Valeri Nichushkin poses a complicated problem for the Dallas Stars. They want to ease him into the lineup, they want him to be successful, and they don't want to just hand him ice time that he hasn't earned. They're in a chicken or egg situation where they want Nichushkin to force them to give him top six minutes by producing offensively even though he is playing less than ideal offensive minutes.
Nichushkin is up to getting 33% of his zone starts in the offensive zone. After three or so games he was sitting around 25%. Talented rookies are generally handled differently than other NHLers. They usually are given more protected minutes compared to their counterparts.
That hasn't fully been the case with Nichushkin. Ruff has kept him from difficult matchups to an extent, but he has buried Nichushkin in the defensive end. I compared the Quality of Competition and Offensive Zone Start % of Nichushkin with that of 24 recent rookies to see how he measures up.
Those rookies are as follows: Sean Monahan, Jonathan Huberdeau, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Jordan Eberle, Elias Lindholm, Sasha Barkov, Nathan MacKinnon, Alex Galchenyuk, Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons, Gabriel Landeskog, Mika Zibanejad, Mark Scheifele, Sean Couturier, Sven Baertschi, Tyler Seguin, Ryan Johansen, Nino Niederreiter, Jeff Skinner, Alex Burmistrov, Mikael Granlund, and Vladimir Tarasenko.
It isn't a full list of every rookie over the past three years, but it's a large group of highly touted and/or highly drafted players from the past handful of seasons. Collectively they were/are handled the same way except two notable exceptions: Landeskog and Couturier.
|Group of Rookies||57.94||-0.054|
What we see is that Ruff is protecting Nichushkin in the match up game. On the other hand Ruff is keeping Nichushkin in his own end at a high rate. This poses a few problems that the other highly touted rookies don't/didn't have to deal with. He's closer to his own net which increases the chances of goals being scored with him on the ice, and he's further from the offensive zone so he has to work harder to generate offense.
Could that be good for his development? Maybe, but there is no way to prove it one way or the other. What can definitely be said is that keeping Nichushkin that far away from the net is limiting the opportunities for him to generate offense. The Stars want him to prove he deserves it, but that is going to be very hard to do if you're looking at the point sheet for evidence.
There are two spots in the lineup where Nichushkin could get chances closer to the net to produce offense. The Stars could slot him in on the first line with Seguin and Jamie Benn. They did this in practice yesterday. The line gets copious offensive zone time, and is usually protected defensively with Brenden Dillon and Stephane Robidas. The spot would get him more offensive time and might actually be a more sheltered role for him given the defensive buffers the line affords him.
The problem with that is the idea of "handing" Nichushkin prime ice time. Generally coaches want players to earn the promotion, but I would again suggest that the system isn't set up to allow much upward mobility. It would take a herculean offensive output for Nichushkin to score with frequency at his current spot in the lineup as a rookie. So for him to move up he's likely going to need to have the ice time "handed" to him in the sense that he isn't going to fill up the stat sheet. He has played pretty well the last two games though.
An alternative possibility is the idea of "demoting" Nichushkin to the fourth line. Technically it would be a demotion down the lineup, but the fourth line plays relatively easy minutes. Putting Nichushkin on the fourth line would afford him more time in the offensive zone, even if it might cut his ice time overall some. If the Stars want to see more production from him before promoting him this might be the route to go.
Most importantly for the current roster is that the Stars need him to be ready to produce offensively. The top line has been working well recently with Seguin, Benn, and Rich Peverley, but not much else has been working. Nichushkin producing on the top line would allow the Stars to use Peverley as the 2nd line center to inject more offense and a puck handling element on the second line. It would then allow the Stars to have an excellent defensive third line of Erik Cole, Shawn Horcoff, and Cody Eakin.
That is just one of many possibilities, but in general Nichushkin proving that he can produce offensively would obviously be a huge development for the Stars. He isn't likely to do it down the lineup. Most of the top rookies of the recent past have faced easier minutes away from their own net. Perhaps it's time to see what Nichushkin can do with a little more offensive zone time.