March 29, 2024

A deep dive into Swiss prospect and 2024 draft eligible Daniil Ustinkov

Daniil Ustinkov is not the sexiest, most popular, or most well-known member of the 2024 NHL Draft class. 

That much is for sure.

But for those that enjoy finding those diamond-in-the-rough type prospects, take notice.

The Swiss-born defender has been playing at an incredibly high level for years now, going back to when he debuted in the Elite Jr. A, Switzerland’s U20 league, at just 15. Last year he played primarily in the Elite Jr. A as well as some appearances in the Swiss League and even in the National League — Switzerland’s top men’s division and one of the strongest circuits in the world.

This year, Ustinkov began to catch some more attention through a great showing at the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship, helping Switzerland to the quarterfinals before narrowly being eliminated by Sweden. Domestically, he has played the majority of the season in the NL for ZSC, with only one assist in 18 games played at under 10 minutes a night. While not the most eye-catching stat line, it’s still very impressive for a kid who won’t turn 18 until late August. 

Through all of that, Ustinkov, No. 36 in FCHockey’s Midterm ranking for the 2024 draft, has generally flown under the radar, not getting much recognition as a top prospect until recently.

Even now, he is a guy who certainly wouldn’t be known amongst casual hockey fans but he definitely should be getting more attention than he is. With a strong finish to the season in Switzerland, Ustinkov should be able to cement himself as a first-rounder in the 2024 draft. 

His passing, vision, and decision-making are his top attributes

The highlight of Ustinkov’s game is his overall hockey IQ with the puck on his stick. He oozes confidence and shows endless patience when in possession. He has the vision to see his options or lack thereof, and the patience and confidence to wait until the right play presents itself. Ustinkov possesses a fully fleshed out playmaking game, from crisp breakout passes to elite possession play and cycling in the offensive zone. He constantly finds creative and innovative ways to keep plays alive. He turns meaningless possession into counterattacking opportunities or successful transitions due to his ability to operate flawlessly under pressure.  

Ustinkov seems to pride himself on creating subtle opportunities and advantages for his teammates. Every shift he is finding these little advantages that you have to pay attention to notice but when you find them, you see just how immense of an impact Ustinkov has on the game. His offensive playmaking game is the epitome of intelligence and efficiency, built around making life easier for his teammates, whether that’s timing a perfect blue line pinch, or twisting and turning all the while biding time for a teammate to better position themselves for a pass.

Furthermore, he’s incredibly agile and has solid puckhandling foundations, giving him the perfect skill set to execute the plays his eyes are just waiting to see. 

His frontward skating and agility are worth noting, too

Ustinkov’s playmaking game is polished off beautifully by his skating ability. He has great form moving forward and quick feet. Being a young, underweight 17-year-old, there is certainly some man strength to be gained for him and thus some potential to add even more speed to his game. His top speed isn’t a weakness for Ustinkov but if he can add some it could turn him from a great skater into an elite one — and possibly even elevating his offensive game to a whole other level.

His movement both on and off the puck looks effortless. Swinging in and out of defenders on the power play and dancing the blue line are staples of Ustinkov’s game. His skating form never wavers, with or without the puck on his stick. He is consistent and stays in control even when he is tired or under pressure, and he is able to handle the puck and make intelligent plays while moving at his top speeds. All these attributes are hallmarks of a high-end skater. 

His edgework is also phenomenal. He can turn on a dime to evade pursuers just as well as he can accelerate and reach his top speeds almost immediately. 

Ustinkov isn’t particularly strong or heavy. He’s competent in the corners and front of the net, but when moving at top speeds he can get outmuscled and pushed off his course rather easily. So in terms of his stride, that would be an area of improvement. But, like mentioned earlier, this is something that will likely come with age and maturity.

Defense and areas of improvement

Ustinkov’s intelligence with the puck, for the most part, translates pretty well to the defensive side of the game. He reads the play quite well and is great at anticipating the breakout. He has pretty good gap control and plays an incredibly aggressive defensive style. This playstyle, while sometimes it makes him look like a genius, other times it can get him into trouble. 

Ustinkov never hesitates to step up and pinch. He often steps up hard and tries to stop the oncoming attack right as it enters the zone. This isn’t as an outright flaw for two reasons. One, he plays this way because he knows he has limitations when it comes to his backwards skating. He knows that he often gets caught out so he tries to limit the amount of times he has to face that obstacle. And two, because he reads the play so well and has a good stick, this playstyle works out more in his favor than not. 

That being said, this is still something for Ustinkov to improve on because he can get caught out and cause odd-man opportunities for the opposition somewhat regularly. He just needs to get better at deciding when it’s too risky. He generally reads the play very well, but sometimes he pinches when it’s clear he won’t win the puck or stays battling below the blue line for far too long.

Ustinkov, however, is smart and this is an issue that will certainly correct itself with more experience under his belt.  

His backwards skating could hold him back

The only legitimate flaw in Ustinkov’s game is, without a doubt, his backwards skating. He has a really poor first step after switching to backwards, and he is incredibly slow afterwards. For the level he is playing at, this is a significant hindrance, often getting himself into trouble and forces him to alter his playstyle. For the NHL, it’s simply not an option. 

He hardly ever skates backwards when defending, and when he does he can sometimes get beat quite badly. This is likely why he plays such an aggressive defensive style. He is aware that he cannot hold his own if he sticks to his position and skates backwards. 

This is such a confusing and random aspect of Ustinkov’s game given his obviously natural talent when it comes to forwards skating. The fact that he already has such a good skating foundation gives confidence that this is certainly correctable, but as it stands this is a pretty big red flag and is a flaw that could keep him out of the NHL on its own if not rectified. 

Another aspect of Ustinkov’s game holding him back is his lack of offensive potency. He’s a possession monster and his teammates must love sharing the ice with someone so trustworthy with the puck. But he simply doesn’t really create much in the way of deadly offense. He cycles possession and creates subtle advantages for his skilled forwards to create offense, but he himself isn’t really a threat.

Ustinkov could certainly operate a power play and he will generate points that way, but if you’re expecting a dynamic point-producing defenseman that is dangerous in all scenarios, you’re going to be disappointed. 

Closing thoughts and projection

Though he won’t rival names like Anton Silayev, Sam Dickinson, Artyom Levshunov, or Zeev BuiumUstinkov is an severely underrated defenseman for the 2024 draft.  

While he may never be an elite point-producing defenseman that the eye-test may suggest at first glance, there is a decent amount of potential to be had with Ustinkov as a second or third-pairing defenseman with power play upside. The floor value behind this pick is there. The chances of him cracking an NHL lineup in a reliable, two-way defender sort of role, playing on the second PP unit seem pretty likely. If he can correct his backwards skating, which he most likely will, playing in the NL at such a young age with an immensely high hockey IQ all but guarantees him a spot in someone’s lineup.

And bodes really well for him to see the NHL in the not too distant future.

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