TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Valeri Nichushkin, a 2013 first-round pick of the Dallas Stars, is proving to be everything NHL scouts envisioned this weekend at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament.
The No. 10 selection has scored twice, including a highlight-reel goal in the tournament opener, shown responsibility with the puck and generated quality scoring chances for teammates in 5-on-5 and power-play situations.
Nichushkin oozes confidence. That's evident by the way he carries himself during warmups and team stretches. He has that same strong build, smile and demeanor that Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk had during their time in Traverse City for their respective teams.
Nichushkin is one of six Russian-born players participating in this year's event, along with Dmitrij Jaskin (2011, No. 41) of the St. Louis Blues, Alexei Marchenko (2011, No. 205) of the Detroit Red Wings, Nikita Zadorov (2013, No. 16) of the Buffalo Sabres, free-agent signee Sergey Tolchinsky of the Carolina Hurricanes and tournament invite Rinat Valiev of the Stars.
has scored twice at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, including a highlight-reel goal in the tournament opener. (Photo: Dave Sandford/NHLI)
In three games, the 6-foot-4, 201-pound Nichushkin has two points and a plus-1 rating, and has generated a team-leading 11 shots on goal.
His contributions have gone far beyond the score sheet, however.
"I think his skill level is obvious, but there have been other things that maybe the casual observer doesn't see," Doug Lidster, a two-time Stanley Cup champion who now works as an assistant coach for the Stars' American Hockey League affiliate in Texas, told NHL.com. "In our power play walkthrough on the first day, a defenseman lost the puck on a drill. Right away he grabbed another one, threw it back to the guy that fumbled the puck and said in broken English, 'Hey, let's do it again.' He took charge right away.
"Later on in practice, a defenseman missed a shift and didn't jump out there so Valeri jumped out and took charge. I like that. I like the fact he's not sitting back despite being in a foreign country, working on a second language and being with a new team. He's jumping out there trying to become a better player, trying to help his teammates be better. That's what has impressed me."
Nichushkin excelled in 25 postseason games with Chelyabinsk of the Kontinental Hockey League in 2012-13, totaling six goals, nine points and a plus-5 rating. That followed a regular season that saw him score four goals in 18 games, be named the KHL Rookie of the Month three times and win the KHL's Alexei Cherepanov Award, presented annually to the league's top rookie. But unless he's playing in the NHL in 2013-14, he'll return to the KHL. The Stars signed Nichushkin to a three-year, entry-level deal July 6, and the intent is for him to remain in Dallas.
"We're going to give him every opportunity to be on our team," Stars assistant general manager Les Jackson told NHL.com. "We'll just monitor it and see how it goes. It's a transition for a lot of young kids because it's such a huge step; he certainly has the skills and there's a lot of other parts to the game and culture he'll need to adapt to. So we'll take it one day at a time and see how he does.
"We're going to do everything we can to help him."
Veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar, acquired from the Ottawa Senators in June, not only will help stabilize the Dallas back end and aid the power play, but provide some mentorship to Nichushkin. It was the same thing Gonchar did in Pittsburgh when a young Evgeni Malkin spoke little English and needed a Russian shoulder to lean on at times.
Gonchar and Nichushkin both are from the same hometown, Chelyabinsk.
"Sergei has been around the League a long time and is a great player," Jackson said. "He's had a lot of experiences with different situations, and the bonus part is he and Nichushkin are from the same city, so that helps Valeri."
Zadorov rebounded nicely Friday after struggling in his team's opener one day earlier. The defenseman scored a pair of goals, including the game-winner with 21.6 seconds remaining in overtime, to give the Sabres a 6-5 victory against the New York Rangers. The Buffalo coaching staff has had Zadorov paired with fellow first-round pick (2013, No. 8) Rasmus Ristolainen for much of the tournament, and the duo has formed a pretty good bond along the blue line.
"It was a good feeling," Zadorov said of his overtime goal. "It was my first overtime goal in North America and first OT goal in Buffalo and I'm so excited. I just want to thank my teammates. I've liked playing with Ristolainen because we both can play defense and can move on offense."
Zadorov has two goals (on two shots), three points and a plus-4 rating in the tournament. The Sabres will play the Detroit Red Wings in the tournament championship game, Monday at 7:30 p.m. ET.
Another Russian who has excelled this week is Tolchinsky, a right wing who signed with the Hurricanes on Aug. 22. The 5-7, 152-pound left-handed shot is tied for the team lead with three goals and six points. His plus-5 rating paces the team.