Dallas Stars Player Impact Rankings #9: Scintillating Season Ahead for Sophomore Valeri Nichushkin
Valeri Nichushkin demonstrated game-breaking ability during his rookie season. With new teammates, a full off season, and no Olympics to muck things up, the 2014-2015 campaign should be a coming out party for the dynamic Russian. By year's end, will we be talking about the Stars' big three o
Full disclosure, I lack anything resembling objectivity when it comes to Valeri Nichushkin. The Russian is fun to watch in a way I wish I saw more often in the NHL. Better still, the soon-to-be-sophomore is skilled, strong, and in possession of a hockey IQ well beyond his years. Because of this he's going to be a critical piece of the Stars offense moving forward. In other words, last year was a taste, this year, he's going to be a big, freaking deal.
This is a 19-year old we're talking about. Let's start there. A 6'4", 205lb teenager, sure, but still a kid playing against seasoned professional adults. Let's remember as well that Nuke came with somewhat crossed fingers. Despite unmistakable talent, he fell to the Stars at 10 for the same reason so many other Russians slip: how would he react to lower wages versus the KHL, and the possibility of a seasoning stint in the AHL? His KHL team (Moscow Dynamo) went so far as to request that, in the event Dallas decided to send Nuke down, they sent him back to Russia instead. Val himself made all the right noises, insisting his goal was the NHL, but there was reason to be nervous.
Then the games started. 79 of them, in fact, which was a tremendous number for a teenager adapting on and off the ice to an entirely new culture. In those 79 games, Nuke recorded 14 goals, 20 assists, and averaged nearly 15 minutes of ice time each night. I love looking at ice time. It's such a good, basic indicator of confidence. Nuke was well behind the dynamic duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, but enjoyed minutes comparable to the well-trusted Cody Eakin, Alex Chiasson, and Rich Peverley. He belonged, he contributed, he earned his way onto the roster.
There were speed bumps along the way. Val's previous professional experience amounted to 43 games in the KHL. Throw in participation in the Sochi Olympics, and at times last season Val seemed to lag. There were a few heavy-legged nights as Lindy Ruff''s staff did their best to keep him in the lineup amid rumors of persistent, nagging injuries right around the Olympic break. By all reports he's been a good citizen this off-season, and remained in Dallas preparing for the year. That's a good thing, as he will need to be more physically prepared to take a larger role in the team.
Speaking of Val's role, I think it has to evolve a bit this season. Last year, Val enjoyed his greatest success when partnered with Benn and Seguin. Who wouldn't? The thing is, I feel like he over-deferred at times. I have strong memories of Val passing up open looks and instead forcing the puck towards his more illustrious colleagues. It's not a bad instinct. Benn and Seguin are established stars, and were tremendous last year. I hope Val remains a fundamentally unselfish player, but that he learns as well to enhance that tendency with aggression.
The coming season certainly gives him every opportunity to grow. More than any other player on the roster, Nuke should be thrilled at the dual additions of Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky. Both mean options, and turn the Benn+Seguin show into a multi-threat, multi-dimensional problem other teams must solve. It will be interesting to see where Val finds chemistry. On the one hand, I can see Spezza propping up a second unit effective enough to allow Val a semi-permanent place alongside Seguin and Benn. On the other, a heady distributor like Spezza could turn Val into a fearsome scoring force.
Next season, I think Valeri Nichushkin becomes that force, and turns Dallas' big two into a dynamic three. He might stumble at times due to age and inexperience, but those issues will be offset by the improved talent around him. We already know Nuke can play effectively with Dallas' top line, I think it will take about four seconds to learn he can have a similar impact alongside the Stars' new pivot. His positional solidity should ensure he stays in the lineup, his skill will take care of the rest. Finally, the continuity of being in Dallas all summer, and the lack of an Olympic break will allow Val to focus on developing his NHL game, and chasing another playoff berth.