There's no telling what direction the 2013 NHL Draft will take when the "Big Three" of defenseman Seth Jones of the Portland Winterhawks and forwards Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin of the Halifax Mooseheads are off the board.
Some believe Finnish center Aleksander Barkov, No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's list of the top draft-eligible European skaters, is next in line. Others are pretty sure it's Valeri Nichushkin, one of the finest Russian players available at the draft since 2004, when Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin went Nos. 1 and 2.
"He's a big, strong player with a high overall skill set. He can score the big goals and can dominate games. Again, he was a bit inconsistent at times, but he's very skilled and talented and, by far, the best Russian available in the draft this year."
-- NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb on Valeri Nichushkin
There's no denying the fact Nichushkin, a 6-foot-4, 202-pound right wing, possesses the size, confidence and skills required to play in the NHL. The only question is: Can he consistently deliver each and every night over an 82-game season?
"When Nichushkin is at his best, he's by far better than Barkov, but he's not always at his best," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com.
Nichushkin said he is confident he'll be able to play consistently with better players surrounding him in the NHL.
"As a young player, I realize I have to work hard and prove everything," Nichushkin told NHL.com through an interpreter. "It doesn't matter to me which pick I will be. The most important thing is that the team that drafts [me] knows I will be a real valuable player."
Nichushkin, No. 2 on Central Scouting's final ranking of European skaters, has made public his desire to play in North America in 2013-14. He terminated his contract with Moscow Dynamo of the Kontinental Hockey League in order to play in the NHL season, but there is a stipulation.
"If he's not playing in the NHL, he's going to have to play for Dynamo," Nichushkin's agent, Mark Gandler, said. "The termination [of his contract] occurred without compensation to the team. [Returning to Dynamo if he isn't playing in the NHL] is what we would owe the team for that provision."
However, Gandler believes that won't be an issue. And he's not the only one. When asked how confident he was that he would be in the NHL in 2013-14, Nichushkin said, "100 percent sure."
"I feel Alexander Semin might be one of the best passers in the League," Gandler said of one of his other clients. "Nichushkin has that ability to see like Semin and make a crisp pass without looking and know where everyone is. That makes him extremely dangerous, especially when he gets to play with good players in the NHL."
Gandler told NHL.com that Nichushkin and his other two Russian clients participating in the NHL Scouting Combine this week, left wing Pavel Buchnevich and center Bogdan Yakimov, will train together over the summer at Power Train Sports Institute in Manheim, Pa., under the guidance of Steve Saunders. The institute specializes in preparing college football players for the NFL Combine.
"Valeri's goal is not to just make the team, but to be one of the top players in the NHL in his first year, and that's why he's staying in North America the entire summer and going through a tremendous fitness routine," Gandler said.
Nichushkin represented Russia at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship, scoring his only goal of the tournament in overtime of the bronze-medal game in a 6-5 victory against Canada. He had two points and a plus-5 rating in six WJC games.
"He's a big, strong player with a high overall skill set," Stubb said. "He can score the big goals and can dominate games. Again, he was a bit inconsistent at times, but he's very skilled and talented and, by far, the best Russian available in the draft this year."
Nichushkin played for Chelyabinsk at three different levels in Russia in 2012-13, including 18 KHL games to close the regular season, and then he had nine points in 25 KHL playoff games to help Chelyabinsk reach the KHL finals. He was traded to Moscow Dynamo on May 1.
Buchnevich, who is No. 10 on Central Scouting's list of the top European skaters, told NHL.com he will spend two more seasons in the KHL before coming to North America. He has two years remaining on his contract with Cherepovets.
The 6-1, 176-pound left-handed shot is very strong on the puck and offers a tremendous wrist shot and one-timer. He was asked to provide one detail about his good friend Nichushkin that no one else would know.
"I can't say publicly," he said with a grin. "But he's a really good person and really likes music. Everywhere he goes, he wears earphones … even in the shower.
"But he is so fast and a really powerful guy on skates; it's hard to compete against him."
Stubb said of Buchnevich, "He has great offensive instincts but needs to improve his defensive game. He does have all the tools to become a star."
The final Russian prospect at the Combine is Yakimov, a 6-5, 202-pound left-handed center. He's No. 11 on Central Scouting's European list and has one year remaining on his contract in the KHL with Nizhnekamsk.
"He'll play one more year [in the KHL], and then he'll come to the NHL," Gandler said. "If he's ready, great, and if not, he'll play in the American Hockey League for as long as it takes to be in the NHL."
Gandler said Yakimov has soft hands and can see the ice very well for a big man. He needs to shoot the puck more.
"He likes to go straight to the net, is strong on his skates and is hard to knock down," Stubb said of Yakimov. "His skating was so much better this year. I would think he could be selected late second or early third round of the draft. He has skills and the potential to play in the NHL."