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We’ve reached that point in the draft rankings. The first time the dreaded “KHL Factor” or “Russian Factor” rears its ugly head. The truth is that I’ve never bought the argument that Russians have less heart, or are lazy, or are enigmatic, or any of the other stereotypes that some scouts, media, and fans like to attribute to players born in Russia. I don’t buy it. And you can see in my draft rankings last year, where the top 2 players were Russian, or in my prospect rankings where I consider Evgeni Kuznetsov the best player not in the NHL right now.
So why mention the Russian factor at all? Well there is a very real part of the “Russian Factor” and thats the business side of things. The KHL is alive and well and offers Russian players big money to stay at home and play hockey. This money can be better than AHL money, and at times can even be competitive with what a player can earn on an Entry Level Deal in the NHL. And so for that reason, sometimes getting a Russian prospect to leave the KHL and come to North America can be difficult. The Washington Capitals are currently facing this problem with Kuznetsov, while the Blues recently overcame the issue with Vladimir Tarasenko. Both players had skills that showed they were far greater talents than where they were picked but slipped due to the “Russian Factor” or “KHL factor”. With no transfer agreement between the NHL and KHL, it is sometimes difficult to get a KHL player over to North America.
This brings us to today’s prospect, Valeri Nichushkin, a talented young player who is playing for Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL. Now this on its on would be concerning, but I could look past it. What is of bigger concern is his contract status and the fact he recently signed a two year extension with Traktor Chelyabinsk taking him to the end of the 2014-15 season. This deal means that whoever drafts him should not expect him in an NHL lineup before the 2014-15 NHL season.
(Edit: May 22, 2013; Following the KHL Final, Nichushkin was traded from Traktor to Dynamo Moscow. He has since announced that he has negotiated his release from his contract and is prepared to sign with the NHL team that drafts him, and wants to come over to North America next year. This development certainly shakes things up at the top of the draft. A real commitment to forego KHL money and come to North America immediately, even if it means playing in the CHL or AHL, will certainly boost his draft stock, and answer many of the questions that we had around the “Russian Factor”.)
Now, onto Nichushkin the player. The talented forward has had a breakout season in Russia, progressing through Chelyabinsk’s minor league program, and finally earning a promotion to the big club. He hasn’t looked out of place. Nor did he look out of place internationally playing for Russia in the Subway Super Series, and the World Junior Championships. It was in those championships where he made his presence felt, walking around Ryan Murphy in Overtime and scoring the winning goal for Russia, in their Bronze medal victory over Team Canada. Nichushkin also played in the 5 nations U18 Championships where he was named the top forward, and really wowed the scouts. It was hoped that Nichushkin would play in the IIHF under 18 world Championship for Russia, but his status is unclear as Traktor is currently playing in the KHL Finals.
In 2012 he led Russia’s U17 team to the Gold Medal in the World U-17 Challenge, and played on Russia’s U18 club despite being a year younger than most of the other players in the tourney.
Forward (Left Wing/Right Wing/Centre)
Born — Chelyabinsk Russia
Height 6.04 — Weight 202 — Shoots Left
February Rank: 7
Nichushkin has a great combination of size and skill. At 6’04, he is a big and powerful forward, who is extremely hard to stop when he decides that he is going to take the puck to the net. He has great stickhandling ability and puck possession skill, allowing him to also add a skilled finesse game to that package of raw power. Add to that excellent vision and playmaking skills, and a real nose for the net, and you have a complete offensive package. Nichushkin’s size also makes him strong along the boards, effective on the forecheck, and a difficult man to move from the front of the net. His wrist shot is good, but not great, as he could stand to improve his power, accuracy and release. These are minor quibbles though, because the stickhandling, hands, playmaking, size and physical game, are all elite, it makes the shooting seem like a weakness, when its good but not at the same level. All in all, he’s the total package in the offensive zone. To top it all off, Nichushkin is comfortable in all three forward positions, but looks at his best coming in on the right wing.
Nichushkin is an extremely good skater. His stride shows raw power and great top end speed which allows him to make his patented move of going wide on a defender and then cutting it to the net. We’ve seen this move result in a goal in the preliminary round vs the USA in the World Juniors, in the OT winner vs Canada at the Juniors, and various times for his domestic club in Russia. Nichushkin is also able to show off his good balance on his skates and the ability to protect the puck in these goals. Add to that package good agility and edgework, and you have a player who can be called a very good skater, and much better than what most players his size are capable of.
Edit: May 22nd; Based on today’s news, Nichushkin would be the #4 ranked player on our list, as the KHL factor seems to have been dealt with. His skills are that good, and if a team believes that they are willing to wait for him, and can bring him to North America, they may be able to get a heck of a steal in the NHL draft. His playing style reminds us of Rick Nash and this is one case where the playing style and potential line up, as we can see him being a similar level of elite winger.
Check back tomorrow for our number 9 prospect.
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