During the lead-up to the 2013 NHL Draft, many considered winger Valeri Nichushkin to be a consensus top-five talent and some even considered him right up there with the top three when it comes to pure talent and potential. Along with the very real bias that exists against Russian players, there was also the fact that Nichushkin created a bit of controversy with his statements about his intentions during the NHL scouting combine.
All season long there was the fear that Nichushkin would be obligated to stay in the KHL instead of moving to North America right away, similar to what happened to the St. Louis Blues and Vladimir Tarasenko a few years back. Nichushkin stated at the combine, however, that he had an agreement with Dynamo Moscow to allow him to play in the NHL right away -- but he also said it was going to be the NHL only or he'd be back in Russia.
This was instantly perceived as an attitude problem; perhaps Nichushkin was using the KHL as leverage and that he felt he was "too good" to play in the AHL if the Stars felt that was what was needed. That's probably a big reason he fell down the draft boards, with only the Dallas Stars appearing to really do their due diligence and talking to Nichushkin before the draft to make sure all parties understand the circumstances involved.
The questions related to his NHL vs. KHL intentions have continued after the draft, however, and it's been tough to really get a straight answer from the Dallas Stars -- who talk about being patient and putting him in the best position possible for his development this summer.
Mark Stepneski of Stars Inside Edge caught up with Nichushkin's agent, Mark Gandler, who cleared up any confusion about the agreement that is allowing Nichushkin to play in the NHL this summer.
"Yes, we have no choice over this. The Russian club Dynamo was very nice about it. They allowed him to leave with two years left on his contract to pursue his dream. Their condition was - and it was verbal - and in the hockey business a handshake is better than anything, that's been my experience over 23 years as an agent. I've never had an issue with a single person in the league who said he would do something, and then wouldn't do it. We signed a contract, as you know, and the contract allows that to happen."
When asked if Nichushkin could agree to play in the AHL after a 20-game-or-so stint with the Dallas Stars, Gandler said it's technically possible but once again says it goes against the verbal agreement in place with Dynamo.
"They can. They can't send him to the minor leagues without his permission. In theory, he can say, ‘Sure, I'll go to the minors.' But practically speaking, we would be violating the word we have given Dynamo."
What does all this mean? It's pretty simple, actually.
Dynamo acquired the rights to Nichushkin just after the KHL season was finished, and they seem to have a good grasp on the potential of this dynamic offensive powerhouse. It's a situation of "if you aren't going to play for us, then we understand your desire to play in the one other hockey league in the world that is better than the KHL."
Playing in the AHL, which is generally considered to be lesser than the KHL, SM-Liiga and SHL, would almost seem to be an insult to Dynamo. This is a team that paid a high price to get Nichushkin and if he isn't going to be playing in the NHL, then it makes sense for him to be in the KHL and taking on better competition and playing for the team that has paid for his rights.
Nichushkin's agent also revealed the plans for the young player for this summer, with the 18-year old set to live with a host family in Frisco that would allow him to immerse himself completely in American culture. No one with the family speaks Russian, so he'll be forced right away to learn the language -- and many will tell you that's the best method for learning a new language, anyway.
The Russian phenom earned a bit of criticism for not exactly tearing apart Development Camp this past week, but it's been revealed he wasn't playing with own equipment. Unfamiliar skates led to some ankle and foot soreness, but he's now in possession of his own equipment and should be just fine moving forward.
There's going to be a lot of discussion about Nichushkin's perceived attitude, especially considering the cocky nature with which he plays on the ice. But absolutely nothing has shown me anything resembling a "holier than thou" attitude problem with this young man, and in fact he's had a very noticeable positive attitude with his teammates and coaches during what is a very tough and very sudden transition.
The KHL factor is a concern, but everyone I've talked to firmly believes that Nichushkin will be more than ready for the NHL season in October.