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The Case Against Valeri Nichushkin for the Tampa Bay Lightning

June 10th, 2013 at 12:52 PM
By Kyle Alexander Abney

When the lottery balls were drawn, a lot of hockey fans in Denver got excited — and for good reason.

The Colorado Avalanche won the 2013 NHL Entry Draft Lottery this year, moving up from the 2nd overall position and displacing the Florida Panthers, who finished with the worst record in the NHL this year.

As a result, the Tampa Bay Lightning now hold a much-coveted top three pick in this summer's NHL Entry Draft (3rd overall), and the ability to select whichever of the three so-called "big three" remain after the Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers make their picks at 1st and 2nd overall respectively.

A trio of prospects playing their junior hockey in the CHL have made the biggest splash over the course of the past year, pushing themselves to the top of many draft ranking boards.

While the exact order shuffles around a bit based on subtle differences, the unquestioned "big three" consists of the QMJHL's Halifax Mooseheads teammates Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin as the top forwards and defenseman Seth Jones of the WHL's Portland Winterhawks. Each ranker from the above link has those three as the top players off the board. Ignoring obvious North American bias, these three players are the presumed best players available in the draft, with many considering them an elite tier separate and not equal to the rest of their draft class.

The next tier is home primarily to elite players outside the North American development tract, who often unfairly take a hit to their draft stocks for not growing up with the North American game.

That includes Russian power forward Valeri Nichushkin, who the Lightning have hinted they are considering taking with the 3rd overall pick, contrary to popular and expert opinion.

Al Murray, the director of amateur scouting for the Tampa Bay Lightning, has waxed poetic about Nichushkin for weeks now, hinting that the Bolts may go "off script" and pick the Russian forward 3rd overall.

"Huge, with all kinds of talent," said Lightning head scout Al Murray, who critiqued his top draftable players in alphabetical order so as not to reveal the team's intentions. "He's big. He's a tremendous skater. He's got individual one-on-one skills with the puck."

About Nichushkin's performance at February's 5 Nations under-18 tournament, Murray said, "That's maybe the most dominant performance I've ever seen at a tournament. He absolutely took over. He was a combination of (Alex) Ovechkin and (Evgeni) Malkin. He was in on the forecheck. He was finishing checks. He was making plays. He scored big goals. He never quit on a shift, and he was just spectacular."

The Malkin + Ovechkin comparison is a lofty one that any rookie in the NHL — no matter how talented — would likely struggle to live up to, even if he wins a spot alongside Steven Stamkos on the top line for the Bolts.

Nichushkin's agent, Mark Gandler, has also unsurprisingly gone out of his way to publicly laud his client and assuage any fears of the Russian forward staying in the KHL.

"They just want to make sure that if he doesn't make it in the NHL this year he comes back and plays for Dynamo," Gandler said. "If both sides agree to it, (the contract) will say something like, 'At any point during the 2013-14 season, if the player is not on an NHL roster, he, upon written notice, will be assigned to the team of his choice in Europe.' "

The problem with that arrangement, however, is the potential message it sends to other Lightning prospects who have been patiently toiling away in the AHL, waiting for their chance to crack the NHL lineup. Is Murray's staff 100% certain that Nichushkin, at 18 years old, is the gamebreaker they've pumped him up to be? Can they be that sure of something (amateur scouting) that's proven to be so uncertain?

Drafting Nichushkin creates a worst-case scenario where he isn't ready for the NHL and you're forced into a bad decision, between keeping a player who doesn't belong in the NHL up so you don't lose him to the KHL or sending him back there and maybe never seeing him again. The names Radulov and Kuznetsov should serve as adequate cautionary tales against this course of action.

As for projecting Nichushkin at the NHL level, consider this piece from Scott Reynolds of Copper and Blue:

Nichushkin played just 8:20 per game in 18 regular season games and 12:22 per game in 25 playoff contests

Nichushkin's hockey sense has been questioned and that his defensive play needs work.

Another thing that might help is looking at Nichushkin's Draft -1 season. Nichushkin spent that year in the MHL, Russia's top junior league, and it just so happens that quite a few Russians did the same before heading to North America for their draft year over the last few seasons. That means comparing Draft -1 seasons should give us a larger sample of talented Russian players who are receiving a reasonable amount of ice time. As you can see, Nichushkin doesn't look all that good when compared to the rest of this group.

even his international output isn't wildly impressive. He scored just two points in six games during the 2012 U18 tournament, managed the same output during the U20 WJC's

If there weren't a player like Jonathan Drouin likely to be available at 3rd overall, then Nichushkin (or fellow European Barkov) would undoubtedly be the guy for Tampa Bay. Shying away from Drouin because he's undersized would be shame for a team that has in part been led by Martin St. Louis for over a decade.

It seems Tampa Bay's big board may not align with the rest of the scouting and ranking world. Only time will tell if what seems to be is so, and if reaching for Nichushkin is the right move or not.

Tags: 2013 NHL Entry Draft, Hockey, NHL, Tampa Bay, Tampa Bay Lightning, Valeri Nichushkin

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