Photo Credit: Russian Look Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo
Matvei Michkov scores…a lot. He’s been on everyone’s radar for years, and when you look at his production, it’s easy to see why. Although points ≠ good, it’s hard to ignore the impressiveness of his statistical profile. He’s a goal-scoring machine and the records seem to just keep piling up.
He debuted in the MHL (Russian junior league) as a 15-year-old, where he became the first U16 player to score a goal / point in the MHL. He put up 38 goals and 56 points in 56 games, earning him first place in the league in goals and eighth in points, behind players 3-4 years older than him, and earning him the most points and goals ever by a U17 player in the MHL. He really started to garner a lot more widespread attention when he dominated the U18 world championship, with 12 goals and 16 points in just 7 games. Ahead of other names in the tournament like Shane Wright and Connor Bedard; and good for 2.29 points per game, one of the highest ever in the tournament; just ahead of some names you may know, Alexander Ovechkin and Connor McDavid.
He followed that up the next year with 30 goals and 51 points in just 28 MHL games, for a cool 1.82 points per game, giving him a decent lead at first place in that category, as well as the highest points per game for a U18 player ever in the MHL. A fair bit ahead of Nikita Kucherov’s 1.41, while Kucherov was 6 months older.
Michkov was able to earn 13 games in the KHL (Russian pro league) as a 16-year-old, in which he put up 2 goals and 5 points (good enough for the highest points per game metric ever for a U18 player in the KHL), while averaging only about 8 minutes of ice time a night. He also scored 13 goals and 17 points in 17 MHL playoff games on the way to a championship, including the championship-winning goal, which was a lacrosse goal, because of course it was.
He started this season with SKA-Neva in the VHL (the AHL of the KHL) putting up 10 goals and 14 points in 12 games, tying the record for most goals by a draft-eligible player in the VHL, held by Ivan Miroshnichenko, who took 19 more games to do so. He also played 3 games in the KHL with SKA where he was held off the score sheet, but he only got a few minutes of ice time in each, so he wasn’t exactly given much opportunity.
Since then he’s been loaned to Sochi in the KHL, where he should spend the remainder of his season. He’s been given a good opportunity there, and he’s made the most of it so far with 4 goals and 6 points in 11 games at the time of writing (January 18th, 2023), while playing on the by far worst team in the league. Impressive numbers for a draft year player in the KHL, and although it’s a small sample size, he’s on pace for the second highest point total and points per game for a draft year player in the KHL, as well as already tied for the second most goals; all behind only Vladimir Tarasenko.
These are all impressive numbers, but obviously, points don’t tell the whole story. Michkov’s become one of the more polarising players in this year’s draft, so let’s dive into it a bit.
Matvei Michkov is one of the smarter players I’ve watched this year. He dictates play, and always knows how to create the play he wants; he’s a painter, and the ice is his canvas. It feels as though he thinks two plays ahead of everyone else, and his anticipation and timing are impeccable. He knows where the puck is going before the puck itself does, and it always seems to gravitate towards him. He has the potential to be an offensive dynamo in the NHL, but he has some core issues that he’ll need to address if he intends to make it to that level.
D. O. B. – December 9, 2004
Nationality – Russian
Draft Eligibility – 2023
Height – 5’10”
Weight – 160 lbs
Position – Right Wing
Handedness – Left
Michkov’s Style of Play
Michkov thinks the game at a high level, and brings a more tactical approach. Every move he makes feels like a fragment of a fully mapped out sequence which ends with him putting the puck in the net. It sounds simple when it’s put that way, but I don’t see this kind of thinking out of most players. Little give-and-go plays up and down the ice, sometimes just edging slightly closer to the offensive zone, or to a scoring area; understanding that gaining even just a sliver of ice is progress towards the end goal. He has a high-level understanding of defensive gaps and manipulates them with ease; creating lots of space for himself and his teammates with constant delays and changes of pace, the aforementioned give-and-go plays, deceptive skating and handling ability, and a ton of patience.
It’s rare to see a player at 18 years old who is as composed with the puck as Michkov is. He has so much patience, is able to wait for the perfect play to present itself, and he’s very deceptive in his handling and skating, combining them to fake out and weave around opponents, creating as much time as he needs to find that perfect play. If he doesn’t find it, he tries to create it with crafty give-and-gos, handing the puck off and moving into the space it creates behind defenders while remaining open for a return pass. The downside here is that he often ignores open teammates or other plays in his search for the best one, in the end doesn’t find the play he wants, and just runs himself out of time and right into pressure. Patience is a very useful tool, but he needs to be more decisive.
He’s a pretty great forechecker, which I didn’t expect from him coming into the season. He’s usually F1 on the forecheck with Sochi, and he does a good job of it. He has an active stick and pressures the defense pretty well; he’s tenacious and quick, hounding the puck-carrier and forcing them to rush their decisions. But his play reading and anticipation serve him well playing any role, timing his activations into the play well to disrupt breakouts and force turnovers; capitalising on any mistake the defense makes.
His handling skill is good, he’s shifty and deceptive, and his hands are quick; he moves the puck across his body in an instant to avoid sticks, and he’s good at staying strong on the puck, maintaining control under pressure, and improvising quick stick movements to navigate tight situations. He struggles to corral pucks at times, and can bobble it a bit, but he recovers quickly and I don’t see it as a long-term concern. When making skill moves to beat 1-on-1 situations, he usually prefers to push the puck ahead and skate into it, rather than attempting a tricky dangle with the puck on his stick, which I think is good, especially considering his tendency to bobble it, and that he’s typically outmatched physically.
But what makes him dangerous is the way he’s able to combine his handling and his skating. He’s very deceptive and elusive, which helps to make up for his lack of speed; even standing still, it’s difficult to take the puck away from him. He’ll turn to the inside from the half wall to bait out a poke-check, then shift weight to his outside leg or make a quick mohawk turn to shield the puck and escape pressure, before accelerating quickly to get to the net. He uses the threat of his shot with quick hands and his innate ability to chain together an array of crafty moves to freeze defenders and make them look silly.
Michkov’s shot is what gets a lot of the attention, and it’s well deserved; I wouldn’t solidify his as the second best in the class (I’d put Dvorsky and Yager in that conversation as well), but it’s definitely up there. His shot is elite and should serve him well in the NHL. His release is quick and dynamic, he changes the angle on release, can score from any angle or distance with precision and power, and from any position / situation: to his side; in front; in his feet; on his backhand; behind his back; between his legs; you name it. He can get it off in heavy traffic and under tight pressure, making him a legitimate scoring threat any time he’s near the puck.
He can fire just as well from a standstill, off a pass or off the rush, and he’s capable of shooting in stride, although I’d like to see him utilise this a lot more. He tends to glide for a few steps before shooting, which makes him more predictable and may make him a less potent goal-scorer in the NHL.
What sets Michkov apart in terms of goal-scoring is his off-puck game. His sense of timing and positioning is exceptional; he does an excellent job of sneaking into space in the offensive zone with his stick on the ice, and making sure there’s always an open lane for his team to get him the puck. He finds open ice really well and reads the play well to figure out where he needs to be. Sometimes watching him you see him drift off to seemingly nowhere and you start to wonder what he’s doing, until you realise that he read the play around him perfectly and just knew exactly where to be. The natural ability he has to process the play, recognise space and lanes efficiently in the offensive zone and exploit them with perfect timing is great and projectable.
He’ll be a lethal weapon on the power play, and that’s one thing that I don’t think is in question. He’s great when he has open ice and time to work with, so it’s no surprise that he can take over the man advantage, and he’s shown that he can do so no matter where he’s used, on either wall, down low, bumper spot, or even net-front, he makes it work.
In terms of playmaking, he’s very good at creating plays that he is at the end of, but when it comes to creating plays for his team, it’s no secret that it’s not his strong suit; but I think there’s a lot more potential in this side of his game than he gets credit for. He’s good at drawing defenders away to open up passing lanes; his vision for passing is very good, he sees teammates really well, and thinks of creative ideas for passes and plays to make. His frequent use of soft area passes is something I particularly like, and I think shows a lot of promise. All of this is good, but his execution is quite poor a lot of the time. He’ll send soft passes to no one that are easily intercepted; he’ll miss his target a lot and often by a pretty significant margin; even when he hits close to his target, it’s often just off and difficult for his teammate to control.
When he attempts a pass, especially cross-ice, it’s often slow and weak, and sometimes predictable because he takes too long to dust off the puck first, particularly when passing directly in front of him; he leans over and drops low to the ice in an attempt to better its accuracy, but usually this fails. Not only is it more predictable, but I find that he misses his passes way more frequently when he does this compared to when he makes a quick pass without overthinking it. Sometimes you’ll see him make a pass and think “Whoa, where’s that been?”, and it does tend to be when he has to make a decision quickly. There are flashes of great playmaking, usually his teammates just aren’t able to finish.
In addition, his decision-making is questionable at times; and it’s difficult to say that he’s learning from his mistakes. He’ll frequently look off better plays in favor of trying to do too much himself, ignoring wide open teammates and too often just walking himself into trouble, usually resulting in a turnover at the offensive blue line, and sometimes an opposing breakaway. Decision-making can be improved, and this would be fine as a learning experience, but I’m not too sure if he’s learning at this point. This has been a consistent issue throughout the year, but I do believe this will improve with maturity and coaching, and it’s already improved a bit since moving to Sochi. I think it’s a positive that he has the confidence to try things, he just needs to do a bit less; it’s a team sport, and if he can be less selfish with the puck, it’ll unlock a ton of new opportunities for him.
However, I’ve found many times that he runs into trouble, it’s partially due to a lack of support from his teammates. Sometimes he’s waiting for a teammate to read what he’s doing and activate into the play like he would, but they don’t see it like he does, and he doesn’t have a plan B. Michkov recognises the basics: one player creates space, and the next occupies that space; he does an amazing job of moving into space without the puck and being aware to remain in an advantageous spot at all times, but when he tries to create it, his teammates so often fail to execute on the second part. Is he at fault for that? A little bit. Tunnel visioning into that one perfect play he wants to create will probably lead to frustration more than anything, but it’s an interesting conundrum to have.
With Michkov, you have a player who often spots a great play that others don’t see, to get himself or a teammate into a dangerous area with the puck, but relies on others recognising space in the same way that he would, which a lot of players just don’t do well enough. If he is put into a position to succeed, with linemates who can read off of him and vice versa, I think the sky’s the limit with Michkov.
I won’t drag on about the defense too long, but it’s not a strength. That said, I expected a change of situation and coaching would improve his defense rather drastically, and I do think it has. Previously, he wasn’t really trying, and while that’s definitely still the case sometimes, overall the effort level has improved quite a bit. He no longer blows the zone early constantly, he doesn’t lag behind the play nearly as much, and he makes an effort on the backcheck when necessary. He’s very good at reading play and has a good sense for positioning, so I still think the defense is mostly just a matter of effort for him, and it’s good to see him putting in more.
With Sochi he’s seemingly turned into a shot-blocking machine for some reason, he seems to be puckwatching a fair bit, drifting out of position, yet he’s always positioned perfectly in shooting lanes, and it’s kinda fun to watch, but it’s good and bad. It seems as if blocking shots is all he’s really thinking about for defense, and there is a bit more to it than that. He doesn’t try to disrupt passing lanes much unless the puck is along the half wall, he mostly just pressures the point and blocks shots well; he’ll charge up from down low to cut off the angle, and he’s got good reflexes and positioning for shot-blocking.
He usually stays high in the defensive zone, but he drops low to support his defenseman, and does a decent job of it; his positioning low in the zone isn’t typically great, but it’s fine enough. He makes an effort to always be a good outlet option on breakouts. He looks to position himself advantageously to be the first one on rebounds / loose pucks down low, and he often is; but usually his first instinct upon retrieving the puck is to clear it, or make a short pass to a teammate, and in both situations he often is too soft and turns it back over. As well, his commitment to the point man can sometimes lead to him overextending and letting opponents walk by him.
Give-and-gos are the name of the game with Michkov, he’s always looking to create space and open up defenses with them, long or short. He’ll make quick short passes to teammates on the rush before charging ahead to be an option, or pass back to his defense with the plan of getting it back with more open ice.
Like in this clip: he spins out of pressure, buys some time for his teammates to change, passes back to his defenseman and immediately heads up ice to receive a return pass, beating the first defender. This is a common occurrence in his game, and it shows strong awareness, as well as an ability to read the ice well and plan ahead. He then catches the second defender flat-footed, fakes a move to the inside, before putting it between his legs and driving the net, showing some manipulation ability. The move likely won’t work in the NHL, especially with the lack of speed on display, but it’s fun in the VHL.
I’m not yet convinced that Michkov will be able to consistently drive transitional play at 5v5 in the NHL, largely due to his low pace, but he’s more than capable in the KHL. When you give him the puck to rush up the ice on his own, it’s essentially a free zone entry nearly every time. He’s so naturally shifty and deceptive, with constant head fakes and the endless repertoire of skilled moves at his disposal making him unpredictable, forcing opponents to either stay back or get beat, and either way, Michkov’s done his job.
He’s good at positioning himself between defenders and keeping the puck a safe distance away from opposing sticks with quick puck movements, keeping the puck close to bait poke-checks before extending his reach. These rushes usually end with him cutting to the middle and taking a shot through the remaining defenders from the high slot, or if he doesn’t see a lane, handing it off to a teammate at the blue line. I’d like to see him try more often to use these rushes to set up plays at 5v5 rather than just shooting most times and forfeiting possession, but either way, he creates chances.
But even if he’s not able to drive transition on his own, he can connect plays together well, and he’s good at creating and maintaining open space for his team or himself. Surveying the ice, moving laterally and adjusting his speed to manipulate defenders or preserve a good gap and remain open on the rush, either drawing defenders further from the puck-carrier or making himself a suitable passing option.
Michkov is a great skater in terms of agility and quickness, but he lacks a high-end top speed. He has quick feet and good first steps, he uses crossovers to gain momentum and generate speed quickly, then combines quick short strides with more crossovers, adding a level of natural deception to his movement. He can turn on a dime, pivot quickly, and has good form to his cutbacks; and his edgework is great; he loves to open up his hips and use heel-to-heel turns to spin off pressure, accelerate quickly, or fake out opponents, allowing himself more time and space to work with.
He’s able to change speed quickly and effortlessly, and adapt his speed to the play with ease, slowing down to remain a passing target in open space, or matching opponents’ speed when needed to retain a favorable gap. But the lack of high speed may hurt him at higher levels as the pace of play ramps up.
Projecting to the NHL is where a lot of the holes in Michkov’s game start to present themselves, and as you dig deeper, you find more questions than answers.
For starters, he doesn’t play with much pace. He can be slow on reads sometimes, but more commonly, as I touched on before, he’s slow in his decision-making. To me, this is perhaps the most glaring issue in Michkov’s game, and it leads to many more. Now, away from the puck it’s mostly fine, he reacts quickly, executes his routes without hesitation and reads play around him efficiently; but with the puck, it’s a different story.
He’ll carry the puck for what feels like minutes at a time, and pass up on countless good passing lanes while he does, and I don’t believe that he doesn’t see them, he just won’t pick one. If he finally does pick one, the lane’s already closed because even then, he took too long to choose it. And if he doesn’t, it’ll typically end with either a low percentage shot, or a frantic attempt to force a pass through traffic, resulting in a turnover. He’ll regularly just slow down and glide around with his feet far apart while he looks for his next play, and this seems to be a crutch for him, but again, he’s indecisive; he needs to execute decisions quickly, or be far less reliant on it, unless he wants to get crunched.
He’s overly reliant on time and space that he’s just not going to have in the NHL. This all works great at lower levels, which makes a lot of sense as to why he’s always been so dominant against junior competition, but he seems to have stagnated a bit in this aspect, and when you take that into account, his future in the NHL suddenly becomes a lot more blurry. If he can figure out how to consistently make decisions at a higher pace, then I’m not too concerned about the other issues; but that’s a big if.
I have seen an ability to adapt to a higher pace game like with Sochi in the KHL, the decision-making is still behind, but it’s a bit better, which is promising, but whether or not he’ll be able to adapt to NHL pace is another question. I do think he can, he adapted pretty seamlessly to higher pace with Sochi, and I think he’ll only get better over time. I think as soon as he can’t get away with the slow play, it’ll be gone. I’ve noticed his pace of play change from game to game depending on the situation. When the other team is more passive, he’ll play as slow as they’ll let him, but if the game’s fast, he still plays his game no problem, just with more pace to it, and he makes decisions a bit more quickly and with more confidence. I’d like to see him bring a higher pace no matter the situation, but I do believe it will come.
I’ve been impressed with the physical side of his game, especially when it comes to offensive puck retrievals, but it’s also a bit terrifying with how unafraid he is. He’s stronger than he looks, he throws his shoulder into opponents to win tight races for the puck, plays inside contact pretty well, uses his body well for smart pick plays to buy time for his team, and his puck protection mechanics are legitimately good, but there’s a question of NHL translatability.
He can handle physical battles decently at lower levels, but he’ll probably need to bulk up a fair bit if he intends to play this way down the road, and his style of play will get him into trouble if he’s not able to. He’s usually pretty strong on his feet, but he can still get outmuscled fairly easily, he skates with his head down way too often, relies on puck protection with his body, and walks himself into bad situations where he’ll get levelled in the NHL. I think bulking up, gaining more strength, is something that he should focus on if he wants to keep playing the way that he does.
Shot selection is another area of Michkov’s projection that’s a bit murky, and while I think he’s far from the worst case of poor shot selection out there, he is a frustrating one. I don’t think most of the shots that he takes are necessarily terrible, the issue is that he has the skill, and often the space, to create much better looks than he takes. He’s hesitant to take pucks to the inside sometimes, and just ends up taking long shots from the perimeter that are relatively easy to handle. His shot makes him a threat from anywhere, but he’s such a talented goal-scorer in tight that it’s frustrating to see him not really try to create better opportunities, when I know he can do things like this:
When he finds himself low in the offensive zone with possession, he opts to shoot from along or behind the goal line nearly every time, and usually just misses entirely. He’s scored many goals that way at the junior level, and his shot is definitely good enough to make it work, so it’s understandable that he wants to attempt it, but I’d like to just get in his ear a bit and tell him not to try and force it. When he has the amount of space that he so often has, just look for a better option.
I fully expect Michkov to be all over the place on draft boards for the rest of the year, because it largely comes down to whether or not you believe he can overcome these issues. It may end up being a bad bet to make, but as I’ve said, I do think he can. Personally, I value his processing of the game and the dynamic qualities in his game over all, and it could very well blow up in my face in a few years, but I believe in him figuring it out, at least at the time of writing this.
I do believe there exists a top line, dynamic game-changing offensive player in Michkov, but it’s far from a sure thing; there’s a lot of risk involved and it should be no surprise that he’s falling down draft lists. And to be clear, no, it has nothing to do with Russia or his KHL contract; I feel like I have to mention that. I see the KHL contract as a good thing, I think rushing him to the NHL is the worst thing you could do for him, so it’s good that he’ll take more time to mature and work on his game in Russia before coming over.
This report may have come across as overly negative, but in spite of everything I’ve said, I’m a big fan of Michkov. He’s found success at every level he’s played at, and I don’t see that changing. The awareness, vision, processing of play, shooting and off-puck instincts, playmaking potential, and the combination of skills make up a really enticing package. I’ll be keeping a close eye on him for the next few years, and I’m very interested to see where he ends up.
January 19, 2023
stats from InStat and EliteProspects
Prospect report written by Gray Matter. If you would like to follow Gray on Twitter, his handle is @grismatter.
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