offer for the 19-20 campaign, despite scoring 24 (9+15) points in the 18-19 regular season. The veteran D-man didn’t announce his retirement yet, but at this point, considering the situation in the league, it seems unlikely to see him back to the KHL arenas as a player. However, considering his leadership, on-ice ability, and indisputable authority, perhaps one day we’ll have a chance to see this fantastic defenseman in a coaching position.