The Dallas Stars have been patient with 2013 10th overall pick Valeri Nichushkin this season, giving him time to adjust to the North American game. Nichushkin is rewarding the Stars for their patience.
Fans who watched Nichushkin play in the preseason saw a potential superstar. In the first preseason game against the St. Louis Blues, Nichushkin scored two goals, including a beautiful breakaway goal in which he deked Jake Allen to the opposite side of his net while he shoved the puck into a yawning net. That night, Ruff listed him as the third shooter in the shootout, but Allen stopped his backhand attempt.
In the preseason against the Colorado Avalanche on Sept. 26, Nichushkin blew past the defense, flew over Semyon Varlamov, and scored a Bobby Orr-esque goal, sending the American Airlines Center crowd into a frenzy. It was his third goal of the preseason, and expectations for him going into the regular season were sky high.
Lindy Ruff did not start playing Nichushkin on the top line because he did not believe he was ready to bear the responsibility of a top line player. Starting on the third and fourth lines allowed Nichushkin to work on his defensive game, and as the season progressed, his confidence grew. He was never a noticeable defensive liability in the defensive zone while playing bottom-six minutes.
Nichushkin’s first career point in the NHL was the primary assist on Brenden Dillon‘s one-timer from the point against the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 20, 2013. He kept the puck away from the defense and sent a pass from the left wing corner all the way to Dillon at the left point.
Nichushkin, playing on the second line, finally scored his first NHL goal against the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 3, 2013. The entire team ecstatically celebrated for him, because he had generated numerous great chances leading up to that game, and it was only a matter of time before he would score his first goal.
Since Nov. 5, Nichushkin has started on the top line with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin for every game except for the Nov. 9 game against the Chicago Blackhawks. Playing with Benn and Seguin, Nichushkin has scored one goal and provided four assists. He recorded two assists against the Calgary Flames on November 14 in his first career multi-point game.
The most encouraging aspect of Nichushkin’s game is that he is performing extremely well against tough competition, and he is only 18 years old. His 5-on-5 Relative Corsi rating of +11.5 is the highest on the team. He is starting 51.4 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone during 5-on-5 play, and finishing his shifts 52.2 percent of the time; when Nichushkin is on the ice, the Stars maintain control of the puck in the offensive zone. His Relative Quality of Competition rating is a +0.913. Statistically, Nichushkin has proved he is a great two-way player in the first 20 games of his career.
The points will come for Nichushkin, and he has earned his spot on the top line.