A year ago, Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill was curious to see how then 18-year-old rookie forward Valeri Nichushkin would respond to the North American game, the rigors of an 82-game schedule and the obstacles that would inevitably confound the big Russian living in a new country and learning a new language on the fly.
"It was all brand new to him last year," Nill told NHL.com. "He had some frustrating times."
Nichushkin still scored 14 goals and had 34 points in 79 games playing in unfamiliar cities featuring smaller rinks and bigger and better competition than he had ever faced before. Stars coach Lindy Ruff said he counted as many as nine breakaways that Nichushkin missed on.
"A little better finish, he could have easily been up there close to 20 goals for us," Ruff said.
He was without question one of the many positives to come out of the Stars' surprisingly successful season. As this season approaches, Nill's curiosity about Nichushkin has advanced to how he will respond to being unshackled from all that was once new and different.
The Stars expect to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs again. They expect to be a contender once they get there. They'll need secondary scoring behind Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza. They're counting on Nichushkin.
"We're going to see it," Nill said. "He stayed here for the summer again. He's been training every day. He's excited, itching to get back at it. I think we're going to see more growth from him now. He's been around the League. He just has to worry about hockey."
Nill has already seen more growth in Nichushkin's body.
"I think he's gained 15 or 20 pounds already this summer," Nill said.Nichushkin was listed at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds last season. He was able to go into the corners against bigger men like Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber and come out with the puck. Can you imagine the power game he'll be able to play at 6-4, 220 or 225?
"Well, I can't answer that, but I don't ever look at putting on weight as a thing that's going to make you turn the corner unless you put on the right weight," Ruff said. "He's a very powerful skater and I don't want to see him get any slower, but obviously there is room for him to get stronger and I think that's what he's trying to improve on. I'm excited about him."
SOG: 128 | +/-: 20
"I remember we played against the Stars in Dallas and he blew by a guy who I thought was an exceptional skater," Spezza said on July 1, after he was traded from Ottawa to Dallas. "He made him look like he was barely moving. If I get to play with him, hopefully we can find some chemistry."
Ruff has to determine where he feels Nichushkin fits best. It could be on a line with Spezza and Ales Hemsky, or with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, the duo Nichushkin played with last season. It likely will be some combination of those players.
"We saw glimpses of what the upside is going to be," Nill said. "Now that he's North Americanized it's going to be intriguing to watch what he can become. There were times last season when it was unbelievable what he did."