Is Valeri Nichushkin's Hibernation Over?
A torrid start to December has hopes high around Dallas' young Russian winger. Is this the turning point fans have been waiting for?
This past offseason was a pick ‘em of interesting sub plots for the Dallas Stars. Seriously. Jamie Benn had a shiny new trophy, Tyler Seguin might have had a trophy of his own without injury, there were free agents, a big trade, and roughly seventeen defencemen on the main roster. There was also the curious case of Valeri Nichushkin.
At that point Nuke had last been seen as the rookie darling of the 2013-2014 season. Then his hips began to lie and put him squarely on the IR for the bulk of what should have been a breakout sophomore campaign. He managed eight games that year, basically bookending the season. Nasty business, but a clean bill of health heading into training camp had fans salivating.
Then the games began, but it was hard to say Val's season really started. By the end of October, Big Val had more scratches (2) than points (1). Nuke's first goal (November 8th) sparked a bit of an offensive jump, but only relative to October. At the start of December, Val was sitting on six points (2 G / 4 A), playing lower-line minutes (12:54 ATOI), and couldn't crack the power play (00:36 APPTOI). He looked good, certainly, but it wasn't translating to the scoresheet.
Val was the perpetually on-the-cusp prospect. He was the guy you added and then dropped a hundred times in your fantasy league. It was maddening. As the Stars' offense exploded, the one guy fans wanted, more than anything, to be a part of the party couldn't get going. Two goals? Really?
It didn't help that other Stars were making impressions of their own elsewhere on the roster. Mattias Janmark stepped into the NHL and immediately went on a four game point streak (2 G / 2 A), Antti Niemi said hello to fans with a shutout, and Patrick Sharp stepped into the roster as if he'd spent his entire career alongside Seguin and Benn. Even Ales Hemsky had six points to show for his first four games (1 G / 5 A). Nuke wasn't just missing out, he was an afterthought.
Even an end-of-November promotion to the top line drew more angst than excitement. Yes, #fancystats have traditionally loved Val's game, but at some point top line wingers also have to put points on the board. That was four games ago, but it feels like it might as well be a hundred years.
Since the start of December Val has equaled his point total for the entire season to-date (2 G / 4 A / 6 Pts). He's playing more (15:18 ATOI vs. his season average of 13:25), and has seen significant time on special teams on multiple occasions (1:46 vs Vancouver / 2:34 vs. Edmonton). On the ice, the young Russian appears rejuvenated. More than that, his combination of size, hands, and a willingness to pass feels like a perfect fit for Seguin and Benn. It feels real.
This is tremendous news for a Stars squad that has wobbled a little bit lately. A contributing Val means Patrick Sharp can add menace to Jason Spezza's line, insulates the team against Hemsky's mercurial nature, and eases the pressure as Janmark works through his learning curve. A confident Nichushkin is a force multiplier for the Stars.
Regression could still happen. Val still isn't shooting a ton (3 SOG), for example, but it's hard to watch a guy deke two defenders, the goalie, and then cause the referee to lose sight of the puck and not feel optimistic. Sometimes it's hard to remember Big Val is a 20 year old with 113 games in the big league.
More and more I find myself thinking of history, and the lessons we can draw from our past. In particular, Val's recent play reminds me of something Napoleon learned in 1812: don't mess with Russians in the winter.