1 April, 18:13

Dallas's Flickering Star: is Valeri Nichushkin on Thin Ice?

Dark Star: that gloomy moment in Philadelphia

Dark Star: that gloomy moment in Philadelphia

Dark Star: that gloomy moment in Philadelphia

By David Kerans

WASHINGTON (VR)— Dallas Stars fans won't be happy to hear it, but teen phenom and prospected world-class superstar Valeri Nichushkin has not been happy with the club's handling of him, to the point where his future in “victory green” cannot be guaranteed.

In no way are we predicting a blowup. Our best guess is that Nichushkin will thrive in Dallas for many years. But, as we have reported before, his adjustment to hockey at the NHL level has not been smooth, and, as we detail below, the psychological strain erupted not long ago. Nichushkin is now drawing his own conclusions about his first year in the NHL, and it will be up to him how he wants to proceed.

Swelling Expectations

We introduced readers to Nichushkin in a long feature just as he was bursting on the scene, in late December. He went on a 15 game stretch where he notched 13 points and was plus-12, and no less than Jaromir Jagr singled him out as having more potential to dominate hockey than any other young player. Coach Lindy Ruff had promoted Nichushkin to play on the first line with his super tandem of team captain Jamie Benn and 21 year-old phenomenon Tyler Seguin—“the BennGuin”. Nichushkin was full of confidence, and let it be known that he wanted in on the Russian Olympic team for the Sochi games.

Seguin

Seguin prepping for a set-up drill...                                                           Photo credit: © VR

Seguin-Benn

...to feed Benn across the goalmouth over a stick check                               Photo credit: © VR

On January 7, Russian national team coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov included the 18 year-old in the roster for Sochi (apparently against his own better judgment, as he characterized Nichushkin’s inclusion as a “down payment”, as in “premature”). Nichushkin was on a roll, and it looked like the sky was the limit.

Immediate Crash

As the Stars went on a losing streak in early January, Nichushkin went into a tailspin. He was visibly less effective, went pointless in eight of nine games (the only exception coming in a 7-1 rout of hapless Toronto), and was below Dallas’s Corsi-for (the relative number of shots attempted by his team and opponents when he is on the ice) in six of those games. As Ruff detailed to us for a second long feature on Nichushkin in mid-January, the rookie was making poor decisions with the puck, far too often. Ruff duly served him with mid-game demotions, some mid-game benchings, and eventually even a couple of healthy scratches.

Sochi brought little relief. More mid-game benchings there, and coach Bilyaletdinov was openly dismissive of Nichushkin when summarizing the Olympic tournament to the Executive Committee of the Russian Hockey Federation: “Yes, I was wrong to invite two new forwards to the Olympic team, Vladimir Tarasenko and Valeri Nichushkin. They didn’t show anything special.”

Bilyaletdinov

Bilyaletdinov at the Russian Hockey Federation meeting, March 5, 2014

Photo credit: © RIA Novosti, Ramil Sitdikov

Sochi

Downed in Sochi: Nichushkin and teammates exit after QF loss to Finland

Photo credit: © RIA Novosti, Alexey Kudenko

No Recovery

Returning to Dallas after the Olympics, Nichushkin did not show much to Ruff either. Speaking to Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News, Ruff elaborated in pretty sharp language for a coach:

“I don’t think his skating has been good. Some of his decisions with the puck, I fully anticipate hills and valleys, we’ve gone through it the whole year, but we’re at the point where the guys that are going the best, we’re going to ride the guys that are getting the most done.”

Asked if he think Nichushkin understands the decisions that are being made...

“Sometimes he understands,” Ruff said. “It’s hard, because he wants to do well and I think sometimes he gets hanging on too long (to the puck) and there’s some plays to be made, which eliminates some plays on the power play. And I think that area will come. We just don’t have enough time to practice, and him understanding the amount of pressure teams are going to come at us with and where that pressure’s going to come from and where his outs are. I think some of it’s just a natural read on his part. The five-on-five stuff, I can’t fault his effort for a second. His effort has been fabulous. I think just sometimes it‘s maybe finding that open guy a little bit quicker.”

Mid-game demotions of Nichushkin from the first line became something like a ritual in mid-March, and matters came to a head in Philadelphia on March 20th. Things looked a bit odd at the midday practice session. I noticed Nichushkin wandering around the neutral zone in total boredom as the the rest of the team ran powerplay drills at either end of the ice. He wasn't just the odd man out. He was paying no attention, and the coaches were ignoring him. I alerted the few reporters who were following the Stars on that trip to the strange scene and asked, “Is that normal? Where Nichushkin stands around in center ice doing nothing while the rest of the team practices?” “Uh, no” came the unconcerned reply.

Melting Down

What followed that evening should not have surprised anyone. Ruff left Nichushkin off of the first line entirely, in favor of another rookie, Alex Chiasson. Nichushkin was relegated to the fourth line, where he took only seven shifts, until Ruff finally gave him one shift with the BennGuin midway through the third period. Valeri proceeded to stay out longer than the two superstars, and gifted Philadelphia possession by skating the puck straight into several defenders.

Chiasson

Taking Nichushkin's spot in Philadelphia: Alex Chiasson                          Photo credit: © VR

By this time, Ruff had seen enough. He benched Nichushkin for the remainder of the game. But Nichushkin, for his part, had had enough, and didn't bother to contain his frustration. Dallas did not open the locker room proper after the loss, preferring to summon players out to the corridor per requests for appearances from the sparse attending media. A reporter from a Russian outlet asked to see Nichushkin, simply to ask a few general questions. To the question of whether the disappointment of the Sochi Olympics had been affecting his play, Nichushkin decided to steer the conversation elsewhere and to open up. Speaking calmly and deliberately, he teed off on coach Ruff, and added that because Ruff had signed a contract for 4-5 more years, he wanted to demand a trade.

Nichu-Gonchar warmup

Warming up alongside compatriot Sergei Gonchar                                          Photo credit: © VR

Another Glimpse of the Bright Star

By the time Dallas hosted Ottawa less than 48 hours later, Nichushkin looked like a revitalized player. Ruff had him back on the top line, and he played with evident energy. He drove play forward for Dallas on a number of occasions, including a power move to the net in the second period that yielded a rebound for Cody Eakin to score the Stars' first goal. Notwithstanding a couple of characteristically unforced turnovers, Nichushkin's time on ice saw Dallas attempt 20 shots while Ottawa tried only 10. Despite committing a few characteristic blunders, it was a strong performance.

Alas, in the four games since Ottawa, Nichushkin has not been nearly as effective. His puck possession numbers over that span have been anemic: 41 shot attempts for Dallas, 71 for opponents. In 16 games since the Olympic break, he has just one goal and three assists, despite Ruff giving him more powerplay ice time per game than he did before the break (he’s had almost a minute and a half per game since the break, versus a bit over a minute per game before then). In only four of the 16 games since Sochi has Dallas had more of the play (as measured by shot attempts) with Nichushkin than they have had without him.

For the season as a whole, puck possession statistics suggest that Nichushkin has not dragged down the BennGuin or other Stars. Teammates' puck possession numbers when Nichushkin is on ice with them are not noticeably higher or lower than when he is not out with them. His 5-on-5 Corsi-for is 51.1%, 1.1% above the team average, reflecting that he has spent 60% of his time with the BennGuin.

One can only conclude that Nichushkin is a strong player, destined to get significantly better as he gains NHL experience and finishes growing.

Where to?

Given his obvious gifts and potential, his current slump is a genuine disappointment for Dallas. By all indications, Ruff remains very patient with him. He has given him umpteen chances to fit in on the top line, and Seguin has tried to work with Valeri. According to Stars’ color commentator Darryl Reaugh, Seguin has often tried to discuss the game with Nichushkin between shifts, but Seguin told Reaugh that it took a while for him to understand that it wasn't criticism, it was just talking about the game and making adjustments within the game. Seguin’s patience may have worn thin. As Stars TV studio analyst Craig Ludwig pointed out after the first period of the recent game in Chicago, Seguin threw up his hands in dismay when Nichushkin failed to slip him the puck on an attack and clumsily turned it over yet again.

At practice on April 1 we had a chance to ask Nichushkin how he feels about his first NHL season and whether he feels the same as he did on that unfortunate night in Philadelphia.

Download audio file

Kerans: You had a bit of individual attention from coach Ruff towards the end of this practice. What sort of instructions or advice was he giving you? Something about defense in your own zone?

Nichushkin: Telling me to play better in defense, that’s all. To work harder. That’s all. {In fact Ruff was demonstrating and giving him some concrete instructions about how to shift towards an opposing defenseman when the puck went up the boards to the left point, but Nichushkin either hadn’t understood the coach or chose not to discuss it with us}

Kerans: Would you like to briefly summarize how your first season has gone? There’s just two weeks to go now. Is now the time, or is it too early?

Nichushkin: {immediately becoming guarded} I don’t feel like talking about it, to be honest. There are a lot of games to play.

Kerans: Do you plan to go back home to Chelyabinsk for the summer?

Nichushkin: I haven’t thought about time off yet. The season (is still on).

Kerans: Last question: in a conversation with Soviet Sport you spoke out rather sharply about your coach. Have you re-thought all of that? Is it possible to work with him?

Nichushkin: {tensing up further} With whom?

Kerans: I mean that conversation you had recently with Soviet Sport, in Philadelphia.

Nichushkin: And what did I say there?

Kerans: You said things were not ideal here. {well, that is putting it quite mildly, as we both knew}

Nichushkin: What?

Kerans: That it was not ideal with this coach.

Nichushkin: Everything’s fine.

Kerans: Okay. That’s all.

This, of course, is exactly what we expected to hear in the wake of the Philadelphia fiasco. However grim an impression this may cast, we would not rush to the conclusion that Nichushkin cannot get along with and thrive under Ruff. Lindy Ruff is on the ball. His appraisals of Nichushkin appear spot on, and he is clearly trying to work with Nichushkin—he didn’t give anyone else individual attention at practice. Further, Ruff was optimistic when we asked him after practice about how Nichushkin was holding up amid the demotions, etc.:

Download audio file

Kerans: Coach, you mentioned Connauton with respect to possible frustration. Could say anything about Nichushkin, he gets shuttled up and down from the first line, and elsewhere? Have you noticed any frustration with him? I noticed you were working with him today on defense.

Ruff: No, no. You know he’s had his moments, like any young player. But his attitude, and his approach to the game have been tremendous here of late. He’s worked real hard. And it doesn’t always go your way in this league. Veteran players face that. And as a young player, he’s faced it. But I think he’s handling some of the ups and downs better now than he was at the start of the year. And I think that’s part of getting to know the league. That’s part of getting to know the coach, part of getting to know that here we have matchups sometimes, and like to get matchups. So, all that is a learning experience for Val.

Here’s hoping for smooth sailing from here…

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