Decoding Lindy Ruff: What Val Nichushkin Needs to Focus on to Earn Playing Time

Val Nichushkin has been tapped as the Dallas Stars "x-factor" for this season. So why is he on his second healthy scratch in this very young season?

Valeri Nichushkin expects a lot from himself. You can see it in the frustration he displays on his sticks when he doesn't score in a game. He intends to score, and score a lot. He's had a level of success doing just that at the NHL level before being sidelined by an injury through all of last season.

Throughout training camp, Nichushkin looked like the extended time away from the game had given him more rust to shake off than previously seen by him. After two games into the season, Dallas Stars head coach Lindy Ruff scratched the young Russian power forward.

But why? Conditioning could always be a factor. Maybe Ruff thinks he needs some more time to get up to game-speed. However, I'd argue that his physical speed isn't the issue -- but his "game-thinking" speed perhaps is. Via the ever wonderful Mark Stepneski:

"I want to get him back in, I want to get him playing but I think I have to get his head in the right place first," Ruff said of Nichushkin.

Nichushkin more than any other forward had some rough shifts in his own zone in the Stars' loss to the Colorado Avalanche. There were times that he was out of position or "almost there but not quite" enough to be effective on the offensive side.

He's still showing his puck possession skills, the one characteristic that tends to set Nichushkin apart from many other forward options on the team. But he's having trouble with finishing and also in his own zone. He needs to keep his head up more and better process the play around him at the NHL-game speed.

His decisions need to be made at the same speed. Instead of gripping the stick tightly because he hasn't scored in a while, Nichushkin needs to focus on the little things in his game -- positioning of body and stick, recognizing open lanes -- and show the Stars coaching staff that he is committed to improving play in his own end. He needs to anticipate the play rather than trying to react, which has gotten him blown up a few times already.

Nichushkin's having a tough start to the season, and part of that may be the expectations he places on himself and that others have placed on him for this year. But what needs to be remembered is Nichushkin is just 20 years old, with basically only one NHL season of experience to lean on.

These are growing pains. How he takes the notes given to him and applies them at his next opportunity is in his own hands. The Stars are better with him in the lineup, and I have no doubt he'll be back and better than before. Consider this the "Alex Goligoski" treatment from years past.