Heading into the 2013 NHL Draft, the word most commonly associated with Russian prospect Valeri Nichushkin was "if."
If he could just adapt to the smaller ice surface.
If he could overcome the culture shock of coming to North America.
If he could find a way to get out of his contract in the Kontinental Hockey League.
That skepticism caused the talented Chelyabinsk native to fall to No. 10, where the Dallas Stars selected him. From that moment on, Dallas brass vowed to give the enigmatic Russian a chance to make the team for the start of the 2013-14 season.
Still, no one expected what the 6-foot-4, 18-year-old right wing has delivered his rookie season.
After collecting two assists in his first 12 NHL games, Nichushkin has sparkled since being placed on Dallas' top line alongside captain Jamie Benn and leading scorer Tyler Seguin. He has nine goals and 22 points in 44 games.
"There is no secret that I had a poor start of the season, but I stayed patient and worked on my game," Nichushkin told NHL.com's Russian website. "I did not have any success right away, but it came to me with some time. It feels like it keeps getting better now. It is definitely getting easier since I see the results."
The rookie’s success on one of the League's most potent lines led to a huge honor last week, when he was named to Russia's Olympic team.
"I knew he had a lot of potential, but I didn't know he was going to become such a good player so early," Benn said. "For an 18-year-old from Russia, it's not easy to come over here -- the lifestyle and the North American game. But he's adapted really well to this game."
The transition wasn't easy. After arriving in Texas for Stars rookie camp, Nichushkin moved into the home of family friends of Stars President Jim Lites, who knew plenty about handling Eastern Europeans. While with the Detroit Red Wings in the 1980s and early ‘90s, he spearheaded the defection of Eastern European players, including Petr Klima and Sergei Fedorov.
Matched with an American family that spoke no Russian, Nichushkin immediately started learning English with a tutor who visited the home regularly. When not studying with the tutor, he was placed in the care of teammate Sergei Gonchar, a veteran Russian defenseman who also hails from Chelyabinsk.
"On the road, we pretty much spend all our time together," Gonchar said. "I've got to give him credit, he does well on his own. He's learning the language and he's getting better with that."
He even has a signature English phrase that his teammates are very familiar with: "I am Val Nichushkin."
Roughly a month into the season, Nichushkin's transition was made easier when his mother and sister came for a visit. It was then that the Russian teenager moved into his own apartment, with his family providing some much-needed assistance.
"They helped him with the furniture and his own place. He was excited about it," Gonchar said. "Obviously, mom cooked for him. Home meals: nothing better than that."
It was around this time that Nichushkin enjoyed a December run in which he had 12 points in 14 games. That stretch, which included a four-point game Dec. 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers, got the attention of the League and the Russian Olympic committee.
Nichushkin's linemates have been especially impressed by the rookie's play, with Benn paying his young teammate the ultimate compliment by comparing him to one of the game's best.
"He reminds me of [Evgeni Malkin]. Just the size and the way they skate. It's pretty powerful and pretty exciting to watch," said the Dallas captain, a member of Canada's 2014 Olympic team. "It's a pretty big deal for an 18-year-old to make that [Russian Olympic] team. I definitely think he deserves it. He's going to be fun to watch over there on the big ice."
If Benn was excited to learn he was going to Sochi, Nichushkin was overjoyed. The call to join Russia's storied national team was a seminal moment in his young career, one that elicited quite a response from friends and family.
"I had a lot of calls and messages from a lot of people, so my phone ran out of battery. There was a lot of greetings and good wishes from everyone," said Nichushkin, who met with Russian general manager Alexei Kasatonov on Long Island the night before the final roster was announced. "We talked about my performance and he hinted about the Olympic team, but he did not say that I made it. So I did not sleep well that night, for sure."
As one of the youngest players in the Olympic tournament, Nichushkin will face his share of challenges. But another difficult transition should again be made easier by his mentor, Gonchar, a veteran of four Russian Olympic teams who won silver at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and bronze at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
"It can be overwhelming with all the excitement and all the things going on around you. You have to make sure that you stay focused. But I'm sure we'll talk about it and I'm sure he'll be ready," said Gonchar, who was not selected to the Russian team for the Sochi Games. "To go over there and play with the best, he's going to learn some things just being around them. You have a chance to learn from them, especially at such a young age. It's going to give him that confidence. He's going to be even better when he comes back."
And that might be the scariest prospect yet for opposing defenses; the big kid in Big D might get even better when he returns from Sochi.
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