Talk to Stars GM Jim Nill about rookie forward Valeri Nichushkin and Nill doesn’t dwell on stats and points. He looks at other areas of Nichushkin’s game and likes how the 18-year-old Russian has adapted to playing in the NHL.
“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.”
Of course, Nichushkin has been scoring lately. He’s picked up seven points (two goals, five assists) over the last three games, and he established a new career-high with four points (one goal, three assists) in Saturday’s 5-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers at American Airlines Center. He became the first Stars’ rookie to notch four points in a game since Jere Lehtinen tallied four assists against Edmonton in February 1996.
“Val's play continues to grow. For me that's really important,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “He made a couple of really good plays on those goals and physically he's been dominating some battles, which is really important.”
Nichushkin, Dallas’ first round pick (10th overall) in the 2013 NHL Draft, factored prominently in four of Dallas’ five goals on Saturday while playing right wing on a line with center Tyler Seguin and left wing Jamie Benn.
He dug out a puck along the boards in the defensive zone and made a nice backhand pass to set up Seguin and Benn on a two-on-one rush on the Stars’ first goal of the game. There was some work along boards in the offensive end to get the puck to Alex Goligoski, who set up Seguin for the second goal. He knocked Philadelphia’s Scott Hartnell off the puck along the boards, helping get the puck to Seguin for his third goal of the night. And then he took a pass from Seguin off the rush and scored from the left circle to put the Stars up 4-1.
Usually, a guy who picks up four points in a game gets the call to talk to the media after a game. Nichushkin is a little different. He’s still learning English. He’s getting better, but still not ready for postgame media scrums. So, that leaves the media to find others to talk about him.
“Val was excellent on the right side there,” said Benn. “It’s good to see him playing with some confidence.”
Nichushkin has shuffled around the lineup this season, playing everywhere from the fourth line to the top one. Saturday was the tenth game he’s started the game on the right wing with Seguin and Benn, and he has nine points (two goals, seven assists) in those tilts.
“Tyler and I like playing with him. He skates well and he’s excited to play with us,” said Benn. “We try to keep it as simple as possible for him. He’s got  games in the league, so we just try to tell him to play his position and Seguin and I will try to do the rest. When he gets the puck we just let him do his thing. He’s a smart hockey player and he knows how to create stuff.”
“When he’s competing and you see a little fire in him he’s a different player,” Seguin said of Nichushkin. “You look at his first few games in this league and the last nine or ten, and he’s definitely transitioned well.”
There have been some ups and downs for Nichushkin this season. That’s par for the course for any young player in the league.
"He'll have games where we're going to all write that he's the next superstar and then he'll have games where suddenly he might drop off. But that's every young player in this league,” said Ruff.
Nichushkin went scoreless in his first six NHL games, and there was one game in that stretch where he sat out as a healthy scratch. Over the next 21 games he’s registered 15 points (4 goals, 11 assists). Thirteen of those points (four goals, nine assists) have come over the last 15 games. Through Saturday’s games he was tied for fifth in rookie scoring and was tied for second among rookies in assists.
Nichushkin was considered one of the top players in the 2013 draft, but he fell to the Stars at the No. 10 pick. It was the so-called Russian factor, the fear that a player may not want to leave Russia or will go back. But Nichushkin headed to Dallas right after the draft, showing his commitment to play in the NHL and get acclimated to life in North America.
“He’s been everything and more than we could have ever imagined,” said Nill. “He’s committed to being here. He’s working hard. His English is getting better. You watch the game [Thursday in Toronto], he’s playing against [Cody] Franson and [Dion] Phaneuf, they’re both 6-3, 6-4, 220 pounds and he’s coming out of the corners with the puck. That doesn’t happen with 18-year-old kids. There is an opportunity to be something special there, and he wants to be that type of guy.”
“To a certain extent. But he’s a different kind of player. He has the ability to be one of those players, similar to Alex [Ovechkin] and Evgeni [Malkin]. He just has a little different style. He can be at that level, scoring as much and being as good as those guys. At the same time, he uses his body a little more, protecting the puck a little more. Him being 18 but already being so big and strong gives him that advantage. He’s taking advantage of it.”
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