Jun 24, 2013
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This is the third part of a four-installment series documenting the most likely players the Predators could select at the NHL Entry Draft in Newark, NJ on June 30.
Whether you ask scouts, general managers, or the average fan on Twitter, there is no more polarizing 2013 draft-eligible prospect than Russian winger Valeri Nichushkin. On one hand, he offers a package of size, skill, and dominant physical tools that are unmatched in the entire draft. On the other hand–he’s a Russian playing in the KHL, and–fair or not, there’s a certain stigma attached.
“Buyer beware,” as the saying goes.
But isn’t that what scouting entails? Draft interviews? The combine? Assuming the Predators have done their due diligence and vetted Nichushkin thoroughly, he could make a dynamic impact if selected at fourth overall.
Craig Button recently said in an interview with 102.5 the Game‘s morning show that Predators fans wary of drafting Russians as a result of their experiences with Alex Radulov should reconsider. Button asserted that despite the absurd contracts sometimes handed out in the KHL, the amenities and prestige still lag far behind the NHL, even in the minds of its’ players. In his opinion, the average Russian-eastern bloc hockey player would still prefer to be in the National Hockey League above all else.
There are certainly enough recent examples to support that theory.
Slava Voynov, Pavel Datsyuk, Vladimir Tarasenko, and ultimately Sergei Bobrovsky have all re-signed (or will most likely re-sign, in Bobrovsky’s case) with their respective NHL clubs, despite overtures that the KHL could be a lucrative option for them.
Evidence would certainly suggest that players like Alexander Radulov and recent Capitals first-rounder Evgeni Kuznetzov are the exception, rather than the Russian rule.
With that said, the bitter taste of having been spurned and burned by Radulov not once–but twice–is still fresh in the mouths of many Predators fans, and with good reason. This is the second highest the Predators have ever picked, and as I’ve been writing for the past nine months–this is a VERY good draft. Nashville simply can’t afford to blow this pick. It’s too difficult to acquire players the caliber of those available via any other means. If you don’t draft or develop them, you need to have the kind of money or market prestige that the Predators historically haven’t been able to proffer. While Nichushkin has an exciting skillset that it’s difficult to refute, there’s at least a perceived risk.
So, what is Valeri Nichushkin all about? Is there enough there to make drafting him at least worth a thought?
In my opinion–he is absolutely worth the consideration.
Nichushkin is something of a late riser on the 2013 draft scene. While he was always considered the top Russian player available, much like Jonathan Drouin he didn’t start out in that elite ranking. Nichushkin opened a lot of eyes with his rookie-of-the-year KHL performance this season, including a dominant showing in the playoffs for Traktor. I admittedly didn’t know too much about him and hadn’t even seen him until last winter’s World Junior Championship. I get the impression that this is the case for a lot of people, but he certainly caught my attention.
At 6’3, 205 pounds, Valeri Nichushkin possesses a frame similar to that of fellow top prospect Aleksander Barkov. What sets Nichushkin apart from Barkov is his willingness to utilize his size to play a punishing physical game. While these two players are similar in their ability to leverage their stature as a means to shield the puck, Nichushkin is more likely to initiate contact and drive through defenders. He possesses the ability to make a big play not just with his uncanny visionpassing ability, not just with his best-in-draft snapshot, but he can change the tide of a game with a huge hit at center ice. Combining all of those attributes with explosive speed makes for a formidable offensive threat. While I would classify Barkov as a somewhat “soft” big player, Nichushkin is the prototypical power forward.
As mentioned, physical play is a definite plus, but his skillset is his primary selling point. I recently asked Kyle Woodlief of Red Line Report where he would rate Nichuskin’s skill game against players more familiar to me–Jonathan Drouin and Nathan Mackinnon. Woodlief said that he would easily rate Nichushkin on par with the Halifax teammates, and that some scouts would actually place him above. Combining a skillset like that with a power game that neither Mackinnon nor Drouin possess makes for an intriguing player.
Aside from the more abstract risks already discussed, Nichushkin does possess some flaws in his game.
Fitting with the stereotype of Russian scorers, his defensive game is pretty weak. From a mental standpoint, he’s been criticized for inconsistency of production, though not necessarily of effort. He can be by far the best player on the ice on one night–completely invisible the next. He’ll need to work on producing on a steadier basis if he’s to justify the high pick that will be used on him.
WHY THE PREDATORS SHOULD DRAFT VALERI NICHUSHKIN
The Predators have been haunted by one deficiency throughout their existence: the inability to draft and develop a truly dynamic scoring threat. David Legwand, while a good player filling an important role, never lived up to the potential he showed with the Plymouth Whalers in juniors. Alexander Radulov–well…you know. Various other players have carved out good-to-very-good careers as mid-tier scorers (Scott Hartnell, Scottie Upshall, Martin Erat, Patric Hornqvist).
Valeri Nichushkin is believed by some to be the best Russian player since Alexander Ovechkin/Evgeni Malkin. If he lives up to his potential, he could provide the Predators exactly the tonic for those scoring woes that they’ve long sought.
I know what many of you are thinking: “There is no way the Predators gamble on another Russian,” but there’s at least some indications that they may be willing to do just that. Both Assistant General Manager Paul Fenton and David Poile have hinted that they like Nichushkin’s game, and that they have spoken with him on numerous occasions with favorable results. Nichuskin himself stated that he got the impression from both Tampa Bay and Nashville that they were interested. By all accounts, he’s doing everything a team could hope to display a good faith intent to play in the NHL.
He negotiated a previously-absent NHL out-clause into his existing contract with Dynamo Moscow. If he makes an NHL roster next year (and I believe he would, as the second most NHL-ready player in the draft, in my opinion), there’s nothing to prohibit him from playing there. Additionally, he is living in North America all summer to get his conditioning and English up to a higher level. That is certainly the sort of thing you like to see from a player with NHL committment in question.
WHY THE PREDATORS SHOULD NOT DRAFT VALERI NICHUSHKIN
Ultimately, I have to defer to the judgment of the Predators and their scouts in terms of their assessment of Nichushkin’s character. As a player, there’s not much not to like about his game, but just how risky is he? If there are red flags, even minor ones, the Predators should likely pass. While there’s an inherent “bust” risk for all players, most don’t have as cushy and lucrative of a landing spot as Russian players do.
The Predators could conceivably be deterred by Nichushkin’s obligation to return to Dynamo if he does not make their NHL roster, if they would prefer he play in Milwaukee. I don’t see that as the case, since they allowed Mattias Ekholm to have a similar stipulation in his contract, and Pontus Aberg has been allowed to develop in Sweden as well.
It’s an important distinction to make that Nichushkin hasn’t exhibited an unwillingness to play in the AHL, as some have rumored–he’s contractually obligated. Aleksander Barkov is similarly obligated to return to Tappara if he doesn’t make an NHL roster, though he doesn’t draw the same scrutiny.
From an on-ice perspective, the Predators may feel that Nichuskin’s position as a winger makes him a less attractive option than some of the centers available per organizational need. They could also worry about the character implications of his consistency struggles, but a lot of that could and should be addressed in pre-draft interviews.
Alexander Ovechkin, Rick Nash