The Vancouver Canucks have been busy signing undrafted free agents over the past week, improving their depth at centre, defence, and now goaltending.
On Friday, the Canucks announced the signing of 22-year-old goaltender Nikita Tolopilo to a two-year, entry-level contract.
"We are excited to have agreed to terms with Nikita as we continue to build out our prospect pool and add to our organization's depth in goal," said general manager Patrik Allvin in a press release. "He provides a combination of tremendous size and skill and has developed well at the professional level the past two seasons in Sweden, serving as one of the more accomplished goaltenders in his league this year."
Tolopilo certainly has size on his side at 6’6” and 230 lbs and he’s coming off a breakout season in Sweden’s second tier of professional hockey, the HockeyAllsvenskan. While he had previously seen some success as a younger goaltender in the top Belarusian league, his transition to the HockeyAllvsenskan in the 2021-22 season was a bit rocky, with an .899 save percentage in his rookie year that was below the league average.
In the 2022-23 season, however, Tolopilo was one of the best goaltenders in the HockeyAllsvenskan, with a .924 save percentage that was fourth in the league while carrying a heavy load as the starter for Södertälje SK, playing 45 of their 55 games.
Tolopilo also seems to have that battling nature that Canucks goaltending coach Ian Clark prizes so much: the refusal to ever give up on making a save.
While Tolopilo’s size has obvious benefits, it also leads to some unique challenges. Like a lot of larger goaltenders, he sometimes struggles to close up gaps in his stance and can be beaten under the arms or through the five-hole.
“The issues become especially apparent in games in which he is struggling with his tracking,” reads his scouting report from Greg Balloch at Elite Prospects. “He has a tendency to reach for shots and is opened up to being beaten on deflections and broken plays.”
That’s an area where Ian Clark will work with him in the future, as he did with Jacob Markstrom, who frequently struggled with a similar issue.
His scouting report praises his ability to take away the bottom of the net, as well as his post integration and his explosive movement off his posts. It also has positive things to say about his play against rush chances.
“He fares better off the rush than he does on plays with sustained zone time, like on the penalty kill,” says Balloch. “He makes smart reads in regards to his positioning off the rush, and understands how to use his size to give the shooters absolutely zero visual space in the net.”
With his excellent season in Sweden and an intriguing frame and skillset, Tolopilo seems like a promising prospect. It certainly seems like he was a popular figure with Södertälje.
The question is what’s next for Tolopilo? Will he be coming to North America next season to battle for a spot in net with the Abbotsford Canucks in the AHL? That seems the most likely landing spot for Tolopilo — backing up Arturs Silovs in the AHL — but perhaps he might be better served playing more as a starter in the ECHL or Sweden.
Tolopilo's agent, Andreas Johansson, seems certain that Tolopilo will be playing in North America next season. In an interview with HockeySverige, he said that it looks like Tolopilo will only be in Sweden for two years instead of the three he initially planned because of interest from the NHL. He also had some interesting things to say about the offers Tolopilo has received.
"These are not 'maybe' offers," said Johansson via Google Translate. "These are offers where you see him as a starter in the NHL in a couple of years. They have a plan. If it had been doubtful, we would have said no straight away and we have received such proposals as well."
In other words, if the Canucks didn't lay out a plan to Johansson and Tolopilo where there was the potential for Tolopilo to be a starter for the Canucks in the future, he wouldn't have signed.