When physical Russian winger Nikita Korostelev was taken in the seventh round, 185th overall in the 2015 NHL Draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs, it was a pick that was widely heralded as a risk worth taking.
Some final rankings for the 2015 class had Korostelev ranked well above the seventh round. Some, even, had the then-OHL rookie standout as a top 60 prospect. One final ranking with McKeen’s Hockey that year had the powerful shooter ranked 34th overall.
But there was one thing that held him back — his skating — and he knew it.
“The skating was an issue for me, that’s not a secret,” Korostelev said in a one-on-one interview after his Sarnia Sting fell 5-3 to the Ottawa 67’s on Saturday afternoon. “A couple of years here in the [OHL] and I feel a lot better now and I think that helps me to dominate if I work hard every shift.”
Now in his third season with the Sting, Korostelev got off to the best start of his OHL career, with 28 points (including 15 goals) in his first 18 games.
And while he has currently run into the first drought of his season, with just two assists in his last seven games, Korostelev is confident he’ll bounce back and knows he has been creating scoring chances. In those last seven goalless games, Korostelev has generated 24 shots (3.4 shots per game).
“My season has been good so far,” Korstelev added. “Just the last couple of games we were struggling, the whole team was struggling, and me personally I haven’t really provided as much offence as I did at the beginning of the season but I just have to keep working hard and battle through it.”
On Saturday, at Ottawa’s TD Place, Korstelev was relied upon by Sting head coach and former NHL All-Star Darien Hatcher to create while bouncing around between the two top lines before finishing the game with St. Louis Blues second round pick Jordan Kyrou. Throughout, he was central to the Sting’s success in the offensive zone and drew two penalties (the first by splitting the 67’s defence, the second by winning a battle before keeping his feet moving below the offensive zone goal line).
On the powerplay, Korostelev uses his shot — one of the best in the OHL, according to his coach — to create from the high slot. Late in the game, he played an extended double shift to try and tie it with Sarnia down 4-3, getting his final chance from the low slot. In tight, he used slick stickhandling and a quick, heavy release to beat several 67’s players (sometimes three at a time) before creating plays on net.
“My shot is my best skill,” Korostelev said of his biggest weapon, which he uses to frequently beat goalies cleanly. “I would say I have a pretty good shot and it opens me up to make plays and pass to a teammate to create open chances for them.”
At 6-2 and over 200 pounds, Korostelev is also an imposing physical presence, known for his big open ice hits.
But his skating, while improved, still noticeably holds him back at times. He shuffles, often dragging the toe of his skate blade as he tries to pick up speed.
The Leafs have been keeping tabs on him and scouts and player development staff will regularly send him text messages after his games. They visit often in Sarnia or on the road to catch him play and coaches have met with him on a number of occasions after his games.
“Leafs camps, rookie tournaments and the main training camp is a first class experience,” he said. “Playing with the big boys was pretty great and it helped my confidence a lot when I came back here.”
Still without an entry-level contract, Korostelev knows he needs to continue to dominate in the OHL this year if he’s going to earn his first NHL deal. But regardless of the outcome, he’s thankful for everything the Leafs have given him.
“They are definitely a first class organization and they have done a great job keeping in touch with me,” Korostelev finished.