Some of us just keep buying stock in Dallas Stars forward Valeri Nichushkin. It’s hard not too. A 6-foot-4, 210-pound power skating skill guy, with speed and talent to burn? Those don’t come along very often. Never mind the fact that some scouts saw him as the prospect with the most upside in the 2013 draft. Or that there were even some who saw elements of a young Alex Ovechkin in his game.
“Elements” being the key word there. Let’s not get too carried away.
Still, with all that going for the young Russian, whats not to like? Well, for one thing, consistency has been an issue so far in his NHL career. Though much of that could be attributed to the fact that he slogged through an injury-riddled 2014-15 campaign. In fact, we’re about a third of the way through Nichushkin’s third season at this level, and he just played his 113th career game. That’s a little behind schedule, considering he’s been on the Stars’ roster each of those three years.
He’s not behind schedule at all when taking age into account, though. Nichushkin won’t even turn 21 until March. And looking at his progress through that lens paints a much brighter picture.
Some high-end prospects don’t even make it to the NHL by the age of 20. He’s been gaining experience against the best players in the world since he was 18. Suddenly, “only” having 113 games under his belt doesn’t seem so bad.
Especially considering the recent run he’s been on — the one where he has notched two goals and five assists in his last six outings. After a slow start to this season, Nichushkin is starting to heat up. And there are a few reasons to believe this could be more than just a random hot streak.
1. Health. This one’s pretty straightforward. It’s tough to contribute when you’re hobbling around the ice, and even tougher when you’re watching the games from the trainer’s room. Nichushkin was productive as a rookie in 2013-14, knocking in 14 goals and dishing out 20 assists in 79 games… as an 18-year old. Last year, however, he managed just one helper. But he also only suited up for eight games — and he clearly wasn’t at full strength for the majority of them.
If any of that was going to linger over into this season, it was going to do so right at the beginning. Whether he was still getting his feet back under him, was hesitating and over thinking because of last year’s ailments or was simply shaking the rust off after a lengthy hiatus, Nichushkin managed just one assist in his first 10 games. He’s been trending upward ever since though, and that would seem to fit the description of a young player who’s finally healthy again.
2. Teammates. By all accounts, Nichuskin is generally a positive person to be around — both on and off the ice. And he appears to get along with his teammates pretty well too. Those are great qualities for any player to have, but they’re that much more valuable when they’re attributed to a highly-touted prospect.
Thing is, he’s not just some guy that people like. In fact, he seems to be forming some good on-ice chemistry with a pair of pretty powerful allies. After starting the year in a top-six role, Nichushkin saw his minutes dip and even spent some time on the fourth line. He’s been skating on the Stars’ top unit lately though, and that’s a great spot to be in.
Why? Well, because that means he’s lining up alongside Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin — the two players currently tied for second in the NHL scoring race. Benn leads the league with 20 goals, and just won the Art Ross Trophy six months ago. And Seguin is one of the most gifted offensive weapons in the game today who, at just 23 years of age, likely still has his best hockey in front of him.
Playing with those two would help boost anyone’s numbers, but the young Russian isn’t just out there eating up ice time. Neither one of those guys are small, but Nichushkin definitely adds size and upside, in the form of untapped potential. If they can get him going, that’s yet another weapon for the highest scoring team in the league. As if they really need it.
To that end, Benn and Seguin have combined for two goals and three assists on the scoring plays that have led to Nichushkin’s last five points. And they’ve been on the ice a combined nine times on those five plays (Benn’s been out there for four of them, while Seguin’s been a part of all five). For the time being, he seems to be helping that duo, rather than slowing them down at all. Now, of course, the key is finding a way to stay in sync with them.
3. Pressure (or lack thereof). There’s a certain level of responsibility a player assumes when they’re out there on the top line. And that’s certainly enhanced when the top line in question is actually among the very best lines in all of hockey. So yes, in that regard, Nichushkin is under some pressure when he skates with Benn and Seguin.
Let’s look at it another way though: Dallas was already the league’s top-scoring club before Nichushkin was showing up on the scoresheet. And they were No. 2 a year ago, without him really playing at all. If he can’t find the consistency that often eludes young players, well, life will go on for the Stars. They don’t need him yet. But, if he does establish himself as a reliable option, well, look out.
Do you ultimately want your roster made up of guys who answer the bell and raise their level of play when the stakes are higher? Obviously. But it’s not the worst thing in the world for the 20-year-old on your team to feel like he can hone his game at a reasonable pace without ruining his club’s season.
In his current environment, Nichushkin can play to his strengths and work on minimizing his weaknesses without the weight of the world on his shoulders. He can make mistakes, and the talented lineup around him will usually be able to help pick up the slack as he learns from them and evolves his game.
That alone might be enough to help him find his comfort level and, subsequently, take the next step. And if that proves to be the case, the club with the best record in all of hockey will only get stronger.