His name is Valeri Nichushkin. Drafted tenth overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft by the Dallas Stars, the 18-year-old rookie is starting to take the NHL by storm, and should be on everybody’s radar for the Calder Trophy.
Before the season, Nichushkin stood out in the 2013 Traverse City Tournament in September, scoring three goals and registering 16 shots on goal, leading the team. In the preseason, he scored three goals, with two of them highlight-reel worthy. Nichushkin proved he belonged in the NHL, but where he played in the lineup remained to be seen.
For the first month of the regular season, however, head coach Lindy Ruff placed Nichushkin on the third and fourth lines for the majority of time. Coach Ruff did not believe he was immediately ready for the challenge of playing among the top six forwards against the toughest competition. The coach also wanted Nichushkin to focus on his defensive game, and started the majority of shifts away from the offensive zone. Ruff saw what Nichushkin could do with the puck in training camp and the preseason, but he was more interested in what he did away from it in games that
Combine Nichushkin’s line placement with the fact he was still adjusting to the North American game and North American culture, he struggled to immediately produce points in the first month of the season, providing two assists in his first 12 games while registering a plus/minus rating of -5. Even though he initially struggled to produce points, Nichushkin grew more confident with each game played, generating numerous great scoring chances from the slot. It would only be a matter of time before he finally scored. He proved it in the preseason.
On November 3, starting on the second line for the Stars, Nichushkin finally scored his first NHL goal against the Ottawa Senators.
Nichushkin earned Ruff’s trust with the second-line start, and he rewarded his coach’s decision with a goal. The next game against the Bruins, Ruff started Nichushkin on the top line with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. That line combination has worked wonders for the Stars, and it is going to be around for the foreseeable future.
In his last 17 games, Nichushkin has scored four goals and nine assists, and increased his plus/minus rating to +8. He is fifth in scoring on the Dallas Stars with 15 points, and tenth in the NHL in rookie scoring.
Stars General Manager Jim Nill is impressed with Nichushkin’s progression as an 18-year-old player:
“I am very happy with the way he has acclimated himself,” Nill said. “Where I am really impressed is his attention to detail on the other parts of the game. The defensive part he is very aware, he backchecks hard, he’s good in his own zone. Usually 18-year-old kids at any level don’t care about that, but he’s very responsible. If he’s not scoring, he is still doing a great job at the other end.”
Nichushkin’s his ability to drive offense is extremely remarkable for a rookie. Nichushkin’s 5-on-5 Relative Corsi rating is a +11.8, the highest rating on the Stars among players who have dressed at least 20 games. What this means is relative to the rest of his teammates, the Stars average 11.8 attempted shots more than their opponents during 5-on-5 play when Nichushkin is on the ice. He is statistically the Stars’ most dangerous offensive threat, and he is only 18. The sky is the limit for him.
While analyzing Nichushkin statistically is fun, watching him play is an absolute joy. His goal against the Philadelphia Flyers on December 7 is a prime example.
As the Stars enter the zone, Nichushkin reads that there is a lapse in defensive coverage by the Flyers, and cuts through the high slot. Seguin drops the puck to Nichushkin in the high slot, and he beats Steve Mason with a nasty snap shot before any Flyer can stop him.
In the same game, before he scored that goal against Mason, here is how he set up Seguin’s second goal of the game.
While Seguin finishes the play, Nichushkin makes it happen using his great hockey sense. Instead of firing a severe-angle shot from the right wing corner, he carries the puck all the way from the corner to the point, handing it off to Alex Goligoski. When Goligoski and Nichushkin exchange the puck, the Flyers scramble to try and recover their positioning, to no avail.
He scored in Traverse City. He scored in the preseason. Now, Nichushkin’s scoring in the regular season and growing more confident with each passing game.
Nichushkin did not receive much rookie fanfare in the beginning of the season, but now he is showing why Hockey Prospectus’ Corey Pronman ranked him the NHL’s fourth-best 2013 draft prospect. Once he fully acclimates to the NHL, he is going to be one of the most dangerous power forwards in the league. Right now, he is a dynamic rookie with a lot of promise, and deserves to be mentioned in Calder Trophy discussions. Even if he does not win the Calder Trophy, the future is bright for both Nichushkin and the Stars.