Stars’ Nichushkin just scratching the surface of his talent

By Andrew Knoll

Valeri Nichushkin - Dallas Stars

Photo: Dallas Stars forward Valeri Nichushkin’s 34 points placed him ninth among rookies that competed during the 2013-14 season (courtesy of Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

Although the Stars’ postseason ended in a mere six games, Dallas has years of excellence to look forward to from their dynamic winger, Valeri Nichushkin.

Nichushkin added a goal and an assist in the playoffs to the 34 points he scored in 79 regular season games. But his respectable totals do not begin to tell the story of the Russian rookie, whose flashes of dominance included a four-point performance against Philadelphia in December and a three-point outing against Toronto in January.

“There’s been a lot of moments this year where we kind of laughed at each other and realized how good this kid actually is. It started from day one in training camp,” said Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn, 24, who skated with Tyler Seguin, 22, and Nichushkin, 19, on the Stars’ top line during parts of the regular season and playoffs.

“He’s a very skilled 19-year-old. He’s only going to get better.”

Nichushkin also wowed opposing coaches in the Pacific Division this season, who had to handle his explosiveness on a consistent basis.

“In the one (regular season) game, he skated so fast, our guys looked like they were standing still when he was going,” Anaheim Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau said.

Nichushkin stands 6’4” and has solidly surpassed 200 pounds with room to fill out further. The combination of his robust physique, effortless speed and advanced skill led Jaromir Jagr to tell reporters he believed Nichushkin possessed the potential to be one of the best players in the world, if not the best.

Stars winger Antoine Roussel concurred that Nichushkin had the skill to become a dominant offensive force, with the Stars agitator likening his physical maturity to that of other Russian stars such as Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

“He’s a Russian, so that physical part  of the game, being strong on the puck, they have it over there. I don’t know what they do, but they have it right away,” Roussel said. “I’m really glad he can battle for pucks and win those battles even against really tough, big guys. He can muscle them around sometimes, so it’s really impressive.”

In the first round, Cam Fowler and Ben Lovejoy frequently drew the assignment of the Stars’ top line. Fowler played left defense and went nose-to-nose with Nichushkin, making him well aware of the constant threat Nichushkin could become.

“He adds a lot of speed, that’s for sure. That kid can skate. I think what makes him so good is that sometimes they just put pucks into areas and let their guys skate into it. That makes him very dangerous,” Fowler said.

Perhaps what makes Nichushkin most difficult to defend is his ability to change speeds. Maintaining a gap against him can be maddening for opposing rearguards, as the Stars’ defensemen discovered quickly in practice.

“He’s so big that it doesn’t really look like he’s moving that quick at you and then all of a sudden he’ll just fly by guys and it’s like they don’t know what hit them,” Stars blueliner Alex Goligoski said.

Nichushkin has had his moments of confusion while acclimating himself to a new league on a new ice surface in a new country with a new language, but his enthusiasm has been constant. He has lived with an American family, offering him a crash course in English that is still in progress. The Fletchers, friends of Stars President Jim Lites, have added him to their mix of three teenage children.

Veteran Stars defenseman Sergei Gonchar, 39, hails from Nichushkin’s hometown of Chelyabinsk and has acted as somewhat of a translator and concierge for Nichushkin, helping him wherever possible.

Gonchar said that the rookie had made strides in terms of both the North American game and life in the United States, meeting challenging adjustments with enthusiasm. He was among many Stars to beam at the potential of a developed Nichushkin skating alongside Benn and Seguin, who combined for 163 points this season.

“Obviously there is some language problems, sometimes in the game he cannot really understand right away. He’s trying to translate to himself, and sometimes the game is so fast that you can’t really do things right away. I am sure as his English gets better, their chemistry on the ice will be better,” Gonchar said.

“You have to remember it’s his first year. The second, third year that he’s going to play with them, they will have even better chemistry. That line will probably be one of the best ones in the NHL.”

Follow Andrew Knoll on Twitter via @AndrewKnollNHL