Valeri Nichushkin Is Just What Jason Spezza Needs

Once a staple of consistency, expect Jason Spezza to prove this season that 2017-18 was an outlier.  With a new linemate in Valeri Nichushkin, he’s entering his fifth season with the Dallas Stars. Spezza finished last season with just 26 points (8 goals, 18 assists) in 78 games and there was little reason for optimism after he posted 50 points (15 goals, 35 assists) in 2016-17, which suggests the 34-year-old is slowing down.

Even as rumors of a possible buy out swirled, general manager Jim Nill stood pat and chose to upgrade the team from within.

Related: Dallas Stars Don’t Need to Make a Move

But the underlying numbers still imply that the former two-time, 90-point player can bounce back, and he’ll likely be put in a position to succeed under new coach Jim Montgomery.

Spezza’s Stats

A player can be expected to slow down offensively at 34 years old, but a mere 26 points for a former All-Star is a steep drop off. That’s what happens when a player falls to career-lows in shooting percentage and, save for his rookie season, average ice time. That’s what Spezza was up against.

The veteran entered the 2017-18 season with an impressive career shooting percentage of 13.59. But a ridiculously low shooting percentage of 5.8 held him to just eight total goals on the season.

Jason Spezza
A five-time, 30-goal scorer, Spezza’s shooting percentage dragged him to a career-low eight goals in 2017-18. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Even at 35 and in a contract year, Spezza should bounce back in the goal scoring department after his unfortunate puck luck last season. He still controlled the play with a Corsi rating of 53.8 percent, (an indication of bad puck luck) as he continued to drive play in every game.

It helps that he started nearly 57 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone but given that reliable, two-way play has never been Spezza’s trademark, he was put in a position to succeed even as his scoring drought continued. He’s still an effective center, winning 55.8 percent of his 747 draws and he led the team in faceoff percentage while taking the third-most faceoffs on the team. That suggests he deserved more trust from his coach.

But he was fighting a losing battle. The coach’s mistrust led to a career-low in average ice time, as Spezza played just 13 minutes on a given night. That is more than three minutes less than his TOI in 2016-17 and it has continually dropped in Dallas. With a full summer to train, a new coach without preconceptions, and some fresh faces on the roster, Spezza can be a better contributor this coming season.

Line Mate Quality

For Spezza’s offense to increase he will need higher quality linemates. According to Corsica, Spezza’s most common linemates last season were Devin Shore and Mattias Janmark. Shore, 24, scored 32 points (11 goals, 21 assits) and was a defensive liability in his sophomore season with a minus-30 rating and negative relative Corsi. After missing all of 2016-17 with a knee injury, Janmark, 25, had a similar season with 34 points (19 goals, 15 assists), a minus-13 rating, and a negative relative Corsi.

Mattias Janmark
Janmark will be fighting for the last spot in the top-six during training camp this September.(Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

The trio spent 171 total minutes together but Shore and Janmark combined for just two assists on Spezza goals at even strength. The other six assists came from one of the team’s top four scorers. Spezza assisted on just four even-strength goals scored by either Shore or Janmark, suggesting that their line didn’t click.

Spezza also spent 116 minutes with Janmark and Radulov. The three had a Corsi percentage of 56, teamed up for seven goals, and had a plus-5 goal differential. The addition of a high-end talent like Radulov went a long way in helping Spezza’s game. The addition of Nichushkin could be just what the veteran needs. Nichushkin, 23, showed promise as the 10th overall pick in 2013. In 166 games with the Stars, the Russian has showed he is a capable power forward, with 64 points (23 goals, 41 assists) and a plus-17 rating.

He left the team in the summer of 2016 after a contract dispute and rumors of a rift with then-head coach Lindy Ruff. He had two strong seasons with a strong CSKA Moscow team of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), scoring 31 goals and 38 assists for 69 points in 114 games.

Valeri Nichushkin
Nichushkin’s potential as a former 10th overall pick could be realized alongside Spezza. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

After inking a new contract this summer, Nichushkin will be given a fresh start under Montgomery. Both players are talented top-six forwards and should Montgomery opt to keep the electric top line of Seguin, Radulov, and Benn together, Nichushkin and Spezza could form a dangerous second line, likely alongside Janmark.

Related: Stars New Head Coach Montgomery: A Winning Profile

It could be a match made in heaven for Spezza, whose playmaking ability would benefit from higher quality linemate, with Nichushkin’s upside and goal-scoring ability.