Flames first round targets 2013: Valeri Nichushkin

 

Nate MacKinnon, Seth Jones and Jonathan Drouin are roundly considered the best three talents in the upcoming 2013 NHL Draft. However, many scouts have wondered if maybe you could expand that group a bit – make it a formidable 4. The reason being, there’s a kid from Russia who some believe to be right on par with his three North American counterparts in terms of skill and potential. That being Valeri Nichushkin.

The big six foot four, 201 pound Nichushkin saw his stock rise all season after impressive stints in both the MHL and VHL (comparable to North America‘s CHL and AHL respectively) capped off by an 18 regular season and 25 playoff game stop in the KHL. His solid play during the regular season led to him becoming an important piece to his teams KHL final run. He scored six goals and nine points over the course of the playoffs.

Immediately following his teams elimination, he joined Russia for the U18 tournament where he put on nothing short of a show. He would record four goals for seven points in six games and earned rave reviews on his play. Nichushkin’s utter physical dominance at the tournament led scouts to call him a "man among boys".

The Scouting Reports

Hockey Prospectus’ draft guru Corey Pronman ranks Nichushkin as 4th best prospect, calling him a potential star:

Nichushkin is an impressive power forward who has a ton of natural gifts. He could be a potential star, if not an elite power winger in the NHL. His best skill is his skating ability, as he is a true plus-plus skater that defensemen need to respect when he’s barrelling down the wing. If a gap gets too tight, Nichushkin will likely be behind the defender in no time. He is also a strong, 6’4” pillar who loves to drive to the net. Combining that with his speed and skill, he draws a lot of penalties. Nichushkin’s north-south game is his strength, but he has a high level of ability with the puck, with the capability to make players miss. He can make plays to his teammates, and he has good offensive instincts, although his hockey sense is an area of division among scouts.

Some question his vision, feeling he can be a little selfish. Others think his hockey sense is above average. He has the ability to skate through an entire team, so it cannot be considered surprising that he tries to do a lot. One area of concern: he needs to improve his defensive play.

Like most Russian forwards, Nichushkin likes (and is very capable of) scoring. His skill set is undeniably impressive and being a big man, has the ability to create space for himself to use it. His shot may be one of the more unimpressive components of his offensive game and it’s still very good, which speaks volumes about the rest of his game. As mentioned by Pronman, Nichushkin skates like the wind despite being a big dude, which could potentially make him the perfect player for today’s NHL. Big enough to not be knocked around but fast enough to keep up with the pace of the game.

Form an offensive stand point, Nichushkin is NHL ready now and after a contract dispute with his KHL team that ended in the termination of said contract, he’s free to come over and try his luck in North America next season.

The Numbers

Nichushkin’s KHL sample size is a little weird as he actually played more games in the playoffs than in the regular season. His combined NHLE is 19 which is well behind other elite prospects. However if you compare his numbers to some other high profile, Top 5 Russian prospects in their draft year, he does quite well:

Name

 KHL PPG

NHLE over 82 games

Valeri Nichushkin

.35

 19

Alexander Ovechkin

.37

 20

Evgeni Malkin

.35

 19

Alexandr Svitov

.38

 20

Nikolai Zherdev 

.55

 29

The KHL is considered to be the second best league in the world behind the NHL, and if you stuck a 17 year old kid into the show, he’d probably put up comparable numbers – particularly if he only played a few minutes a night as kids tend to in both the NHL and KHL. Funny enough, Nichushkin’s numbers line up more with Malkin and Ovechkin (who are now obviously superstars) rather than Svitov and Zherdev (who now sit comfortably atop draft bust charts everywhere), which of course doesn’t mean anything but is just fun to look at and convince yourself it foreshadows something.

His numbers however look much better once you put them in context. He seems to be tracking along exactly what other much hyped KHL prospects have in the past and he could possibly even improve on that PPG statistics next season in the NHL. The crucial part with Nichushkin is how he’s handled by his NHL team from here on in as one could argue development played a large role in the failed NHL careers of Svitov and Zherdev and the successful ones of Malkin and Ovechkin.

In addition, there is some risk in accurately judging a guy who hasn’t played as much as some of the higher end contemporaries such as Barkov, Lindholm and the junior kids. Nichushkin was mostly a support piece in his season for the KHL while player like Lindholm (16 minutes a night) and Barkov (20 minutes a night) were key features on their clubs, to say nothing of CHL stars like Jones and Drouin who no doubt played half the night most games.

There is also the question of the completeness of Nichushkin’s game: many of the other top-10 forward picks already have advanced two-way capabilities whereas Nichushkin’s defensive acumen is usually considered a weakness. Skating through teams on the big ice in Europe is one thing, but you have to be able to play both ends of the ice to some degree in order to thrive in North America.

Conclusion

It’s very possible that Nichushkin falls to 6 and will be available to be selected by Calgary if they so choose. Although his potential is massive, the "Russian Factor" still hangs over his head and could very well be the reason he drops. The fact that he could conceivably pull a Radulov and bolt back to the KHL if things don’t go rosy in North America could certainly enough to scare NHL teams away. Although he has said he’ll cross the pond to try and make the NHL next year, he reiterated that he will not play in the AHL at any point in his career. It’s NHL or KHL, no in between.  

Should he still be there at 6, I think it’s important Jay Feaster and Co. take a long look at him because he does have franchise changing potential – something Calgary could desperately use. 

Flames First Round Targets

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  • Stockley

    I’m on the fence with this one. As much as I like the positives attributed to his game I am leaning more towards making a much safer pick. If he’s a bust or if he decides to take his puck and go home; then the Flames are once again set way back in their rebuilding phase. Calgary desperately needs to break the stigma attached to them choosing 6th overall, whoever they select HAS TO work out this time around.