Even if you’ve watched just a few minutes of Team Russia at the ongoing 2021 World Junior Championship (WJC) you’ve likely spotted an undersized skater on the blueline sporting number six.
That 5’11” defender — Semyon Chistyakov — has skated more minutes than almost every other Russian skater at the WJC, lining up in all situations. That defender was also a fourth-round pick of the Nashville Predators at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.
Since his draft day when he was selected 117th overall (I had him ranked pre-draft as a top-93 prospect), Chistyakov has consistently delivered on ice and expanded his potential as a top-four defender for Nashville down the road.
In just one and a half seasons since draft day, Chistyakov has gone from a dominant blueliner at the junior level in Russia (the MHL) to an everyday pro skater and top defender for the U20 Russian national team — all while still just 19 years old.
Capturing the Spotlight
In November, the U20 Russian team rolled into the Karjala Cup — an annual four-nation pro-level tournament — and went undefeated behind stellar play from Nashville’s Iaroslav Askarov. But everyone expected that excellent netminding. It was Chistyakov’s play that turned heads as he was wildly heralded as the Russians’ best defender in a three-game slate where they out-paced older competition.
But, if you’ve followed Chistyakov’s career over the past few seasons, his Karjala Cup performance didn’t come as a surprise.
During the 2019-20 season, the Yekaterinburg native skated in 27 MHL games for Ufa and Omskie, overcoming a midseason injury (and trade) to finish the season with 21 points. It was just his second full MHL season, but when the Omsk organization acquired him in a December 2019 trade, it was with an eye towards the immediate future.
Going into training camp, Chistyakov was a key piece of Omsk’s plans to promote their young stars to the KHL and complement a roster with veterans like Reid Boucher, Corban Knight, and Oliwer Kaski.
This season, Chistyakov has been a steady presence for the Hawks who are fighting for supremacy in the KHL’s Eastern Conference. On a backend loaded with veteran talent — including Ksaki, Alexey Emelin, Ville Pokka, and more, Omsk has the luxury of not needing to trot out rookies like Chistyakov. But with 28 games under his belt and several nights on the team’s second pair alongside Kaski, Chistyakov has earned a permanent spot in the top six.
A quick glance at the scoresheet won’t say much besides one goal and three points this season, but that’s still tied for third among all U20 defenders in the KHL this season; He’s one of just six who has skated in over 20 games this season. While his ice time has dipped lately with more sheltered minutes (9:53 average time on ice), he’s secured over 15 minutes of ice time in nine games for Omsk.
During even-strength play — in eight games I’ve tracked — he’s recorded an impressive 54.48% Corsi rate.
The key to his comfort and poise with the puck against older, bigger competition is his excellent skating mechanics and transition skill. With the puck on his stick, he’s exiting the defensive zone 62.16% of the time with control; His constantly active stick and physical play mean opponents have executed a controlled zone entry against him just 40.54% of the time.
Chistyakov is also one of just four Omsk skaters with an 80 percent-plus pass completion rate (81.32%) in all zones.
Size is Not an Issue
Even though he isn’t lighting up KHL and WJC scoresheets, Chistyakov is almost impossible not to notice on most shifts. Those two pillars two his game — physical defense and swift transitions — make him stand out on and off the puck.
There’s an overused adage in scouting that smaller players have to rely on elite skating to succeed at higher levels. It’s not always true, and skating mechanics can work differently for different types of players. For Chistyakov, he plays with a low, well-balanced base and active stick. In most cases, it can help him (#66, white) win small puck battles and quickly pivot out of danger as he digs into the ice as seen above.
At times, however, his stick can get him caught behind a play as you see when the puck carrier drifts behind the net above. Despite his skating still, he doesn’t have elite acceleration out of his crossover steps. But, he’s so solid at maintaining excellent position to eliminate passing or shooting lanes or jump into them and disrupt.
Here’s another example of his elasticity in the defensive zone. He can chase a puck carrier up the wall but also shift down and apply pressure to the cycle. Most times, it culminates in proper positioning where he can break up surefire goals like in the play above.
Where Chistyakov’s defense can get into trouble is his gap control. He skates with excellent control of his edges and can execute stops and starts with ease, but his leading stick almost lets him cheat his gaps at times. In this clip, he disrupts the shooter, but notice how he pivots to the outside and into a compromising position early. Higher-skilled NHL shooters won’t have their heads down and will exploit that opportunity to burn by him with speed.
Chistyakov has a penchant for physical play. Often times, he’s smart with how he plays the body, separating opponents from the puck with shocking hits. But sometimes, he gets excited and misses the puck carrier he’s trying to line up. Above, you’ll see that results in a high-danger scoring chance for the opposition.
But when moving up ice, he’s mesmerizing. This sequence is one of my favorites from Chistyakov all season. On three separate occasions, you see him make a breakout pass on the power play. In all three circumstances, he demonstrates an excellent crossover step with a good stride and full recovery, has his head up the entire play, and connects on a pass that leads a teammate into open ice or a successful zone entry.
Chistyakov isn’t a defender who will man the puck like a contemporary top defender (e.g. Roman Josi), but he’s so smart with his stick and intentional with his puck movement. Whether it’s forceful breakout passes or simple plays like the one above where he touches a loose puck to open ice, these puck skills will transfer well to the NHL and help launch rush chances or scoring plays.
On top of that, Chistyakov loves to rip the puck. He can be a power play asset with his cannon slap shot similar to Ryan Ellis that, when he’s intentional, can be deadly accurate.
The ongoing COVID pandemic has disrupted a lot of prospect timelines. Players like David Farrance, who went back for a final collegiate season before turning pro, still haven’t skated a game this season. So, it’s hard to project an accurate trajectory for a player like Chistyakov.
But all of a sudden, just two seasons after drafting him, Nashville may have found a skater who could come to North America earlier than expected. Chistyakov’s KHL contract expires after this season, and I expect he’ll sign a two or three-year extension. While he still has some defensive technique to refine and mistakes to minimize at the KHL level — at this development pace — the Russian could forgo any AHL time and slot in nicely as a depth option, penalty killer, and power play option for Nashville in a few seasons.