With two first-round picks in the 2013 NHL Draft, Jim Nill knew he had a unique opportunity to rebuild the Dallas Stars when the club named him its general manager in April. But he didn't know a potential franchise player would fall into his lap at No. 10.
The second-ranked European skater according to NHL Central Scouting, Russian wing Valeri Nichushkin. was a 6-foot-4 man-child in the Kontinental Hockey League last season, earning the Alexei Cherepanov Award as its top rookie. Concerns over his KHL contract likely compelled some teams to pass on him, and the Stars snapped up the 202-pound forward. They now plan on giving him every chance to crack the roster.
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"We were excited. I think it's no secret, everybody had him as one of the top three players in the draft," Nill said. "If he was playing [Canadian junior hockey] somewhere in Moose Jaw or Peterborough, he probably would have been a top-three pick. There is risk with the Russian factor, everybody knows that. Where we were picking, he was a player we couldn't pass on. There was just too much there."
The recent retirement of Ilya Kovalchuk exacerbated fears about Russian players staying in North America. But Nichushkin repeatedly has voiced his intention to play in the NHL and signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Stars earlier this month.
What's more, Nichushkin has said publicly he terminated his contract with Dynamo Moscow so he could play in the NHL right away. Nill is looking to oblige the hulking forward.
"We're excited. We think he's very close, but I don't want to put expectations on him either. I want to be careful," Nill said. "He's going to get every opportunity in the world to be on the team. We want to keep him around for a while."
An extra, if unintentional, factor in Nichushkin's development in Dallas is the presence of veteran Russian defenseman Sergei Gonchar. Gonchar's rights were traded to the Stars on June 7, and the club signed the 39-year-old three days later. He proved to be a key mentor to center Evgeni Malkin when they played together with the Pittsburgh Penguins and hails from Nichushkin's hometown of Chelyabinsk.
Nill is hopeful Gonchar can serve the same role with Nichushkin he did with Malkin, who in seven NHL seasons has won the Stanley Cup, along with the Hart, Conn Smythe, Art Ross and Calder trophies.
"Gonchar mentored Malkin, so we're looking for that same mentorship now with Nichushkin. That's another exciting piece to the puzzle. I think Sergei is really going to help," Nill said.
The former Detroit Red Wings assistant general manager said he is excited by the prospect of an 18-year-old making a Dallas team that underwent major changes this offseason, highlighted by the acquisition of forward Tyler Seguin from the Boston Bruins.
"Physically, he's ready," Nill said of Nichushkin. "He's a man already. We're just going to monitor him real close and let him come in and see where he fits in. He can just come in and play, and that's going to be key to his development."