SECOND-SEASON EXPECTATIONS FOR NICHUSHKIN
No matter how much natural talent a rookie possesses, there is always a significant adjustment to playing in the National Hockey League. That is especially true for an 18-year-old player coming over from Russia, where he has to adapt to the English language and the lifestyle off the ice as well as to only to the smaller rink game and the physical rigors of the NHL.
In light of those factors, Valeri Nichushkin had a strong rookie season for the Dallas Stars in 2013-14. Despite some expected ups and downs over the course of the season, his point production (14 goals, 34 points) and average 14:58 ice time were right about where head coach Lindy Ruff and the organization hoped he would be. Nichushin tied Calgary’s Sean Monahan for eighth among rookies in scoring.
At times during the Russian’s rookie season, Ruff took a tough-love approach with the player. Nichushkin was periodically moved down in the lineup off the top line with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn and was a healthy scratch on a few occasions. This was done to stress a message that the coach wanted the young player to play the game the right way on a day-in and day-out basis.
The player appeared to understand what Ruff was doing and usually responded to demotions and benchings with strong efforts. However, there were probably times the teenager went through emotionally trying times during his rookie campaign. He billeted with a non-Russian family in Dallas. Additionally, Nichushkin is still not yet comfortable enough with the English language to be interviewed by North American writers.
Part of the intended benefit of the Stars bringing in veteran NHLer Sergei Gonchar last season was to help Nichushkin adapt. In the past, Gonchar has mentored Evgeni Malkin and other talented young countrymen through their early times in the NHL. In light of his struggling season on the ice in 2013-14, Gonchar may actually have unwittingly ended up being more valuable to the club in his mentorship role for Nichushkin than to the team on the ice. As time passes, however, Nichushkin will have to stand on his own.
As Nichushkin heads into his second NHL campaign, the team would like to see him build on the periodic dominance his showed last season as a member of the top line. There were games, especially in December and January, where opponents were simply unable to separate the 6-foot-4, 205-pound right winger from the puck no matter what they tried.
Come this season, the Stars hope to see Nichushkin play at a similar level for longer stretches of time with fewer prolonged stretches in which he either tries to do too much with the puck or disappears along the perimeter. He needs to pay more consistent attention to detail in his backchecking and overall play without the puck.
If he does so, it is reasonable to expect that Nichushkin will spend most or all of his second season playing in Dallas’ top six. Nevertheless, it is likely that he will still have some cold streaks offensively along the way and spells of inconsistency in his all-around play. It’s all part of the learning process.
The question right now is whether Nichushkin will open the season on Seguin’s line or Jason Spezza’s. Over the summer, Stars general manager Jim Nill said the club might want to take a look at Nichushkin with Spezza and that it was not a slam-dunk that Ales Hemsky (who played effectively on a line with Spezza in Ottawa last season) would be on that line at least to start. These issues will be determined over training camp and the preseason.
Nichushkin, who turns 20 next March, reportedly spent much of his offseason in North America, working out to prepare for next season. That was a promising first step. STAR GAZING: SEPTEMBER 19
* With only six games on the exhibition slate, the Stars have elected to bring just 52 players to their NHL camp; one of the smallest start-of-camp rosters of any team in the NHL. Nill told Dallas Morning News beat writer Mike Heika that this is being done in order to make camp as productive as possible in the available time before the season.
* In the same article, Nill said that Kari Lehtonen will likely appear in either two or two-plus games during the preseason as he prepares for opening night. The rest of the time in night will largely be divided between Anders Lindbäck and Jack Campbell.
This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.