The Dallas Stars landed a player many considered one of the top five prospects in Sunday’s NHL Draft, and they didn’t have to move up to get him. Highly skilled Russian right wing Valeri Nichushkin was still available when the Stars picked at 10th overall and taking him was an easy decision.
It was an easy decision even with the so called Russian factor, a concern that a high end talent such as Nichushkin could be enticed to play in Russia’s KHL.
“Everybody knows him well. If he’s not the best player, he’s one of the best players in the draft,” said Stars GM Jim Nill. “There’s definitely the Russian factor, but we’re a very confident organization. I came from an organization in Detroit where it was never an issue for us. I know Dallas is the same way if you go back to the (Sergei) Zubov years. To pass up on a player like that, we just couldn’t do it. It’s been a while since Dallas has drafted a player with that kind of upside and it’s just something we couldn’t pass on.”
The Stars met with the 18-year-old Russian on Saturday and were sold. Nichushkin came away from the get together feeling the same way about the Stars.
“After we finished, I told Boris Protsenko (Stars scout) that it was the best interview I had with any team and that I wanted to be a Star,” Nichushkin said.
There’s a lot to like about Nichushkin. He’s got size (6-4, 202 pounds), skill and a scoring touch.
“He’s got a lot of attributes that fit for the NHL,” said Stars assistant GM Les Jackson. “It will be interesting to see how he does. He is one of the most talented guys in the draft. He has all the tools to be a good player. He just has to grow and mature. He handles the puck well, he has good instincts that fit for where he was selected.”
Nichushkin played at various levels in Russia last season including the KHL, where he registered 6 points (4 goals, 2 assists) in 18 regular season games for Chelyabinsk. He then had a strong showing in the playoffs, tallying 6 goals and 3 assists in 25 playoff games as Chelyabinsk made it to the KHL finals. Nichushkin was traded to Moscow Dynamo at the end of last season, but terminated his contract in order for a chance to play in the NHL in 2013-14. Nill said there is no issue with the Nichushkin and the KHL.
“We plan on signing him as soon as possible. He’s free. His contract is free from Russia,” said Nill. “We have notice from the NHL, from the KHL. So there was no problem that way for us. That’s not a concern.”
Nichushkin got out of his KHL contract so he could have a shot at playing in the NHL this season. He’s not making any predictions, other than he is ready to work hard this summer in preparation for training camp in September.
“Of course I'm confident that I can play,” he said. “Now I have to work hard all summer and be ready to prove it.”
Nill said there is a chance Nichushkin could play in the NHL next season, but the Stars won’t rush him.
“Really think he’s going to have a chance. We’re going to monitor it. I want to be careful with it but he is a young player,” said Nill. “He played in the KHL against men. He played in the Russian final, the KHL final and was one of the better players. We’re not worried about him physically. It’s just going to be moving over to North America, playing in the NHL, the best league in the world. Our plans are to start him here and let’s see where it goes but we’re going to monitor him very close.”
There will be some big adjustments for Nichushkin. He’ll be moving to a new country and he needs to learn the language. The Stars believe they have an ideal role model for him in defenseman Sergei Gonchar, acquired from Ottawa earlier this offseason.
“I think Sergei Gonchar’s going to be a big, big part of Valeri Nichushkin’s development,” said Nill. “Sergei Gonchar’s a high-end character guy. He’s the guy that gets a lot of credit for improving (Evgeni) Malkin in Pittsburgh. The timing’s worked out perfect. He’s a great ambassador of the game and character guy. Now we have a young guy coming in that can learn from him, that’s really a bonus for us.”
And it’s a bonus for Nichushkin.
“[Gonchar] is a proven player in this league and it is great that he will be here,” Nichushkin said. “He's done a great job with Evgeni Malkin in the past, mentoring him, and he'll help my transition for sure. He's from my hometown too, so it'll be good.”
Nichushkin will now head to Dallas. He’ll take part in the team’s development camp, which gets underway later this week and will be the first step as he gets accustomed to life in Texas.
“He’s a young kid and he has a lot of talent, but he has a lot to learn about North America and pro hockey,” said Jackson. “We just have to work with him and be patient.”