Apart from the World Cup, the big Russian hockey news this week, quite clearly, was the decision of young Dallas Stars prospect Valery Nichushkin to sign a two-year deal with CSKA Moscow after three seasons in Texas. It is something of a shocking move; the young man from Chelyabinsk was taken tenth overall in the 2013 NHL draft, joined the Stars that autumn, and put up a decent rookie season line of 74 gp, 14-20-34 (plus 6gp, 1-1-2 in the playoffs) despite being only 18 years old. So what happened, and what next? Read on, for some admittedly half-baked thoughts on Nichushkin and the issue of young players from overseas in the NHL…
First of all, the arrival of Nichushkin, now 21 years old, has a good chance of making an already impressive CSKA lineup that much better. The former Red Army team is 10-2 to start the KHL season, although they suffered a rude shock in Kazakhstan the other day when Barys Astana trounced them 4-0. Nichushkin is probably not yet at the stage where he can replace fully the departed Alexander Radulov, but at 6’4″ and 205 lbs. he brings something of Radulov’s combination of skill and strength to the lineup. It will also likely be a very useful place for him to be; as CSKA General Manager Sergei Fedorov stated strongly in a recent interview, the club has an admirable record both in terms of working with young players and in helping those who have hit the wall in North America get things going again (Exhibit A: the afore-mentioned Alexander Radulov). It will be interesting to see both how the CSKA coaches choose to use him and how he gets on; depending on his match fitness, Nichushkin’s first opportunity may come on Friday, against Jokerit in Helsinki.
As for what happened in Dallas, there seem to have been multiple problems. After that promising first season, Nichushkin suffered a hip injury and missed most of 2014-15. In the most recent season, he scored only 9-20-29 in 79 games, and added a single lonely assist in ten playoff contests — not what anyone would term a positive sign as regards his development as a player. Rumours of friction with coach Lindy Ruff soon surfaced as well, and with his entry-level contract finished, Nichushkin and the Stars could not find common ground on a new deal. So here we are.
I think — and we of course must tip our hats to hindsight here — that Dallas clearly rushed things with Nichushkin when they brought him over and tossed him straight into the NHL at 18, and with only 45 KHL games under his belt (10-5-15 was his scoring line in those, all of them played for his hometown Traktor Chelyabinsk team). Dealing with NHL-calibre play as a teenager is tough enough, but in the case of Nichushkin and other players from overseas, we must add the challenge of adapting to a new culture and a new language. When we talk of putting young prospects “in a position to succeed,” well… that clearly was not done in this case. It is true, and complicates matters, that Nichushkin had a clause in his contract that would have returned him to the KHL had Dallas tried to assign him to their AHL farm team, but biting that bullet might have been the smarter option at some point. Another two, or even three, seasons in Russia’s top league would have done him a world of good when he did make the move to Texas (we should note here, without going into the complicated details, that the KHL has some roster rules that allow teams to give young players a taste of the big league without throwing them entirely to the wolves).
In fact, I am becoming firmly of the notion that young, NHL-drafted, Russian hockey players should remain in Russia, at least until they have accumulated significant KHL experience and are in their early twenties (we could say this about young players from any non-NHL country, but as this blog deals with Russia, we’ll focus there). That would ensure that such young men are fully developed not only physically (not to mention psychologically), but also as hockey players, and would ease the process of adapting to all of hockey, culture, and language in North America. We need only look at some recent examples like Yevgeny Kuznetsov (arrived in North America just before his 22nd birthday, having played 263 KHL games), Vladimir Tarasenko (came over at 21, after 225 KHL games), and Artemy Panarin (almost 24 years old, with 305 KHL games), to see the benefits of the patient approach; all three are staking serious claims to be among the elite of the NHL.
So what about having young Russians come to North America for junior or college hockey prior to commencing their professional careers, to give them a head start on adapting to the North American game? Here too, I would lean towards having them stay at home. The struggles of Nail Yakupov (one of my very favourite players, by the way), who came to Canada just before his 17th birthday to play for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL, show that an early introduction to North American hockey, even at a lower level, is not necessarily a guarantee of later success on this continent. I feel fairly strongly that it is better for a player to be fully developed in one hockey system than to be incompletely developed in two. Letting young Russian players develop in Russia has the added benefit of strengthening that country’s youth hockey system — also a very important consideration. And we might even add that players who come up through Russia’s system often have some things in their toolbox of skills that most North American hockey-playing youngsters do not encounter, a situation that has held for many decades.
Now, the slow and patient approach will not be for everyone; players are unique individuals after all, and some NHL clubs are simply better at dealing with youngsters arriving from overseas than others. An example here would be Nikita Kucherov, who came to North America at only 19, with just 27 KHL games on his resume, and played a season in the QMJHL before turning professional in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. He is now 23, and has enjoyed success everywhere he has played; his teenage move across the ocean clearly did not hurt him. This may tell us more about the Lightning than about anything else, however. Kucherov’s three Russian team-mates (Vladislav Namestnikov, Nikita Nesterov, and Andrei Vasilevskiy) all arrived in North America, albeit in different leagues, at young ages and without much KHL experience, and all seem to be doing fine in the NHL.
Nor is the slow and patient approach without its own risks. Both the Russian Hockey Federation and the KHL are eager, obviously and in my opinion reasonably, to keep the country’s young talent in Russia, and in some cases they will do so (whether the recent four-year contract extension signed with SKA St. Petersburg by New York Rangers prospect goalie Igor Shestyorkin will be an example of such remains to be seen). Of course, there is also the possibility of injury getting involved in the equation, but that is a danger players face wherever they are. NHL teams must balance the chance of a drafted player not ever coming over, for whatever reason, with the risks of bringing him over too soon and ending in a situation like the one Dallas now faces with Nichushkin.
In any case, there will be an interesting, if small-sample, opportunity to compare the two approaches in the coming NHL season. The New York Rangers have signed an entry-level deal with former Severstal and SKA forward Pavel Buchnevich, a month younger than Nichushkin and taken in that same 2013 draft. Now 21, and having played 178 KHL games (38-52-90 is his line), Buchnevich epitomizes the slow and patient approach with overseas prospects. Ironically enough, it is once again the Dallas Stars who are bringing over a teenage player with little KHL experience. In this case, it is forward Denis Guryanov, who turned 19 in June and has scored 4-2-6 in 55 games with Lada Tolyatti; he was chosen by Dallas 12th overall in the 2015 NHL draft. It will be fascinating to compare the progress of the two young men as they embark on their North American adventures.
A final note on Nichushkin himself; his return to the KHL does not necessarily mean that the NHL has seen the last of him. As mentioned, his contract with CSKA is for two years (possibly with an out-clause after the first), and the Stars are hoping that he can get his impressive talent back on track and turn his career around (the Stars will hold his NHL rights for several seasons yet, and I would refer you to this excellent post by Cirno Avery for an exploration of that complicated and difficult issue). There is certainly ample time for Valery Nichushkin to get things going again, and I wish him all the best for it wherever he ends up playing.