The Dallas Stars have never drafted a player in the first round and seen him on the NHL roster to start the following season. That may well change where Valeri Nichushkin is concerned.
Expectations were already lofty enough before the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, but a big week on the ice and exposure in the media off of it has lifted them up even higher.
He scored an unassisted backhand goal in the first period of his first North American game in Traverse City on Thursday evening.
ESPN's Craig Custance helped spread the praise this weekend:
One observer watching Stars first-rounder Nichushkin in Traverse City: "He's a man-child." Lindy Ruff says his skating compares to Malkin.— Craig Custance (@CraigCustance) September 8, 2013
On Sunday Hockey's Future proclaimed Nichushkin to be the Stars' top prospect, and he scored his second goal of the tournament against the Minnesota Wild to get Dallas to overtime.
On Monday ESPN Insider ranked Nichushkin the fifth best overall prospect in hockey (with Brett Ritchie at number 33 and Jamie Oleksiak at 75...), and Mike Morreale of NHL.com featured him here, a standout among the other Russians at the tournament.
"He has that same strong build, smile and demeanor that Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk had during their time in Traverse City for their respective teams," Morreale wrote.
Then to cap it all off he went ahead and notched another one in the Stars' destruction of the Columbus Blue Jackets last night to close the tournament.
And training camp hasn't even started yet.
The saying in sports goes "Never get too high or too low," but have fans cultivated an expectation level that's already too high for Nichushkin? The Stars themselves are taking nothing for granted, outwardly projecting that a place on the roster is not a sure thing for the rookie.
"We're going to give him every opportunity to be on our team," Stars assistant general manager Les Jackson told NHL.com. "We'll just monitor it and see how it goes. It's a transition for a lot of young kids because it's such a huge step; he certainly has the skills and there's a lot of other parts to the game and culture he'll need to adapt to. So we'll take it one day at a time and see how he does."
So far so good, and if the limited evidence coming out of Traverse City is any indication he could give the Stars options on either side, providing his defensive play passes Ruff's muster. Looking at the videos provided by Mark Stepneski you can see Nichushkin set up on the right and left sides during Stars power plays, evidently comfortable on either, to say nothing of his notable possession skills.
Here he gets the one-timer to go on the right side at the top of your screen toward the end of this clip.
That's some nice looking green. Speaking of which, there are several out there who stand to make a pretty pile of green if things go according to plan in a couple of years.
Still, it's a prospect tournament with little structure or physicality.
Tom Gaglardi said it best when he told Stars Inside Edge "It's the right way to see them and to see where they are at against their peer group." A #10 overall pick (who could have gone a little higher) probably should excel against his peer group. Is it exciting or is it just par for his particular course?
The trick now is to prove himself worthy of a new peer group - The best group there is. It's a tough task for a rookie making the transition to the North American game, and one that could take time.
He's earning the praise, but with it comes pressure to perform and live up to expectations. Fans say "I think a full year in the AHL would be good for ______________" all the time, and that's usually referring to someone who speaks the language and is familiar with the style of play/rink size. Nichushkin won't be afforded any such luxury, needing to sink or swim in full view of the public eye.
So we'll temper expectations a little, because it's the smart thing to do, but there's no denying what there is to like about his game in the contexts we've seen thus far. How it will translate when he finds himself against men in the NHL is anyone's guess, but he sure is an interesting kid.
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