Whether or not he wins the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie this year, Valeri Nichushkin is having a season to remember.
He may not be scoring as much as some hoped and expected, but he brings more to the Dallas Stars than his 29 points indicate, and he is still improving. Drafting Nichushkin 10th overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft was the best surprise they could have asked for. A highly-talented forward with a grown man’s body and a dedication to learn and be the best he can be is not often found outside of the first five picks. If not for the “Russian factor” that general managers fear these days, there is no doubt he would have been a top-five, possibly even a top-three pick.
Nichushkin’s qualities when drafted were mouth-watering for teams to analyze. His 6-foot-4, 205 pound body was already built for the NHL. He was strong, fast and had tremendous balance, making him difficult to knock off the puck. His speed tortured defensemen. As if that was not enough, his hands were deadly whether or not he used the other skills mentioned. He can thread the needle on a pass up ice, hit his target from a distance, or tuck it into a tight space after several dekes. With 62 games under his belt now, he not only improved those skills, but he’s adding and developing new ones that will help make him a complete player, not just an offensive threat.
His 13 goals and 29 points place him out of the top five rookies in the league for both categories. At this point in his career, the Stars will take what production he has put up, because he is working hard at being a better overall player.
His back-checking is tremendous, and he has only gotten better at over the course of the season. While he still is not on the ice in the final minute of a one-goal game, he has gotten much better at clearing the zone and securing the puck past the blue line. His forecheck has more purpose, and he is not afraid to finish his checks.
Earlier in the season, Nichushkin had the bad habit of overextending his shifts. He would remain on the ice long after his linemates sat on the bench. He has learned to be more disciplined with his shifts, which alone has helped the team defensively and helped him avoid being as fatigued as before.
Nichushkin has played throughout the lineup this season, but he was most effective on the top line with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. They will look to rekindle that chemistry, as Nichushkin has been moved up to rejoin the dynamic duo, at least temporarily.
There was a lot of talk before the season began that Nichushkin should be a finalist for the Calder Trophy, but it does not dictate whether or not he had a good rookie season. There is still plenty of time to add to his point total. Even if he maintains his current pace, he has learned and developed so much this season that will surely help him in the future.
Either way, Nichushkin being a Calder Trophy finalist should not dictate whether or not he had a good rookie season. His future has only been made brighter with all of the lessons, experiences and growth he has undergone this season.