After an eventful training camp and preseason Dallas Stars rookie Valeri Nichushkin had set the bar pretty high entering October, so it was perhaps a little disappointing when two assists and a -3 rating were all he had to show in his first dozen games.
We understood that he is still a teenager, and that he is in a new country, and that he is learning to play a new flavor of the game- And we knew that we had to wait.
Maybe we don't have to wait very long. Since then he's recorded 13 points in his last 15 games, including seven in his last three with the capper being a four-point performance in a single period yesterday during the dismantling of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Oh yeah, he also leads all regulars on the team in Corsi per 60 minutes played (On-ice shot differential goals + saves + missed shots + blocks expressed as a rate) at +9.53.
Did I mention he's a teenager?
It would be easy to say he's done all of this because of his time with Benn and Seguin, and that's part of the truth, but not the whole thing. His number-one linemate this season by time on ice? Shawn Horcoff, whose on-ice Corsi rating is one of the team's very worst. Sergei Gonchar is his third most common "linemate," while Benn and Seguin are second and fourth.
Yesterday it wasn't Benn and Seguin generating and Nichsuhkin holding on for the ride. Far from it. Yesterday Nichushkin was the one initiating- the one doing the pulling. After losing a critical battle in the first on the Flyers' lone goal (give him credit for hustling down there, but still) he turned it up in the physicality department and started winning those 50/50 pucks.
*On the first goal yesterday he digs the puck out in the defensive zone in the corner and makes a deft pass ahead to Seguin to begin the rush.
*He cycles correctly on the second goal, not trying to do too much and giving the puck to Goligoski.
*He disrupts what looks like a sure clear for Philadelphia on the third, poking the puck to Seguin for the long, tipped goal.
*On the fourth he's able to show a goal scorer's instincts, crossing high with Seguin for the interchange that gets him the puck and creates the space he needs to bury it.
I invite you to zero in on him during these highlights. The first thing Ralph calls 20 seconds in the game is Nichushkin winning a puck battle and delivering the puck for a shot.
In the preseason he was reckless with his body. He's now figuring out how to use it properly on occasion and it's paying dividends for whoever is lucky enough to be out there with him.
With a big body like that we thought he'd take some minors while adjusting. He has just two, and the rate at which he draws penalties (expressed as a rate of 1.00 per 60 minutes of ice time) is third on the team. So he's ahead there as well.
A four-point night is a natural time to highlight him, or anyone, but there is truly a progression taking place here outside of the production. There are going to be plenty of mistakes along the way but you can see his improvement, not only with the puck, but more importantly without it, and regardless of his linemates- And that might be the most impressive part.
Just think of all the opportunities he's had that he hasn't been able to convert en route to all of this. Maybe that's the most impressive part. Those are going to start going in.
This is a high point. Seven points in his last three games. There will be droughts that go along with it. It's part of the rookie package. Yesterday's exploits moved him to 5th place in rookie scoring, tying him with Alex Chiasson at 15 points.
His +9 is third among rookies behind Tomas Hertl, who might be running away with top rookie honors already, and Hampus Lindholm, both of which play for very, very good teams. He leads all rookies with 11 points on the road, and has the second highest total at even strength behind, again, Tomas Hertl.
The Calder is probably a long shot, but you can put his name in another important discussion: Which one's going on the back of your next jersey purchase.
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