Watching the Dallas Stars this season, and specifically how nearly every forward on their team has suffered an injury, and it’s impossible not to think about their diva Russian who is actually in Russia rather than with his NHL team.
Where are you Valeri Nichushkin? Come back to America. Come back to the team that drafted you, and right now needs desperately you.
“I think he realizes he had it pretty good over here,” Stars GM Jim Nill told me. “With all the injuries, it would have been great to have him here. He would have played a lot of minutes. Big, strong - it would have been great to have him. But he made a decision to go back and I can’t control that.”
There is some disagreement among the Stars’ people how good Nichushkin actually is - that he’s too soft for the NHL - but there is no disagreement that this season the Stars could have used him.
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The best team in the NHL’s Western Conference last season has hit the half way point this season, and it is out of the playoff race. Well done, Dallas Stars.
Of all the teams entering “this” season in the greater North Texas tri-state Metroplex region/area, no team had a better chance to win a title than the local hockey club. Better than the Texas Rangers, Dallas Cowboys and certainly the Mark Cuban-led Dallas Mavericks.
The Stars lost in Game 7 of the West semis last season to St. Louis, and that was without All-Star forward Tyler Seguin, who missed all but one playoff game with a “lower body injury.”
Speaking of injuries - few teams in hockey have been crushed by injuries like the Stars, which explains why the team is 17-17-8 with 42 points, two back of the second Wild Card spot in the West. Chicago leads the West with 59 points.
Currently All-Everything forward Jamie Benn is out along with Mattias Janmark and forward Ales Hemsky. At one point the team was missing six of its top eight forwards.
For a team that is designed on the strength of its forwards’ ability to skate, and score, you can’t put just any stiff in there and play the same way. That’s why coach Lindy Ruff scrapped the “up tempo” mode and is doing what he did so well in Buffalo - grind and get back on defense.
The way this season has progressed for the Stars, it is impossible not to wonder how Nichushkin, 21, would have fit in this season. He may not have “hit” this season the way the team hoped when it selected him 10th over all in the 2013 NHL entry draft, but he could have helped.
He would also have done what he wanted - played.
There is a reason the Stars selected him 10th, and made the commitment to put him with the “big team” rather than the Texas Stars of the AHL.
He is a 6-foot-4, 205 pound forward with an abundance of skill. The first time I saw him I loved him - just like any hockey fan would. It’s all right there.
What he is not is experienced, or mature, and the challenge of leaving Russia to come to the U.S. and the NHL was too much.
“He’s a young kid and I’m not worried,” Nill said. The Stars have Nichushkin’s NHL rights until he’s 27. “Looking back, I think he’d might say coming here when he was 18 was too much. He wanted to get over here.”
Valeri left the Stars over the summer to sign a two-year contract (we think) with CSKA of the KHL in Russia. It’s been hit or miss in Russia; he was demoted to the minors there briefly.
“He is playing 14 or 15 minutes over there, the same as he was here,” Nill said. “They roll four lines there, and so I think he’s realized how good the hockey was here. And the lifestyle here isn’t so bad.”
Other than the hockey - where Nichushkin scored 64 points in 166 career NHL games before he left - the adjustment of the language, the game and the culture was too much for a guy so young. He was frustrated that he was not playing the same amount of minutes as a Jamie Benn or Tyler Seguin, so he went home.
Val’ is also like a lot of young top-tier athletes who become the patriarch of their entire family when the first check comes.
He has not exactly ripped it up in Russia; in 26 games, he has 16 points (9 goals, 7 assists). That would make him sixth on the team in scoring among forwards.
Nill said he remains in contact with Nichushkin, and he sounds hopeful that this stay there will essentially serve as a minor-league stint and he will return to the U.S.
The Stars, particularly Nill, are not about to flush this draft pick and player. He was rated as a top-3 player in that draft who dropped only because he insisted that he had to be with the big team.
“He’s a good kid. He and Lindy had a good relationship - he always wanted more. He was a young kid,” Nill said.
In his three years with the team, the Stars saw flashes of that top-three player. When it was there, it was over-powering skill and strength, distinctly reminiscent of some of the great Eastern Euros Nill saw in his tenure as the assistant GM with the Detroit Red Wings under GM Ken Holland.
What the Stars never saw was consistency, or much of the willingness to fight through it. They saw a young kid who was not ready for this transition.
As for when Nichushkin will come back, Nill doesn’t know. He is not sure as to the specifics of the two-year contract Nichushkin signed; KHL contracts are historically unpredictable and often not worth much.
“I don’t know. He may not know,” Nill said. “The Russian team may not know. That’s how Russia works.”
This was part of the risk when the Stars drafted Nichushkin - that he would pout, flake and bolt.
Val did just that, and watching how his old NHL team has struggled at his position this season it’s hard not to wonder how he might have helped, and developed, had he simply stayed.