The Dallas Stars are young, fast and dangerous. It begins with their top-line punch of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, but there are more reasons why Dallas is back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in six years.
One is right wing Valeri Nichushkin. The 19-year-old was selected with the No. 10 pick at the 2013 NHL Draft and immediately made the jump to hockey's highest level. He did not look out of place, scoring 14 goals and 20 assists. Even more impressive, Nichushkin boasted a plus-21 rating, showing the ability to play well at each end of the ice despite his young age. For most players his age, it takes some time to learn how to play responsibly in the defensive zone.
Now, on an even bigger stage, the Stars will depend on Nichushkin to help them advance past the Western Conference First Round. The skilled wing is likely to skate on the Stars' top line alongside the aforementioned Seguin and Benn, which should give Nichushkin an opportunity to convert on some quality scoring opportunities.
Nichushkin didn't enjoy as much success offensively as other first-year players, but he did finish in the top 10 in scoring among rookie players. He spent the early portion of the season trying to find chemistry with Seguin and Benn, which proved difficult at the start while Nichushkin tried to adapt to a new country and a new League. Things certainly got better as the season progressed, to the point where Nichushkin was selected to represent Russia at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
"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.ru, the League’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."
Nichushkin continues to adjust to life in North America. Not only has he tried to keep up with the pace of the game on the ice, but he has spent this season trying to improve his English while becoming acquainted with his new home. It can't be easy, but Nichushkin seems to be adapting well.
His size (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) and skill are impossible to ignore, and there's no doubt Nichushkin is capable of having a huge impact on the outcome of the Stars' first-round series, and possibly beyond if they're able to have success in their first postseason appearance since 2008.
"I knew he had a lot of potential, but I didn't know he was going to become such a good player so early," said Benn, who compared Nichushkin to center Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. "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."