Valeri Nichushkin, the 18-year-old winger for the Dallas Stars, will return to Texas without an Olympic medal, but that doesn’t mean his first Olympic appearance was a lost cause. Wednesday’s loss to Finland came as a devastating blow to Russia, knocking the host team out of competition and any chance of earning a medal. Despite a disappointing finish, Nichushkin, the youngest player in the tournament from any country, should look back at Sochi for the experience and lessons it afforded him.
This was his first time playing for Russia on such a large stage and, unfortunately for Nichushkin, his overall Olympic performance ranks somewhere between “average” and “forgettable.” Before the tournament even started, many expected that Nichushkin would play a diminished role, if not be scratched from the Russian roster altogether. Instead he found himself on the fourth line with KHL’ers Alexei Tarashenko and Alexander Popov. He even scored a goal in Russia’s first game against Slovakia early in the 3rd period to solidify his team’s lead. Despite his early success, however, Nichushkin ended his Olympic performance with only 3 shots on goal, a -2 rating and a meager 35:19 of total ice time.
At times, Nichushkin looked uncomfortable and a bit slow on the ice. Whether it was nerves or adjusting to a different coach and teammates that held him back, he simply did not look as good in Sochi as he has at times this year for Dallas. Nichushkin averaged over 10 minutes of ice time in the first two games, but after failing to produce a single shot on goal against the United States, his ice time quickly diminished. Five games is an extremely small sample size though, and anyone familiar with the skill that Nichushkin brings to the ice knows that given time, opportunity and the right linemates, he is capable of more than his numbers suggest.
Instead of looking back at his time in Sochi with disappointment, Nichushkin should look at his Olympic debut as a learning experience. Say what you want about the Russians’ performance overall, Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk are among some of the most talented hockey players in the world. Being part of the Russian roster gave Nichushkin the chance to briefly train with and learn from them.
Sochi also exposed Nichushkin to what it’s like to play in high pressure games. No team felt more pressure to succeed than the Russians, who have now failed to medal in three consecutive Olympics. Playing at home under the eye of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had previously stressed how important it was for Russia to medal in hockey, Nichushkin got a small taste of what it’s like to play a game where the pride of your country is on the line.
In the end, the young Nichushkin would have had to play a game of epic proportions to help his team overcome the lackluster performance given by the Russian team in their final game against Finland. Poor coaching choices that relied heavily on the top six, a questionable start in goal and a lack of defensive support made it seem easy for Finland to eliminate the Russians. And for Nichushkin, that will likely linger as his line was on the ice for two of Finland’s three goals.
There is no doubt that this is not the last that we will see of the powerful winger in international play. If he continues to grow and learn in the NHL, he will be a lock for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. For now, Nichushkin will have to put the Olympics behind him and return to Dallas, a little wiser and with a little more experience under his belt.