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|A New Home; Valeri Nichushkin put all the Stars' fears to rest when he left Russia for Dallas
06.12.2013. Traikos, Michael. National Post
Jim Nill was uneasy. It was his first draft as the man in charge and the Dallas Stars general manager knew he had to get it right; he had to find a player with the 10th overall pick who was not only going to make it to the NHL but was going to make an significant impact. But as the selection process began and team after team passed on Valeri Nichushkin, one thing became apparent: Nill was probably going to have to take a chance on a Russian.
"If he was playing in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, he would probably be a top-three pick," Nill said.
The problem was Nichushkin was born not in Moose Jaw but rather Chelyabinsk. He did not speak a lick of English and he had spent the previous season playing in the KHL on a team with Evgeny Kuznetsov, a Washington Capitals first-round pick in 2010 now playing in his fifth season with Traktor Chelyabinsk.
Like the GMs that had passed on Nichushkin, Nill was concerned. But two things convinced him it was the right move to draft the Russian star. One, the 6-foot-4, 196-pound power forward was a generational-type talent. Two, everyone Nill spoke to swore up and down that Nichushkin would come to the NHL immediately.
True to his word, Nichushkin travelled to Dallas the day after the Stars selected him, and has been there ever since.
"The Russian factor definitely came into play," Nill said. "There is that fear [the player will not leave Russia]. For us, it got to a point in the draft where we just couldn't bypass him. He's that good ... it's worked out well."
Only eight Russians were selected in this year's draft. Six spots after the Stars selected Nichushkin, Buffalo picked defenceman Nikita Zadorv, who has played in seven games. The rest are question marks.
While Alex Ovechkin leads the NHL with 21 goals and Sergei Bobrovsky is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, more and more Russians are choosing to stay home and play hockey. This was a problem long before Ilya Kovalchuk walked away from US$77-million to play in the KHL last summer. According to the website QuanHockey. com, the number of Russians in the NHL dropped from an all-time high of 73 in 2000-01 to just 29 last season, which was the lowest since 1991-92. There are 30 this year, but only 22 have played in more than 10 games.
The strength of the KHL, which has grown from a mom-and-pop operation into a 28-team league that has expanded to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and, as of next season, Finland, is a big reason for that. When Canadian goalie Michael Garnett first started playing in the KHL five years ago, teams flew commercial and you could not even go online to check the stats. Today, there is a hard salary cap (approximately US$36-million per team) and the kind of high-profile players that would be stars in the NHL.
"The best teams in the KHL are as good as the best teams in the NHL," said Garnett, who played with Nichushkin on Chelyabinsk last season. "There's a lot of money over here. The NHL is going to have to take notice of this because they're going to lose a lot of Russian players. Obviously with Kovalchuk leaving, it's happening."
The lure of money might have convinced Kovalchuk, Leo Komarov (Toronto), Alex Burmistrov (Winnipeg) and many others to return to Russia this year. But the uneasiness that Nill and others have experienced on the draft floor has contributed to fewer Russians in the league.
In 2004, when Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin were the top-two picks and Alexander Radulov went 15th overall, 20 Russians were selected. But in the last five drafts, 72 players have come from Sweden, 47 from Finland and 44 from Russia, an indication that not as many young players are willing to come over as before.
"I don't think it's going to change big time because back home the league is getting stronger and stronger and not a lot of guys want to leave," said Stars defenceman Sergei Gonchar, who coincidentally is from the same hometown as Nichushkin. "You have to remember that you're coming over here and your leaving your family behind so it's not an easy adjustment.
"For [Nichushkin], the No. 1 priority is to be in the NHL. He was willing to sacrifice all those things to achieve that dream."
No question, the NHL is a better league with Russians in it, as the Stars can attest. Nichushkin, who entered Thursday night's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs with three goals and 10 points in 25 games, has been seeing time on Dallas' top line and is already drawing comparisons to a two-time scoring champion who also happens to be from Russia.
"Some times when he's carrying the puck up the ice, it's almost like [Evgeni] Malkin, Stars captain Jamie Benn said. "The kid's 6-5 or whatever and skates like the wind. I don't think teams actually realize how fast he's going until he skates by them."
"He really is a prize when it comes to an 18-year-old who can physically dominate some games," Stars head coach Lindy Ruff said. "If he was able to finish on some of his Grade-A scoring chances, I think his numbers would be near the top of the league for any rookie."
The question is whether players like Nichushkin and Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who came over because of Malkin and Ovechkin, can convince younger Russians to do the same. Certainly, Russians are coming over to play junior hockey in Canada, with 2014 potential first-rounder Ivan Barbashev playing in Moncton. Zadorov, Edmonton's Nail Yakupov and Buffalo's Mikhail Grigorenko have all played in the CHL.
But in most cases, it is a tough sell.
"Some guys want to be in the best league," Nill said. "The NHL is the best league in the world and they want to come over and play in it. That's what makes them so special."