When the Dallas Stars drafted Valeri Nichushkin 10th overall in the 2013 NHL Draft, we all thought we were getting Ivan Drago. Three years later, and you're probably hearing fans argue that we got Boris Badenov instead.
On the surface, it doesn't look good. His first season here in Dallas, he tallied 14 goals and 20 assists after playing 536 minutes with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. 2014-2015 would be lost to hip surgery. This season he tallied 9 goals and 20 assists. Then there was that weird drama about his feelings in Dallas that his agent had to respond to. In the playoffs, he lost his job to Travis Moen. It looks bad, right?
First, a little context. While Benn and Hemsky recovered from their surgeries just fine, everyone's biology is different. It's quite possible that Val, in his youth, responded to his injury different. Something I suspect could have been as much physiological as psychological.
Second, 536 minutes with the wonder twins is the equivalent of fighting alongside House Clegane. This season the most he spent alongside a center was Jason Spezza, clocking in at 162 minutes together. The rest of his time was divided among other centers, like Cody Eakin and Mattias Janmark. And yes, Tyler Seguin*.
Basically, the consistency he enjoyed his rookie season was nowhere to be found this season. Now, these shouldn't be read as excuses. Janmark bounced around the lineup his rookie season as well, had the same amount of points, and managed to make himself useful no matter where he was. In addition, NHL coaches are rarely in a position to "develop" players. They position themselves to develop wins. If Patrick Sharp is a better option on Seguin's wing than Nichushkin, then that's where Sharp goes.
So Nuke is in a tough spot. But he's also still adjusting. Would Janmark have potted the same amount of points two years ago? I don't think so. In addition, I think it was clear in the St. Louis series that Nuke was finally feeling comfortable. In game 7 he was an integral part of two early prime scoring chances, including the one Ruff inexplicably criticized where he missed the open net. Personally I thought it was a brilliant move just to kick it back to his blade.
There will be a lot of Val talk in the coming weeks. After all, silly season is coming up. He's a shiny potential trade piece for any team looking to get younger and rebuild. But Hemsky and Sharp are UFA's after next season. Dallas doesn't have a whole lot of depth at wing in their system. More to the point, Nichushkin and Guryanov represent the only blue chip wingers in Dallas' system. Who knows. They'll probably look pretty fantastic on a line together. Whatever the case, we're still in the 'wait and see' phase of Valeri's development. I'd argue that Dallas should still wait. Because I suspect Dallas won't have to wait long to see the truth.
*Fun fact. He spent over 100 minutes reuniting with Seguin and Benn, and their possession numbers were a couple of percentage points better this season than their possession numbers two seasons ago.