By the time you get to the fourth round, you're not talking about players that have high chances of becoming useful NHL players – or playing in the NHL for even one game. You're looking at more flawed prospects and hoping you find a diamond in the rough, someone who maybe has a good foundation of useful skills but hasn't put it together, or someone who thinks the game at a high level but hasn't yet developed physical abilities to make use of it.

When it comes to Daniil Ustinkov, he is definitely more of the former. Despite being someone that has been playing up against older age groups for a few years now, he is a very raw and very young defenseman for this draft. But he may be one of the more interesting mid-round swings that a team could make at the draft this year.


  • Position: Left-shot defenseman
  • League(s): Swiss NL / Swiss SL
  • Height: 6'1"
  • Weight: 201 lbs
  • Birthdate: August 26th, 2006

Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:

  • Bob McKenzie: Honourable Mention
  • Will Scouch: 32nd
  • Elite Prospects: 113th
  • Scott Wheeler: 74th
  • Dobber Prospects: 48th
  • FC Hockey: 36th
  • McKeen's Hockey: 90th

Ustinkov has a similar story as Stian Solberg, in that he has been on scouts' radars because he's been playing up against higher age groups for years. He got into his first U20 junior games in the Swiss leagues when he was 15 years old. He made his pro debut the next year as a 16 year old, which is a noteworthy achievement for his age. The Swiss league has become one of the better countries for pro hockey in Europe. They arguably have benefitted the most from the mass exodus of non-Russians from the KHL following their invasion of Ukraine.

This season, Ustinkov played in his first full pro season this year as a very young 17 year old – his August 26th birthday makes him one of the youngest players in this draft, and only 20 days away from not being eligible until next year's draft. He split the season with 18 games in the second tier SL ("Swiss League) in which he had 8 points, and then 18 games in the top tier NL ("National League") with one point. Those games in the NL were for the ZSC Lions, the best team in the league and ultimate champions.

The same has been true of Ustinkov's international play for Switzerland. He's played for them both for his own age group, and for one year up, for the past three years. This year he even made their World Juniors team as a 17 year old. When he's played his own age group, he's been exceptional more often than not even when Switzerland is often not one of the better teams in the major events. In the past three seasons, he has 55 points in 85 games in all international tournaments despite getting limited time on the powerplay – or any, if he was playing with older age groups.

From Lassi Alanen's Europe tracking project:


More than anyone else I have profiled for the draft this year, I saw a lot of difference of opinion from scouts when it comes to assessing Ustinkov's strengths and weaknesses. This is the case for just about any element of his game: skating, offense, defense, puck movement, transitions, whatever.

What I've done is sift out the most common and consistent elements that emerged, and matched those to what I saw from Ustinkov's play myself. I'll note: I only ever watched his international games at the Hlinka, World Juniors, Five Nations, and World U18s. I have seen none of his regular season games in the Swiss leagues.

So the one thing that is the most consistent in the scouting reports, and something I also saw, is that Ustinkov is a very good skater. How good and in what manner may vary, but the general consensus is he can really move around. Some have said he isn't that fast, but has very good maneuverability and edgework. I think he may not be top tier in terms of raw speed, but he is definitely agile. That skating forms the foundation of his game, both offensively and defensively.

When it comes to his strength with and without the puck, I am going to say something very weird... I think that while Ustinkov right now rates better defensively than offensively, I think that long term he projects better offensively.

From David Phillips at FC Hockey:

Ustinkov is a mature defensive defenseman with game smarts above his years. He consistently shows strong defensive awareness with his controlled gaps and entry denials. He gets early stick contact and separates the player from the puck effectively on the boards consistently. Ustinkov is also an above-average skater. He has nearly perfect form and, while his top speed isn’t among the best, he has very strong edges.

Another inconsistent element of the scouting reports on Ustinkov's game is his hockey sense. More of the scouts I like give him good marks for it, but not all of them do. After reading them and watching him play, I think it really depends on what people mean by 'hockey sense' which is a pretty nebulous term. I think when people say he has good hockey sense, it has to do with him making reads to elude forecheckers and make good plays to get it out safely. It also helps him defensively when it comes to keeping the puck carrier in front of him. The problems with his 'hockey smarts' I think have to do with some Jake Gardiner syndrome, but we'll get into that below.

Ultimately, his skating and the good parts of his 'hockey sense' help Ustinkov's greatest impact on the ice – driving transitions. This is something that his tracking data shows for his play in the Swiss leagues, and also matches what I saw in his international play. He is very smooth with the puck and can evade pressure in a way that looks easy and casual, but is anything but. He is a good passer, but can also carry the puck himself if need be.

From Will Scouch:

The epitome of smart, stable defending and puck movement, Ustinkov may not jump off the scoresheet, but he’s a rock solid player that shows wisps and signs of something more tucked away. He’s an incredibly efficient transition player, rarely taking too much risk and giving himself too much to worry about, timing his passes extremely well and maintaining possession extremely well. There just isn’t much defending he has to do in his own end because of how efficient he is off the puck. He reads errant passes and breakouts well to fetch loose pucks in the neutral zone and makes smart, safe plays to get play turned around again, and the flashes of skill and quickness, especially at the Swiss League level gives plenty of signs of potential.

Here's some more detail about the ways in which Ustinkov shows good 'hockey sense', from Scott Wheeler:

He makes the right choices with the puck and reads without it, consistently on both fronts and in all three zones. He plays with a great deal of poise, simplicity and efficiency. His head is always on a swivel and he’s just an intelligent player who takes what’s given to him and advances and steers the play. He needs to get a little quicker getting back to pucks, but that will come with age/strength and is compensated by knowing where to be, good edges, a competitiveness and a want to make a difference. When he’s been on the ice, the Swiss national team has typically been able to hang with anybody. That says something. So do his decent underlying results against men. I think his game will fit better on North American ice, too, so I’d be interested to see him come over here (he is an import selection of the London Knights but is also signed with ZSC).


So the problems with Ustinkov seem to come from other ways you can think of 'hockey sense'. While he has a good amount of skill with the puck on his stick, he is not an elite offensive talent – at least, not yet. There are times where he can be a real Jake Gardiner for his level, for good and for bad. He has some of those baffling turnovers from trying to force a play, and the consistency of his execution is something that varies as a result. It can really seem like he makes some dumb plays and lacks 'hockey sense' in that vein.

For me, the way I see him make those kinds of mistakes is tied to another issue – his game is not as refined as some other players who would be ranked ahead of him. In some ways, Ustinkov reminds me of a worse, less refined version of Alfons Freij. Both have some real two-way potential, both are strong skaters and can make slick plays with the puck. But Freij is already more refined and consistent, and able to play at a higher level.

So now you have a question when it comes to Ustinkov – how much of these issues are down to a combination of his age, and him constantly playing up against older age groups? How much 'better' would he look if he was playing for London in the OHL against other junior aged players? How much better will he become as he gets older, wiser, and learns better when to pick his spots and when the simple play is better than swinging for a home run? How much are his issues down to a lack of 'hockey sense' that many players either have, or don't?


Thankfully, we aren't talking about drafting Ustinkov as a higher pick. So those issues don't matter as much to me. In his most recent draft rankings, Bob McKenzie only had him as an honourable mention – so just within his top 100 named prospects. I think there's a chance his rankings slip a bit, if anything, because his season ended in the Swiss second tier pro league, and his play at the World U18s in May was arguably his worst looking performance of all the international tournaments this year.

You can see a lot of variation in Ustinkov's draft rankings from other outlets. Some have him as high as a borderline first rounder, others have him as a third or fourth round pick. If I were to take a guess, I think NHL teams will view him more as the latter than the former. He seems like the kind of player that gets valued more by fans and public scouts than by NHL teams.

But honestly, that's perfect for me. The idea of being able to swing on him potentially in the fourth round is right where I think it is comfortable to take that risk. I'm more willing to bet on him learning to judge when to go for a high risk, high reward play and refining that decision making to cut down on the bad mistakes outside of the first two rounds. His two-way potential may be more of a long shot, but everyone taken by the time the third and fourth rounds come up are long shots.

In Ustinkov's case, he may be a lot less likely to really hit and become a useful NHL defenseman, but if he does he has the potential to be a bigger hit than others in this range.

Thanks for reading!

I put a lot of work into my prospect articles here, both for the draft and Toronto's prospects. I do it as a fun hobby for me, and I'd probably do it in some capacity even if PPP completely ceased to exist. But if you like reading my work, some support would go a long way! I pay for a few streaming services (CHL, NCAA, USHL, the occasional TSN options for international tournaments that are broadcast) to be able to reliably watch these prospects in good quality streams. I also pay for some prospect-specific resources, such as tracking data and scouting reports from outlets like Elite Prospects, Future Considerations, McKeen's Hockey, The Athletic, and more.

Being able to get paid for this helps me dedicate more time and resources to it, rather than to second/third jobs. And whatever money I make here, a lot of I reinvest back into my prospect work through in those streaming and scouting services. Like I said, I'd be doing whatever I can afford for this anyway, so any financial help I get through this is greatly appreciated!

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