It’s not too often a player of Valeri Nichushkin’s caliber would be available with the fifth overall pick.
But with the depth of high-end talent in this year’s draft class, that’s exactly what could happen.
The Chelyabinsk, Russia, native possesses the size, strength, speed and skill to become an elite power forward in the National Hockey League, and many are saying he’s the best Russian talent available in the draft since Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin were the first two respective selections in 2004.
“Everyone recognizes what a tremendous talent he is,” said Tony MacDonald, the lead amateur scout for the Hurricanes. “He’s a very skilled guy – he’s got size, he’s got speed and he’s got skill. He has that ability to dominate.”
The 6-foot-3, 196-pound winger uses his speed and hefty frame to shield the puck and plow to the front of the net, but he doesn’t shy away from making the crisp tape-to-tape pass, either.
“He’s a big, strong man,” MacDonald said. “When he turns it up a notch, he’s a very tough guy for defenders to handle with his skill and his shot.”
In the 2012-13 season, Nichushkin played in Chelyabinsk at three different levels. In 18 games with Traktor of the Kontinental Hockey League, the 18-year-old posted four goals and two assists (6 points) and was a plus-6. Traktor finished third in the Eastern Conference with 98 points. In 25 subsequent playoff matches, Nichushkin recorded six goals and three assists (9 points) and was a plus-9, helping Traktor advance to the Final, where they lost to Dynamo Moscow in six games.
Representing his country on his home soil in the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship, Nichushkin potted the bronze medal-winning goal 95 seconds into overtime against Team Canada. He finished the tournament with two points and a plus-5 rating in six games. In the 2013 Under-18 World Championship in Sochi, Russia, Nichushkin notched seven points (4g, 3a) in six games.
At the beginning of May, Nichushkin was traded from Traktor to Dynamo. His KHL contract raised some questions about his future intentions of playing in the NHL.
“Certainly, he still would have been given high consideration regardless, but it would be somewhat tempered by the fact that you’re going to be drafting a player that may not come to your team for two or three years and is under contract in another league,” MacDonald said.
Those concerns were eased at the combine, where Nichushkin declared his contract with Dynamo had been terminated, allowing him to play in the NHL in the 2013-14 season.
“Now that his so-called obstacles have been removed, he’s here in North America,” MacDonald said.
Furthering his intentions to play in the NHL, the Central Scouting Service’s second-ranked European forward is training at Power Train Sports Institute in Manheim, Pa., over the summer.
The Hurricanes are somewhat familiar with Nichushkin in that he shares an agent, Mark Gandler, with Alexander Semin, who re-upped with Carolina for five years in March.
“If you have a relationship with an agent, and the relationship is a reasonably good, working one, [the familiarity] doesn’t hurt,” MacDonald said.
Nichushkin’s draft stock has risen now that scouts and front office personnel are armed with fresh knowledge of his contract situation, so much so that he could perforate the first four selections on Sunday based on his natural talent and high-end ceiling alone.
“He’s made it very clear that he wants to play in the NHL,” MacDonald said. “Now, I think everyone is sort of reassessing their position on Nichushkin.”
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