Valeri Nichushkin's journey from Chelyabinsk to Dallas has been, for impressive lack of a better word, enigmatic. Yes, I know. The word 'enigmatic' has become a lazy and loaded word associated with hockey players that are rarely Canadian. But it's fitting for a player still full of so much mystery.
When Nichushkin was taken 10th overall in the 2013 draft, there was no mystery as to how fans felt. DBD itself was quite explicit:
The big focus on the 2013 NHL draft for the Dallas Stars was the need to acquire elite, blue-chip talent at the top of the first round. This is an organization that has spent the past four years completely rebuilding the prospect system under the leadership of Les Jackson and Joe Nieuwendyk, taking the Stars from one of the worst developmental systems in the NHL to one of the best
....Then Valeri Nichushkin quite literally fell right into their draft laps.
Nichushkin was considered to be one of the top talents in the draft this year, ranked as the No. 2 European skater and many feel he has a higher ceiling than Sasha Barkov, Elias Lindholm, and even some of the top players coming out of the CHL in Seth Jones and Jonathan Drouin. A hulking power forward, Nichushkin shows flashes of incredible strength on the puck and drives the net better than any other player in the draft.
And yet there's a good chance that when Jim Nill sits down and talks to Nichushkin's agent, Nill won't be talking to a man with blue chip leverage.
And why not? Chances are, agents don't go walking into a conference room with #fancystats graphs. Nuke's agent in particular wouldn't have much to brag about anyway. Neither Hero nor Zero, Nichushkin is neither an incongruous hero, nor an indigo one:
But good things can come in small sample sizes. Data, like anything else, requires context. What you're looking at isn't bad even on the surface. The chart basically says, 'can suppress shots modestly in tough minutes while generating production at a near above average rate'.
Nichushkin is basically one season and a near-half into his NHL career. Last season was lost due to hip surgery, having only played 8 NHL games (and 5 with the Texas Stars). This season has seen a very similar adjustment to his rookie campaign; starting anew with different linemates. 2015-2016 has essentially just been a remake of his rookie campaign instead of its proper sequel.
What exactly is that worth to Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars? Right now, Nichushkin is on pace for 31 points; three less than what he managed in the 2013-2014 season. It's quite possible he ends up with more points than his rookie season. He only had four points in his first 17 games. In his last 16, he has nine points. He's looked sharp with Jason Spezza (where his CF% rises to 59) and Ales Hemsky (whose CF% rises to 61; less than 10 minutes together thus far, granted). However, he's been bumped off both power play units. A dramatic rise in points isn't exactly guaranteed.
If you want to look at comparables, we can look at someone like Lauri Korpikoski. The left winger was drafted 19th overall in 2004, and put up 40 points his contract year. When he became an RFA, his cap hit went from $700,000 to $1.800,000. Mikkel Boedker, a better comparable in terms of raw talent, eventually cleared $2.5 Million in cap after hitting RFA status. However, Nuke already has a higher AAV than either one of them ever did even as RFA's due to his $1.2 Million Performance Bonus (putting his AAV at 2.1 Million).
Nichushkin will see a raise, but not a big one. He hasn't put up big numbers. Nor has he put up numbers that signal the kind of progression to warrant big contract numbers. But none of that should be considered an indictment of his development.
There are things you want to see, or hope develop (like a shot that rises above the goalie's toenails). But he's incredibly gifted, pivoting from corner to corner with the kind of speed and power that makes him impossible to defend. It's incredible how much room he creates for himself. The encouraging words of Jason Spezza don't hurt either. While his next contract will be a question mark, his place on this team should not be. Winning tends to bring out the best in players. With the Stars winning, hopefully we'll see the best in Nichushkin too.