2 January, 16:06

NHL superstar unveiled: 1-on-1 in depth with Valeri Nichushkin

By David Kerans

LOS ANGELES (VOR)— “I think (Nichushkin) can be one of the best in the league because he played that kind of style — strong on the boards, beat guys one on one. When you’re strong, they cannot do anything about it. He was so strong. … He’s got the tools to be the best player in the world, that kid.”

 

 

-Jaromir Jagr, December 19, 2013

If anyone is qualified to make a snap appraisal of 18 year-old Dallas Stars forward Valeri Nichushkin, it is Jaromir Jagr. Nichushkin has a Jagr-like, 6'4” frame, and he is cultivating puck-possession skills that capitalize on his wingspan, a la Jaromir. But is Nichushkin the next Jagr, the next Rick Nash, or even the next Malkin? Being tucked away in Dallas, Nichushkin remains unseen by the great majority of hockey fans. Furthermore, he has only been been studying English for a few months, so he remains unheard. Who is Nichushkin?

Nichu tall

Just imagine trying to defend against that wingspan... (I'm 183cm or 6' myself) Photo credit: © VOR

 

“the most dominant performance I've ever seen”

Coming out of Chelyabinsk in the Urals, far to the east of Moscow, Valeri surfaced to the hockey world while playing for his country at the 5 Nations Under 18 tournament in Finland and Sweden in February, 2013. When Tampa Bay Lightning head amateur scout Al Murray finally got a look at him there, he raved:

“He’s a guy with all kinds of talent. He’s big, he’s a tremendous skater, but in February at the U-18 tournament, that was maybe the most dominant performance I’ve ever seen at those U-18 or World Tournaments. He absolutely took over the tournament. He was good on the forecheck, he was finishing checks, he was making plays or scored big goals in the 3rd period when his team was behind, he never quit on any shift and he was just spectacular.”

Nichu U18

Valeri walking through two USA players as Russia's captain at the U18 Worlds in April  Photo credit: © AFP, Alexander Nemenov

Nichushkin proceeded to earn a place in the Chelyabinsk Traktor KHL team, and turned himself into a pivotal player within a matter of weeks. He helped fuel a long playoff run, took rookie of the year honors, and then let the world know he had his eye on proving himself right away in the best hockey league in the world, the NHL. At the end of May he flew off to meet with NHL clubs at the draft combine in Toronto. So far, so good...

Nichu Chelyabinsk

Flying past a Dinamo Moscow defender in the 2013 KHL final  Photo credit: © RIA Novosti, Grigory Sisoev

“Nichushkin arrogant and a mystery” What?

A number of clubs formed a doubtful impression of Valeri at the combine, saying he gave poor interviews and didn't take the physical tests seriously. Ross MacLean, Development Coordinator at Hockey Canada and Head Scout with International Scouting Services, went so far as to label him “arrogant” and “a mystery,” and his draft stock fell sharply.

We were not present at the combine, and can only speculate on why some clubs took offense. Perhaps they weren't used to the idea of a draft prospect weighing them up more than they are weighing him up? Valeri explained himself in public before he flew out of Russia. He said he was not interested in the physical tests at the combine, and that he was going so as to meet the NHL clubs and set up an off-season training program for himself in North America.

Dallas GM Jim Nill must not have been put off, because he grabbed Nichushkin with the 10th pick in the 2013 draft. Valeri duly made the team in training camp, and by November climbed up to wing on a dynamite first line with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.

Halfway through his rookie season, Nichushkin's puck possession stats are well above average for DAL: his 5-on-5 Corsi-for (shots attempted by DAL/opponents' shot attempts) is 53.5, compared to DAL's team average of 49.6. Averaging 15 minutes per game (but only 1.3 on the power play), he draws penalties at the third highest rate among DAL regulars, while taking only one double-minor himself so far this year (and that was a missed call by the referee). And he is generating more than 1.4 primary points (goals and primary assists) per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play.

Nichu Hawks

Busting through CHI's defense for a scoring chance in December  Photo credit: © AFP, Jonathan Daniel

Those stats do not rival Super Mario's or Wayne's teenage numbers, of course. But Valeri has been solid top-6 material, right out of the box, and is certainly in the Calder Trophy picture. If we had to quibble, we would question Nichushkin's habit of skating slowly backward in the neutral zone when opponents are regrouping for a rush. It seems to us he could be more dynamic in such situations. But he has too much agility and speed to be a defensive liability on this account. You would never guess from his skating and creativity that PHI was one of his favorite NHL teams growing up.

Recently we had a rare opportunity to get behind the scenes with Valeri, to explore how he grew up in hockey, how he compares the KHL and the NHL, how he is improving his play with Dallas, and how he is maintaining his focus amid the rapid changes in his life. We emphasize immediately that we couldn't detect anything arrogant about him. Quite the contrary. He is as dedicated, patient, and considerate as anyone could ask. Nor did we find him at all guarded in our discussion:

Nichu chat

Photo credit: © VOR

1-on-1 with Valeri Nichushkin (translated by David Kerans)

Download audio file

Kerans: Let’s start with some predictable questions, about the differences between the KHL and the NHL. But I won’t ask you about the significance of the narrower dimensions of the NHL rink or the fact that the players are a bit stronger physically, because you mentioned that in a short interview with NHL.com recently. To begin with, I’m interested to hear about the uniformity of the officiating in the KHL. I’m told that only seven of the KHL officials are full professionals, that the others are part-timers. As a player in the KHL were you aware of it when a part-timer was doing your game, as opposed to one of the professional referees?

Nichushkin: To be honest, I never really paid much attention to the referees. But I can say that I was fine with the refereeing in Russia. And it seems good here too.

Kerans: Could we say that the referees are stricter here on certain fouls, especially things like hooking or interference? Here the league cracked down on that from 2005-on, and they often send you off for two minutes right away for such infractions. Are they more lenient in Russia?

Nichushkin: No, I wouldn’t put it that way. There are referees who let you play more, and some who send you off faster. A lot of them sort of ignore struggles taking place away from the puck. But each referee treats everyone equally, they aren’t biased.

Kerans: So, in sum, there isn’t any sharp difference in refereeing between the two leagues, but the character of each game depends a bit on the individual referee; they themselves are not all the same.

Nichushkin: Right, that’s the way it is.

Kerans: The NHL schedule is significantly tighter, leaving coaches less time between games to have practices, and fewer opportunities to work individually with players. And the players must have a harder time establishing common understanding on the ice, because they don’t have as much time to drill with each other. Did you feel more rested in the KHL, and did you have better on-ice rapport with your teammates in Russia?

Nichushkin: You know, right away after I got to North America I noticed that five-man units don’t stay together for very long at all. In almost every game the forward lines get shifted around a bit, and that’s the way it goes whether we’re leading or trailing. The coach has reasons for it. In Russia, by contrast, I’ve played seasons where we hardly had any changes in the lines all year. But here there’s a lot of juggling.

Kerans: I would think that complicates life for a player who is new to the team, because you are being asked to play with fellows whose characteristics you don’t know well.

Nichushkin: Actually no, I would say the opposite. Here you get a chance to play with various linemates, and if you do well the coach might move you up to a higher line. In Russia, on the other hand, sometimes guys play really well but are stuck on the fourth line forever because the coaches don’t like to play with the lines. But here, if a coach sees a guy is really performing, he’ll move him up.

Of course, the opposite also applies. Dallas coach Lindy Ruff demoted Nichushkin in favor of Alex Chiasson during the second period against LA Tuesday night. Ruff might even be tempted to try Erik “I'm not just a pretty face” Cole {his own line, trust me—DK} with Seguin and Benn, since Cole has caught fire, with 8 goals in December. As well, Ruff has been reluctant to play Valeri on the power play, explaining to us that he has been loose with the puck at times. Indeed, Valeri almost turned the puck over twice in one power play sequence in Los Angeles, with weak passes that Kings' defenders reached. To his credit, Nichushkin has admitted publicly that the power play is not a strength in his game.

Kerans: In ancient times--I mean twenty-five or thirty years ago—everybody said the ice was better in some of the Canadian rinks, in Montreal, in Edmonton, say. Those rinks weren’t thawing their ice all the time for basketball games like in most of the NHL stadiums in the U.S., and the ice was said to be harder, faster. It tended to be softer and slower in places like LA and Dallas. You’ve been around the league a bit by now. Have you noticed any difference in the quality of the ice from stadium to stadium?

Nichushkin: Well, I guess thirty years ago they didn’t have today’s equipment. And now, well, it’s fine everywhere.

Kerans: Some players have mentioned to me a new blade that appeared a few years ago, called Step-Steel. The blade is an eighth of an inch taller, and they say it is more perfectly straight, that it holds its edge a little longer, and that you notice the difference in the glide. Have you skated with those blades?

Nichushkin: No, just with what they’ve given me (laughing). {note: Valeri missed a couple of sessions at the start of training camp with Dallas because of ankle pain he got from skates the Stars gave him; he had his old skates delivered from Russia and has felt fine ever since—DK}

Kerans: You began with the Chelyabinsk Traktor club. How old were you when you started there?

Nichushkin: Do you mean with the adult team, or with the youth program?

Kerans: With the kids.

Nichushkin: I was six, six and a half when I started playing.

Chelyabinsk 2005

Winter scene in Chelyabinsk, January 2, 2005 Photo credit: © RIA Novosti, Vladimir Fedorenko

Kerans: I coached in the Spartak Moscow club for a time, and have spoken with Russian players from other clubs, and in each case they told me the practice was for one coach to work with players from a given birth-year every season, year after year, until they reach the age of fifteen or so. Did you have the same system in Chelyabinsk Traktor?

Nichushkin: Yes, of course we did.

Kerans: It’s not the way here in the States.

Nichushkin: Yeah, I know.

Kerans: How was your coach?

Nichushkin: In my case I had experience with more than one coach, because sometimes I would train with the group that was a year older. And we had some coaching changes. I had maybe five coaches growing up, and they were good ones. I got help from all of them.

Kerans: So you had some variety. In passing, I can say that some of the coaches in Spartak Moscow were simply bad, and that wasn’t good for the players.

Nichushkin: (laughing)

Kerans: Did the club help you out with special school arrangements, so you would have the flexibility to travel to tournaments and get your training in?

Nichushkin: Oh yes, they did. In Russia sport has always been held in high regard, and the schools would forgive us for not being able to attend all of the sessions.

Kerans: And did you have a lot of opportunities to train without oversight from coaches, to play pick-up hockey outdoors say? I spoke with (Vladimir) Tarasenko (of the St. Louis Blues) recently, who said he would play several hours a day outdoors growing up, and also with Frans Nielsen (of the New York Islanders), who said he almost never got to play outdoors, because there wasn’t often ice. What about you?

Nichushkin: Oh sure, I played outdoors as a kid, and in fact even last season I did a bit outdoors.

Kerans: From what age was your youth team travelling beyond Chelyabinsk region to play games and tournaments?

Nichushkin: That’s a while back, it’s not so easy to remember exactly when we started traveling. But from age 10 or 11 we were doing some trips.

Kerans: Would parents come along on the trips, or just the coach and maybe someone from the club administration, or how did that work?

Nichushkin: Usually a few of the parents would come along, those who could afford it.

Kerans: So not all of them, of course?

Nichushkin: No, definitely not. But a few would come to keep an eye on the kids, to help out with organizing things, and so on.

Kerans: You’ve been with the Dallas team for a while now and have probably gotten pretty used to it. Do the coaches work with you much individually? Do they work with you systematically, stressing some specific things? Or do they trust you to pick things up and work on your game?

Nichushkin: Personally with me they’ve only been working on some technical things.

Kerans: Such as?

Nichushkin: Hands. Usually drills taking passes for shots, puck control. It’s what I want, actually. Stas Tugolukov came over from Russia to work for the team, and he comes on the ice and translates some for me during practices in Dallas. He doesn’t travel with the team, of course, We work on my play in the slot.

Indeed they have worked with him to develop scoring touch, ever since Coach Ruff noticed that Nichushkin wasn't making the most of his chances early this year. This work is paying off: Nichushkin scored 5 goals in an 11 game stretch in December, including a precise shot he took in one sweeping motion from low in the right-wing circle off a superb feed from Tyler Seguin to notch the winning goal against LA in the final game before the Christmas break. Expect many more.

Kerans: You got to know Tugolukov only in Dallas, not in Chelyabinsk?

Nichushkin: Yeah, he’s from Chelyabinsk himself, but we met in Dallas, and we get along fine.

Kerans: A couple of final questions. Most Canadian and American pro players have a network of support beyond their club. They have relatives, friends from teams they’ve played on in the past who are with other clubs in the NHL, other people they are close to. I’m worried that it is different for a player like yourself, who came over from Russia to play for Dallas at a young age, and that you are more isolated. Do you have people to speak with in other cities, or on other NHL teams?

Nichushkin: Well, I had a friend on Buffalo…

Kerans: Grigorenko?

Nichushkin: Zadorov {a tall, 18 year-old defenseman who played in 7 games for Buffalo this year, but was then sent back down to the OHL’s London Knights}. I would talk to him some. But I’m really just focused on the hockey now. In principle all the Russians in the NHL talk to each other, but I haven’t met them all yet.

Kerans: The Winter Olympics are in sight. And as I’ve read in the papers, if the Motherland calls, I you’ll go, right?

Nichushkin: (big smile) Well, of course. I want to.

Kerans: But officially you haven’t received any notification one way or the other?

Nichushkin: No, not yet.

Kerans: We’re wishing you all the best, Valeri.

Nichushkin: Thanks!

 

 

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