A hip injury limited Valeri Nichushkin to just four games back in October and November, and essentially erased his sophomore campaign. He made his return this week though and, considering the talent and upside he brings to the ice, it could be a nice boost for the Dallas Stars.
The question is: what sort of impact can he make? Naturally, a simple question like that needs a complicated, two-part answer.
In terms of this season, it might be too late for Dallas. Lindy Ruff’s squad got off to a fairly mediocre start to the year, and that’s not exactly a recipe for success when you play in arguably the most competitive division in hockey. They picked it up considerably in March, but they’ll likely still need to win out to have any shot at making a return trip to the postseason. And even then, they’ll need a ton of help from the teams around them.
Dustin Byfuglien getting himself suspended in Winnipeg certainly qualifies as “help”, but the Stars will need more than that. They’ll also need to take care of their own business, and that’s where Nichushkin comes in. He’s naturally gifted enough that he was ranked among the top two or three European skaters heading into the 2013 draft. In fact, when he fell to pick No. 10, many thought Dallas got one of the biggest steals of the draft.
He didn’t disappoint last year, posting 34 points as an 18-year old. The powerful skating ability and on-ice vision that scouts raved about were apparent fairly quickly. And the fact that he joined a team with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn up front only made his transition that much smoother.
So, with all that in mind, it’s reasonable to expect Nichushkin to make his 6-foot-4 presence felt on the ice sooner rather than later. But jumping back in at full speed with only a week left in the season may be a little too much to ask. Not that he can’t affect the play around him, but it’s probably not realistic to expect him to be a game-changer. Not right away, at least.
That doesn’t mean getting Nichushkin back right now isn’t still a big deal thoguh. Regardless of whether the Stars sneak into the playoffs right now or not, the young winger gets to play at the most meaningful time of the regular season. And, if nothing else, at least he’ll have that experience to build from when training camp opens in September. He’s still only skated in 84 career NHL games, so every time he hits the ice is another key step in his development.
Which brings us to the second half of the answer – Nichushkin’s long-term impact.
Assuming all goes well in this final week of the season, that can be taken as a pretty strong sign that he’s putting this injury behind him. He’ll then have an entire offseason to get back up to full strength, and he can head into the 2015-16 season with some momentum.
At that point, the Stars will boast a pretty imposing group of forwards. Benn, Seguin, Jason Spezza and even Ales Hemsky are all signed through at least next season, giving them a nice mix of vets and young talent up front. Nichushkin can learn from that group, while also improving their overall production. And, again, his size and unique skill set mean he’ll bring a new dynamic to the lineup. He was a part of the club’s playoff push a season ago, before they even had Spezza or Hemsky on the roster. In theory, next year’s lineup should provide even more scoring punch.
Ultimately, Dallas will still need to address some needs on the other end of the ice to get where they want to be. The 3.18 goals that the Stars are allowing per game this season puts them among the worst in all of hockey (No. 27 overall to be exact). In 2013-14, they allowed 2.72 goals per game – not amazing, but good enough for No. 17 in the league. Improving in that department is certainly feasible, but it means better play from Kari Lehtonen and the defense in front of him. Without that, it’s going to be tough to make any serious noise in the Western Conference.
Assuming that gets addressed, Nichushkin is in position to make a pretty significant impact going forward. He already showed decent on-ice chemistry while skating with Benn and Seguin last season and, if that trio reunites, it should be one of the most entertaining lines in all of hockey. It would also allow Ruff to run a pretty solid second line out there – anchored by Spezza and Hemsky – without a ton of pressure to produce jaw-dropping numbers. Even without Nichushkin for the vast majority of this season, Dallas ranks No. 2 in the NHL with 3.05 goals per game. Imagine if that number goes even higher next year.