Most Jets fans are familiar with the first several names at the top end of the franchise's prospect pool who've been selected in the NHL draft over the past few years. Chaz Lucius, Rutger McGroarty, Brad Lambert, and Colby Barlow, to name a few.
However, due in part to the ban the International Ice Hockey Federation imposed on Russia after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, some fans may have forgotten about the team's second-round selection in 2021, Nikita Chibrikov. Because the Russian winger was unable to participate in the 2023 World Junior tournament in Halifax and Moncton or the initially canceled 2022 tournament (due to COVID-19 concerns), Chibrikov would have had limited exposure to the casual fan who wasn't actively tracking his progress over in Russia.
However, the last time Chibrikov suited up internationally for his country, he captained Team Russia to a silver medal at the 2022 Under 18 World Championships, scorching the tournament to the tune of 13 points in just seven games.
Since then, Chibrikov has quietly developed his offensive skill set in both men's and junior leagues. Over the past two seasons, he's scored 41 points in 44 games in Russia's second-highest tier of professional hockey, the VHL, and absolutely dominated at the junior level. And his low production (two points in 31 games) last season in Russia's top men's pro league, the KHL, can be mainly attributed to the limited 7:09 minutes of time-on-ice he averaged for Spartak (Moscow).
In May, the 20-year-old Chibrikov signed his entry-level contract with Winnipeg and will play for the Manitoba Moose this season. At 5-foot-10, 172 pounds, he will still need to add strength to his frame, but it's Chibrikov's hockey sense, deft passing ability, and powerful wrist shot that has management hoping he can translate his game one day to the Jets' middle- or top-six forward group.
"Nikita's an exciting young player; I think that the fans are actually going to be really pleased once he gets acclimated to North America," said Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff in his year-end media availability on April 30.
"He made that commitment to us when we drafted him that he was going to not sign a contract over there [in Russia] because he wants to play in the National Hockey League," added Cheveldayoff.
This summer, the organization got their first look at Chibrikov alongside other Jets prospects at the team's development camp in July, where he showed off his "pro-ready" release on the ice and his developing English.
"Step by step, every day, I'm learning more from North America," Chibrikov told reporters. "My English is better than a month ago. I learn English every day. So I think I will improve this more. I feel more comfortable here now."
Watching how Chibrikov learns on the fly this season as he adjusts to the pro game of the AHL will be fascinating. If Winnipeg's development group can surround Chibrikov with the right tools to grow over the next couple of seasons in Manitoba with the Moose, there's a good chance Jets fans will see this Russian sniper contributing to the big team in the future.