16 January, 17:09

NHL 1-on-1: into the pressure cooker with Valeri Nichushkin

Nichushkin revving up for yet another morning practice

Nichushkin revving up for yet another morning practice

Nichushkin revving up for yet another morning practice

By David Kerans

NEW YORK (VR)— An 18 year-old will play hockey for Russia at the Olympics.

The 18 year-old is Valeri Nichushkin, from Chelyabinsk in the Urals, whom we introduced to readers earlier this month in a feature article. There we hinted strongly at our suspicion that he would be summoned to the national team for the Sochi games, and the announcement duly came on January 7. It sparked much controversy in Russia, even at the highest levels of the hockey heirarchy. Is he ready? Did he earn his spot? Will he disappoint?

Given that precious little is known about Nichushkin the player, and even less about Nichushkin the man, we chose not to rely on assessments from afar, and set off immediately to spend some more time with him and the Dallas Stars during an Eastern road trip. Several practices, games, and personal conversation sessions later, we had a good sense of the challenges Valeri is taking on in his impatient surge up the hockey ladder.

As well, numerous exchanges with the hockey mind who knows Nichushkin best, Dallas head coach Lindy Ruff, rounded out our impressions of his play and development. Ruff knows very well what Nichushkin is learning from experience: that the NHL is no cakewalk, even for someone as talented as Valeri.

Nichu-Ruff

Ruff looking over your shoulder (Nichushkin on left)  Photo credit: © AFP, Rick Stewart

Hitting the wall in NY

DAL took it on the chin in the first game of the trip, when a resurgent NYI ran roughshod over them for a 7-3 trouncing that looked even worse than the scoreline. Ruff admitted it was embarrassing to watch his team not keep up with the Islanders, and put it down at least partly to fatigue (amid injuries, DAL had been overworking its top D Alex Goligoski and Brendan Dillon, and a flu bug had struck a number of players, not including Valeri).

DAL had three days to prepare for its next match, at New Jersey, but playing the tight checking, puck possession Devils is a headache all its own (a topic we have explored earlier in this forum). NJ coach Peter DeBoer promised the media on the morning of the game that his team would focus on limiting DAL's speed, and they did exactly that. Despite the Stars playing much stronger than they had against NYI, the Devils handed Dallas its first shutout loss of the year, by 1-0.

Ruff described playing NJ as like “crawling through a barbed wire fence with a wool jacket on,” and Nichushkin got a dose of that himself.

Nichu-Vochenkov

Stifled in Jersey (it happens to many) Photo credit: © AFP, Bruce Bennett

Nichushkin accomplished very little in the first half of the game, so Ruff moved him up to the top line, with the Stars' top scorers Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. When we asked Ruff after the game what had prompted the shift, he explained that it wasn’t just a blind stab at generating some offense. He hadn’t been impressed by Nichushkin’s play:

"I was trying to get a little spark out of him. He didn’t have quite the legs he’s had for us. He was a little bit of a step behind. He’s 18. He’s going to struggle at times."

Unfortunately, Valeri didn't show much alongside Benn and Seguin either. The Devils had four or five players ready in the neutral zone whenever Dallas tried to build up a rush, for which Ruff gave them full credit.

“You have to change the game”

This game was the first time Nichushkin faced future Hall-of-Famer and current Devil Jaromir Jagr, the man who singled him out a month ago as a candidate to become one of the best players in the world in the near future. Jagr echoed Ruff's assessment, saying in one post-game chat that Nichushkin had not stood out on that night, and that to be a big player “you have to change the game” (meaning you have to create breakthroughs that disrupt the defense and generate scoring chances).

The last game of Dallas's trip would go somewhat better for the team, but tangibly worse for rookie Nichushkin. Lindy Ruff presaged it perfectly after the morning practice in Madison Square Garden. At first, responding to a question about what the impending Olympic experience might do for Nichushkin, he stuck to the bright side:

"It can only be a positive… as a young player, he’s got a lot of work to do. But you gotta give him credit. As a young player he struggled out of the gates, and he’s slowly progressed here. There have been some games where he has flat-out dominated, as an 18 year-old. But he’s got a ways to go. He’s a hard worker, he’s committed to becoming a better player, and I think that’s shown through the first 40 games."

But to our question on where he had the most difficulty working with Valeri, Ruff opened up with important detail:

Kerans: Are you able to work with him on when the team doesn’t have the puck? Is that the most difficult thing to work with him on?

Ruff: {pausing briefly} Actually no, it’s when he has it. Some of the reads, of maybe hitting the open man, finding the open man, get a little bit of give-and-go in the offensive zone there. There are times when physically he’s dominated, and hung on for probably 10, 15 seconds. And we’d like him, once he’s spun off one of his checks, to find the open personnel, which makes him even more dangerous. I think he got more comfortable just when he got settled in and got used to the way this league is, realizing that he doesn’t have near the time or near the space (that he was used to), that people are crawling up your backside as you’re leaving the zone, and there’s a lot of times you don’t have that open ice that you do on a bigger sheet of ice.

Nichu-Clutter

Caught with his head down in open ice by Clutterbuck   Photo credit: © AFP, Bruce Bennett

If you had a close look at DAL-NYR Friday night, you’d get a healthy new dose of respect for Lindy Ruff. His team outplayed NYR most of the night, and was unfortunate to lose on a late goal off an unfortunate bounce. Ruff got an enormous game out of his unheralded Eakin-Roussel-Garbutt line, in part because he has been leaning on them (especially Roussel) to stay away from unnecessary penalties. The message got through, and all three repeatedly torched whomever the Rangers tried to put in their way. Bravo. Stars fans should take heart in the high ceiling this line demonstrated.

Nichushkin, for his part, did not get untracked. Apart from a couple of sharp passes early, he was not posing problems for the defense, and gifted NYR a golden chance in the second period that wound up on DAL’s crossbar. Early in the third Ruff ran out of patience and took the rookie out of the rotation. On his one and only shift after that, during a power play, he carried the puck in across the center of the blue line, headed into the path of a teammate in the LW corner, and turned right, directly into a Rangers defenseman who instantly took the puck off him and cleared it. Ouch.

Shackled, for the moment

Ruff didn’t hide from the fact that he had benched Nichushkin when we spoke with him after the game.

Kerans: Last night you said Nichushkin doesn’t make good decisions with the puck sometimes. Is that why he didn’t see much ice in the last period?

Ruff: Yeah, you know he had some tough moments. But he’s young, he’s 18. This game wasn’t about Val. Val’s going to have ups and downs. He’s played some great hockey for us, but tonight he had a couple of plays that we’re trying to take care of. One (giveaway) went off a crossbar, and a couple of neutral zone plays, and you know we shortened the bench a little bit and went with some other guys.

Given Nichushkin’s limited ice time in the two games since (a home loss to NYI and a home win over EDM), Ruff does not seem convinced that Nichushkin is ready to be back on his top line just yet. He admitted to Dallas Morning News reporter Mike Heika that he has recently considered scratching Nichushkin from the lineup in hopes of recharging him.

For his part, Valeri insists he has put the Olympics out of his mind for the time being and is bearing down on his work with the Stars, a commandment he said Ruff emphasized to him directly after the announcement of his selection.

Should we expect him to resume lighting up NHL defenses soon? We would not be surprised. He has the tools to "change the game", as Jagr put it. Perfecting his decision making while carrying the puck will be a process, but we see no reason why he can't iron out turnovers and combine better with his teammates than he has done recently. His instincts with them, with the narrower ice surface in North America, and with the superlative level of competition in the NHL will inevitably develop. Nor do we feel that the scrutiny inherent to playing in the NHL is a meaningful burden. We have seen for ourselves that selection to the Olympic team has not affected the atmosphere surrounding Valeri. In contrast to what a teenager in Brazil or Argentina would experience if he were selected to play for the national team in football's World Cup, Nichushkin is not hounded by paparazzi. Very few journalists are even approaching him.

As regards the Olympics themselves, we hesitate to predict how the added pressure of the tournament may affect Nichushkin's play, if at all. Even Pavel Datsyuk admitted "I can’t say I’m ready because until it happens I can’t imagine what kind of pressure it is." We probed Valeri on the topic in the discussion below, and found no cause for concern. Along the way, he took us behind the scenes with his experiences on the junior national team, and contrasted the atmosphere in North American stadiums with Russia.

We very much enjoyed our conversations with Valeri, and look forward to more in the future...

"He slammed me with the whiteboard": 1-on-1 with Valeri Nichushkin

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Kerans: Let’s begin by wishing you a Merry Christmas (the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on January 7th in the modern calendar). How did you celebrate it?

Nichushkin: We didn’t do anything special. In Russia Christmas is a pretty quiet holiday. It’s New Year’s Day that the whole country celebrates. And I’ve had a lot of games leading up to the holidays. So even New Year’s was nothing remarkable for me. My mother and sister came from Russia to visit.

Kerans: Did they come for a long stay?

Nichushkin: They have left already. They were here for, let’s see, about three weeks, probably, between two and three.

Kerans: And what did you get up to here in New York? The team spent the whole week here, but the weather has been lousy, yeah?

Nichushkin: Well yes, the weather hasn’t been friendly, but that’s no big deal. We had one day entirely free {Tuesday—DK}, we went out to eat, we relaxed, some of the guys went browsing around shops.

Kerans: This isn’t your first time in New York, right? You were here for the draft in the summer?

Nichushkin: Yes.

Kerans: There was a moment here in New York when you learned that you had been named to the Russian Olympic team. How exactly did you find out about it? Did you know before the announcement was made to the public, or did you hear about like the rest of us did?

Nichushkin: I heard about it just like everybody else, of course.

Kerans: And where were you at the time? In your hotel room?

Nichushkin: Yes.

Kerans: Did you get a phone call, or did you see it on the internet?

Nichushkin: On the internet.

Kerans: There’s no shortage of windbags on the internet who are saying that, well, Nichushkin is too young, he’s not prepared for the Olympics, he won’t hold up under the pressure. I have come to a different point of view. It seems to me that you have shown your strength, and moreover you have already represented your country in the junior national team, and even captained that team. And I would say that (Coach Lindy) Ruff and Dallas have already shown how to use you to good advantage. Dallas isn’t asking you to save the team night after night with individual plays. They just want you to play harmoniously with your linemates, right?

Nichushkin: Well yeah, here we play all together. No one has a special individual assignment.

Kerans: I’m just saying I see no reason for concern on the part of the national team in the fact that you are young.

Nichushkin: I agree. I don’t think age is that important. If the desire is there to play well, that’s what really matters.

Kerans: Sure. Can you tell me if you had some especially memorable moments while playing for the junior national team? I don’t mean in games, on the ice, but rather in the locker room. Maybe someone said something really wise? Or said just the right thing to prepare the team? I can give an example from my university experience in hockey. We were on our way to a national championship tournament, and at a moment of silence during our last practice our coach said “You represent yourself. You represent your team. And you represent your family.” He didn’t mention our university. He was focusing our attention on familiar, pleasant, concrete things, not on anything abstract. Do you have any episodes you remember from your experience playing in junior national team settings?

Nichu U18

Off ice during the World U18 Championships last April  Photo credit: © RIA Novosti, Mikhail Mokrushin

Nichushkin: Well, I remember many episodes, of course. I guess one episode comes especially to mind here. It was from the Challenge Cup, in Canada. How old was I at the time? I was sixteen. We made it through to the final, we were playing the USA, and we trailed after the first period by 1-0. I had played well in the tournament, but I hadn’t played well in the first period that day. Our coach for that national team was Suryakov, a man who was quite calm ordinarily. But he came in to the room that time and yelled, and then {Nichushkin chuckling} he took the whiteboard and slammed me with it, then said a few strange things. Well, we went out, skated hard, and won the game.

Kerans: Bravo.

Nichushkin: {chuckling} Then everything was okay.

Kerans: A legend of Dallas hockey, Mike Modano, said he got a good lesson when playing with the US national team in his time. He said that in being around the top players he came to understand how fully dedicated they were, how hard they worked, how thoroughly they prepared. It seems to me you have already learned that lesson. You have been working hard and preparing seriously for many years already, right?

Nichushkin: Well, naturally if you are in the national team, if you are around the best players in the country, you can learn plenty. The guys share their experience, and you see first-hand how the other guys train. And in the national team you’ll be exposed to the latest tactics.

Kerans: You’ll absorb some things, for sure, right?

Nichushkin: Yes, of course. Any time you’ve had a spell with the national team you come back to your club with more confidence. Even when I played with the junior national team it was indeed a different level from playing with (KHL) Traktor.

Kerans: The last time we sat down to talk, you said you were emphasizing work on your hands, on puck control and getting shots off from the slot. Are you sticking with that program, or have you been focusing on other dimensions of your game?

Nichu practice

Light drills at yet another morning practice on the road (Coach Ruff on the right) Photo © VR

Nichushkin: We work on everything. Since New Year’s we have had a game every other day, approximately. We played yesterday, we play today. So we don’t have that much time for training sessions. We find some time, of course. We’re in the gym a bit everywhere we go.

Kerans: Let me ask what you’ve noticed about the atmosphere in stadiums here. As recently as a generation ago, you could find a fairly rough crew in many stadiums here. Heckling, jeering, and booing were all more common than they are now. The contrast with today stands out to me. What about you? How would you compare the atmosphere in stadiums here with Russia?

Nichushkin: Well, in Russia many of the stadiums are not so big…

Kerans: And so you hear the fans more clearly?

Nichushkin: For sure. Often there’s a sector of hardcore fans; they may keep their cheering and chanting up for the whole game, and really loud. It does seem different here, like either the whole stadium is cheering or no one is.

Kerans: It seems to me the Russian (or European) style of fan support generates a lot of emotion and energy, and I like it when they are witty. I like the atmosphere there. What about you? Do you prefer the atmosphere in Russian stadiums, or here? Or does it not really matter to you?

Nichushkin: Well, to be honest, I guess it doesn’t make a big difference to me. {smiling} When you’re playing you might not be aware of everything that’s going on in the arena. The stadiums are really handsome here, but I like them in Russia too. It’s good just to be playing, period {chuckling}.

Kerans: Well, you’ll probably have an extraordinary atmosphere at the Olympics in Sochi. We’re wishing you success there.

Nichushkin: {smiling} Thanks! I think it will be special there.

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