April 29, 2018

Clock is ticking for Valeri Nichushkin – can he make a triumphant return to the NHL?

Valeri Nichshkin. Photo: Bildbyrån

When Valeri Nichushkin was drafted by the Dallas Stars with the 10th overall pick in 2013, it was a bit of a surprise. After all, the Russian was picked ahead of players like Max Domi, Alexander Wennberg and André Burakovsky, to mention a few. But his move to North America right after the draft surprised even more.

The native of Chelyabinsk had a good rookie season in the NHL, after winning the KHL Rookie of the Year Award one year before, as he scored 14 goals and 34 points in his first campaign with the Dallas Stars. The big forward didn’t break any scoring records, but he looked very good on the Stars’ first line with Tyler Seguin.

The second year didn’t go as planned as Nichushkin suffered from a serious injury that limited him to eight games in the NHL, five in the AHL, and two with the national team. Fast forward one year and Nichushkin is back again full-time in the Stars lineup, but things didn’t go as planned this time around either.  After a rocky first part of the season, things became better in towards the end of 2015.
“I can say that now I am in optimal shape,” Nichushkin told Alexander Govorov of championat.com on December 2015. “Last year I almost didn’t play. Someone may think that it didn’t influence me, but I still feel like I had to start from scratch, the way I prepare for the games, the way everything should be done. It’s the same even in some everyday stuff. Psychology has a big role. I remember the way I behaved when I was a rookie, the start wasn’t easy in those times either.”

Nichushkin finished his third NHL season with a respectable 29 points in 79 regular season games. But the winger himself wasn’t very pleased with how things were progressing in Texas. He wanted more ice-time and fell into a conflict with then-head coach Lindy Ruff. Allegedly, he wasn’t happy with his ice-time and couldn’t find anymore a common language with the coach, which he declared during an interview with Igor Rabiner of Sport-Express in March 2016. “The most important thing to me is to get ice-time, it’s not important with whom I play. It will be hard to score if I play ten minutes, even if I play with [Benn and Seguin]. If you get to play twenty minutes, but with players not as good as them, you will have a chance to play the puck, you can still get hot and create scoring chances. If you just sit in the bench and stay cold, you won’t be able to keep pass with neither Benn nor Seguin.”

The situation didn’t change during the season, and the Stars didn’t manage to sign the forward to a new contract, most likely because Ruff still had two years left on his deal. Nichushkin simply had to find himself a new team. As an RFA, the NHL doors are closed unless you can force your team to make a trade. For Nichushkin,  the most reasonable thing to do was to go back to Russia.

After his great rookie season, Traktor Chelyabinsk sold his KHL rights to Dynamo Moscow as it was evident that he was going to sign in North America. However, Dynamo wasn’t interested in signing him or able to do so, while Traktor didn’t have enough money to fund his contract. Instead, Nichushkin signed with CSKA Moscow seeking more ice-time to make enough progress to go back to Dallas as a more mature player while also being in better shape after the bad injury of two years beforehand.

Nichushkin in Dallas’ jersey. Photo: Bildbyrån/Joel Marklund

Was moving to the KHL a good idea? Theoretically speaking, it was. Moving back home is generally positive for the Russians, plus he could have more ice-time, keep on playing on a high-level team as CSKA is one of the wealthiest teams in the KHL, and finally unleash his potential. Not to talk about having a better chance to play for the Russian national team.

But how did he really do? In the first year, Nichushkin had good stats, played a lot and had a memorable fight with Yevgeni Artyukhin. But not only that. He was also a KHL All-Star and a full-time member of the national team, as he helped the Russians to a somewhat acceptable bronze medal at the 2017 IIHF World Championship in France and Germany. Nichushkin finally a chance to play injury free hockey and he was an important piece for CSKA, although the team got beaten by Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the conference semifinals of the Gagarin Cup Playoffs.

In this past season, Nichushkin cemented his important role on CSKA, one of the best teams in the league. His ice-time continued to grow up to eighteen minutes a night. He finished the season as the third best goalscorer on the team, with sixteen goals, behind only Maxim Shalunov and Sergei Shumakov. However, this second season back in the KHL was still not what Nichushkin or people around him expected. His play was solid, but not great. His CSKA Moscow reached the KHL finals, where they lost to Ak Bars Kazan, in a five game series. Moreover, he suffered an injury during the final series, which may cost him a chance to compete for medals at the 2018 World Championship in Denmark. Not the best situation for a player who was forced to sit out at the Olympics in South Korea last February as per IOC’s decision.

After his two-year spell in Russia, Nichushkin will most likely go back to the Dallas Stars, who are looking for a new head coach to be named as Ken Hitchcock’s successor. With Lindy Ruff long gone, and compatriot Alexander Radulov on the team, Nichushkin can further revitalize his career in Texas after showing some signs of improvement while playing for CSKA Moscow.

The jury is still out on Valeri Nichushkin. But it looks like he’ll get another shot at showing that he was worth a 10th overall pick. The clock, however, is ticking for the Russian power forward.


Alessandro Seren Rosso alessandro.serenrosso@gmail.com
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