2013 Draft Eligibles: Is it Philly or Bust for Valeri Nichushkin?

Ever since Evgeni Malkin entered the league the bar for Russian prospects has been set. His combination of size, speed and stickhandling is something the NHL hasn’t seen, and will not see again. There is only one Evgeni Malkin. Scouts love to make lofty comparisons and envision improbable similarities with young talent.

The top Russian talent in the upcoming 2013 NHL Draft is Valeri Nichushkin. The 6’3” 201-pound right-winger is the number two-rated international skater in the final Central Scouting rankings.

Nichushkin burst onto the International scene during last year’s WJC in Ufa, Russia. With Team Russia in danger of not medaling, the smooth-skating Nichushkin rose to the occasion in overtime. He turned on the jets and blew down the right side, cutting to the net past Carolina Hurricane’s prospect, Ryan Murphy. Utilizing his exceptional blend of size and speed, Nichushkin tucked the game-winner past Canada’s goalie and Boston Bruins prospect, Malcolm Subban.

The way the goal was scored resembled a Malkin-esque finish, but that’s where the comparison should stop. Don’t get me wrong; Nichushkin is a very talented prospect. He split this season between Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL and its second club Chelmet. Despite scoring just six points in 18 regular season games and chipping in nine points through 25 playoff games, Nichushkin displayed some natural abilities and generated buzz surrounding his draft stock.

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In the final CSS rankings Nichushkin was the only Russian player among the top nine international prospects. He has benefited from a rather mundane Russian draft class this year. Had he been in last year’s draft the talent gap between him and the eventual number one overall pick, Nail Yakupov, would’ve been clear to see. Nichushkin is a very good prospect but where do you draw the line between actual talent and potential?

He is big and strong on the wing, using his body well to protect the puck and generate offense out of the corners. Nichushkin has tremendous agility and a silky stickhanding ability that couples with his speed. But, he isn’t gritty, which is usually not expected with Russian offensive talents, but he has used his size well against his peers. Nichushkin is playing in a man’s body and playing against professionals in the KHL will test his willingness to fight and scrap for success.

Perhaps it is an unfair stigma that has been attached to Russian players, but trends show a lack of competitive spirit in all three zones, especially defensively. I question Nichushkin’s desire to back-check and help out below his own goal line. For a player who hinges his success on his offensive prowess, the young Russian hasn’t produced much of it on the stat sheet.

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Stats aren’t everything, but I worry how good Nichushkin will be if he can’t put up the numbers that people will expect. He only tallied ten points in 38 games last year with Belie Medvedi Chelyabinsk in the MHL. The MHL is a Russian junior league growing in popularity and competition, but should be dominated by a prospect projected to go top-five in the draft.

There are inconsistencies in Nichushkin’s game and he appears to take some shifts off. There will be gaps in time where his teammates overshadow him, and he gets lost in the fold. Whether or not he is an offensive weapon, if he doesn’t play 100% each shift, he will have a hard time succeeding in the NHL.

Before even skating in the NHL, there are concerns regarding Nichushkin’s willingness to come over. It may be unfair to him, but there have been many Russian players in the past that prefer playing in the homeland instead of the NHL. Nichushkin’s teammate with Chelyabinsk, Yevgeni Kuznetsov, is also a large-framed prospect who was drafted 26th overall in 2010 by the Washington Capitals. Whether or not we are going to see Kuznetsov in a Caps’ jersey any time soon is up in the air, which is an uneasy position for the front office to be in.

I have the same concerns with Nichushkin coming over once he is drafted. Recently, at the U-18 WJC in Sochi, Russia, Nichushkin made himself available to a small group of media and shared his thoughts on the draft and playing in North America. According to the interview the young Russian will attend both the NHL Combine and the NHL Draft, which is a good sign for his future in the show. However, the fans of whichever team drafts this budding talent will have to wait to see him in an NHL arena. Nichushkin plans to follow in the footsteps of fellow countryman Vladimir Tarasenko, who spent the first two post-draft seasons in the KHL honing his skills before stepping right into the St. Louis Blue’s lineup this year. This is why he signed a two-year contract worth $10 million to play for Dynamo Moskva in the KHL. Apparently Nichushkin is hoping for the same fate because he has no plans of playing in the CHL or even the AHL.

The most interesting point Nichushkin made about the draft came in regard to who he hoped to be drafted by. Usually, players don’t give away their favorite teams because it rarely matches who picks them but Nichushkin proudly stated he hopes the Philadelphia Flyers or the New York Rangers draft him. Given the fact that the Rangers do not have a first round selection this year, that leaves one team that piques the Russian’s interest.

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Given the buyer’s beware that has been handed out to Russian players so often, it is conceivable Nichushkin could fall to Philadelphia at number 11 overall. I am not sure what affiliation Nichushkin has with Philly, or why he hopes to play for them, but at number 11 overall he would be a steal. Honestly, he probably won’t last until then. His WJC teammate, Yakupov would love to see his countryman join him in Edmonton, and the Oilers need power forwards more than any other team in the league.

The Flyers need defensive help, but they do have a history of drafting the best player available regardless of position. Nichushkin would provide them with their first Russian power forward and a big, strong body on the wing.