We all remember last year, when Nikita Zaitsev was just a rumour—a pretty solid rumour who turned into a solid defenceman.  This year the rumours are more elusive, and the player is harder to define as well.

Who is Vladimir Tkachyov?

His name is sometimes romanized at Tkachev, and before you learn who he is, you need to be clear on who he isn’t.  There’s two of them.

There is a younger Vladimir Tkachyov, 21 now, who played for a couple of years in the QMJHL and was never drafted to the NHL but was almost signed by the Oilers.  He is from Ormsk, and is a small left winger who now plays for Admiral Vladivostok .  This is not our man.

Our Tkachyov is 23, was born in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, and played his whole life for the Ak Bars club in Kazan, Russia, about 800 km due east of Moscow.  He has represented Russia internationally and is ethnically Russian as far as I know.  He is a left-shooting centre and is listed at 183 cm (6 feet) and 95 kg (209 lb).

Why would we want him?

He is a centre and a “free wallet”.  That should almost be enough given the state of the centre depth on the Leafs.  But there is more to it.

One of the drivers behind the rumours of NHL interest in Tkachyov stems from his inclusion on the Russian National team for the Karjala Cup in the fall.  (Other teams such as the Jets and the Blackhawks have been named as scouting him.)

The Karjala Cup is the first leg of what is called the Euro Hockey Tour and is contested by Russia, the Czech Republic, Finland and Sweden.  The KHL goes on a break to facilitate the tournaments, and they use it as selection camps for their national teams for the World Championships in May.  NHL teams often send scouts to the tournaments, and there were a few in Finland for the first set of games.

It was not the most exciting tournament ever.  None of the teams played extremely well, and most of them were missing their top players.  Scouts without stars to look at noticed some lesser lights, and a several eyes fell on Tkachyov, according to various Russian reports.  He scored a shorthanded goal in the last game which opened the scoring for Russia and started them on the path to a win in the game and the tournament.

He still made the cut for the second leg of the tour, the Channel One Cup played in Russia in December, even though it usually has a better class of player on the Russian team.  Pavel Datsyuk was on the team.

My count shows Tkachyov has three goals and one assist in six games on the Euro Hockey Tour.

Tkachyov’s KHL contract runs out this year on the first of May.

Is he any good?

The answer for Zaitsev was obvious.  He played top pair on a top team, had top minutes, and scored well enough for a defenceman.  He had obvious offensive skills, a good shot, and he was also very skilled at the penalty kill. The questions about him were more about how his game would translate than if he had enough game to begin with.

Tkachyov is a little harder to judge.  He was named to the KHL all-star game as the only representative from his team, and while Ak Bars has clinched a playoff spot already and are very good, they aren’t considered a favourite. He is their top line centre right now, but there are several teams in the KHL where he would drop back to the second or third unit.

Ak Bars

Kazan is not exactly the first city people think of when they think of Russia, but it is prosperous and receives government attention to infrastructure.  It has over 1 million in population, is the capital of Tatarstan, and is not the usual dreary Soviet industrial backwater beloved of hockey media narratives.  Russia is attempting to make the city an IT and technical hub, and has named Kazan as one of the hosts for the upcoming FIFA World Cup.

Even so, Ak Bars is in the East Conference of the KHL, which means really tough travel, and they have never attracted a lot of foreign players or the top Russians.  For the last three years, Canadian Justin Azevedo, a former OHL scoring phenomenon and pick of the Los Angeles Kings, has been leading the team in points.

Last year Tkachyov had 20 points in 48 games, which put him fifth on the team.  They are obviously not running a high-scoring system.  This year Tkachyov is second with 15 goals and 12 assists in 52 games, a KHL career high for him.

In addition to Azevedo, the team added Jiri Sekac this year, and he is bringing some scoring punch.  In recent games those two plus Tkachyov are the top line, but in relation to the KHL as a whole they do not get elite top line points.  Sergei Mozyakin just tied the KHL goal-scoring record with 36 goals, and he has 70 points.  Azevedo is ranked 38th in the league with a similar stat line to Max Talbot.  Tkachyov and Sekac are 54th and 60th.

In a league with 29 teams, that’s low for the top scorers.  Ak Bars is playing a more balanced system than some other teams, spreading the points around; they currently have 10 players with 15 or more points.

The other thing Ak Bars has is excellent goaltending results.  Their backup has a .930 save percentage and their starter has the seventh best save percentage in the league at .937, whle the team has a goals against average of 1.8. They are so hard to score against, they don’t need a big offensive punch on their top line.  They are not low event and totally focused on defence, however; but they are also not up with the top few teams in shooting rate either.

The result is a team that plays a lot of close games, ends up in a lot of overtimes and shootouts and looks to be just missing something on the front end to put them over the top in the playoffs.  They added two borderline NHL defenders late this year in Stefan Elliott and Michal Jordan who are driving some offence.  That might suffice in place of a true star forward.

The Player

Tkachyov is average sized and fast enough to play with Azevedo, who is a zippy and creative winger.  He is the sort of centre that plays a classic game, and he is very good at faceoffs, with a win percentage this year of 56.  Beyond the faceoff itself, he is a tough, physical player who will take the puck back if he loses the more meaningful battle for overall possession.

His toughness really stands out.  He plays the net-front game very well, digs in the corners and plays very hard along the boards, and he is also a relentless worker, driving hard every shift.  In the absence of shots against data, he seems to be very capable defensively and he plays well on the penalty kill.  The team has a good, but not exceptional penalty kill percentage.

Have a look at him scoring a goal in his most recent game; he is #55 in green:

Aside from the goal, which resulted from smart positional play, he also drove the net and made sure it was in, and then earnestly argued it was a good goal with an excellent sincere face.

Sign him?

The KHL is undergoing a strange season.  SKA St. Petersburg have so much concentration of talent that the other teams are in a different, lesser league.   There are also a large number of KHL goalies with very high save percentages.  It creates a situation where only a few teams score a lot of goals and the rest are fairly even in talent distribution, a sort of weird parity where one team is exempt.

Given that, it’s hard to judge Tkachyov by his points.  He is an unlikely seeming top-line forward.  He’s not Alexander Radulov, but he is a high minute player who is fast, tough and versatile—able to play the power play, the penalty kill or drive an offensive cycle.  That combination of skills along with his youth makes him very, very interesting to a team built for speed that doesn’t have any fast-moving, defensively capable depth centres.

Here’s another goal that shows his skill and determination (he’s in white this time):

Why not sign him, if he’ll take a contract like Zaitsev’s with a KHL out clause in case it all goes wrong?

Besides, he does things like this: