Not since Jack Campbell have Dallas Stars fans been as excited about a draft pick as they were about Valeri Nichushkin heading into the 2013 season. With the 10th overall pick in the 2013 draft the Stars were able to land a 6’4”, 200 pound 18 year old who played in the KHL at 17 years of age, and had all the makings of a player able to make the jump to the NHL in his first year. He was referred to as a “bull” by Hockey’s Future. He had strength, a good shot, the potential to be an every year All-Star caliber player.
Nichushkin didn’t disappoint. While his rookie season certainly had its shares of positives and negatives, when looking at the total picture Stars fans have to be happy with the Russian’s first season in North America. Playing alongside Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin for the majority of the year, Nichushkin was able to finish sixth on the Stars in scoring (14 goals, 20 assists, 34 points) and put up an impressive +20 plus/minus rating.
When factoring in that he accomplished what he did while having to adjust to the North American game, learn English and be on the other side of the world from his home, his accomplishments are even more impressive. But with that success comes more responsibility, pressure to perform and attention from the opposition. Will Nichushkin hit the sophomore slump in 2014?
In researching this idea, I looked back at several of the league’s biggest offensive rookie and sophomore years, including Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Jeff Skinner, Claude Giroux, and Patrick Kane, among others. The good news is that among the group that I looked at, Skinner was the only player who saw a significant decrease in production, but I think that has more to do with being on a bad offensive team than anything else. In this respect, the slump doesn’t appear to be something that Nichushkin will have to deal with.
What about closer to Dallas though? As mentioned previously, he now has the responsibility of not only repeating last season’s success, but exceeding it. He is clearly a top six forward on this team and I think if he finishes a full season with less than at least 50 points, there will be some disappointment. Will he continue to play on the Seguin line, or will Lindy Ruff use him with Jason Spezza? Either way, he will be playing alongside an elite center capable of putting him in a position to succeed.
While he will certainly have his name on the whiteboard of the opposition, it should likely be below Seguin, Benn and Spezza. That is a lot of depth for the opposition to decide who they want to worry about, and while Nichushkin has game breaking ability, wouldn’t you rather take your chances on him burning you than any of the previous names?
So overall it looks like the slump doesn’t appear to be a concern here, although anything is possible. With more talent around him than he had last season (leading to potentially better matchups), more comfort in not only the North American game but North America, along with the lack of any real data supporting a sophomore slump for players in similar situations, look for Nichushkin to improve on a very respectable rookie season.