|Photo by: The Windsor Star|
Around twenty minutes into the start of the draft, the Nashville Predators will be on the clock to select their franchise player who could help them win the Stanley Cup for the first time in the future. Likely the top three prospects—Jonathan Drouin, Seth Jones and Nathan MacKinnon—have been already selected, in no particular order, leaving three elite players to choose—Aleksander Barkov, Elias Lindholm and Valeri Nichushkin.
One thing the Predators have been missing in past years is elite talent. No matter who they select with that fourth overall pick, he will be elite and will be instrumental in the team’s offensive production in the 2013-14 or 2014-15 season.
There has yet to be a player wearing a Preds uniform who has had the ability to drive to the net and create offense, like an Evgeni Malkin or Eric Lindros. In today’s NHL, it is very easy to drive to the net and either generate a scoring chance or simply draw a penalty. Both are excellent options.
This type of player comes at a premium.
Valeri Nichushkin is that type of player who isn’t afraid to drive to the net. At 6’4”, 202lbs, it is difficult knocking Nichushkin down.
Scouts are calling him “one of the finest Russian players available at the draft since 2004”—the year Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin were selected. Said NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb: "When Nichushkin is at his best, he's by far better than Barkov, but he's not always at his best.”
There may be a risk in drafting him because he played for Dynamo Moscow in the Kontinental Hockey League last season. However, Nichushkin relaxed NHL General Managers when he confirmed his two-year contract with the club was terminated.
Nichushkin has stated that he would not be interested in playing in the AHL or CHL unfortunately, according to Ken McKenna of Hockey’s Future.
Last season, there was a similar situation surrounding fellow Russian forward Mikhail Grigorenko, who was projected to go in the top five. Grigorenko slipped to twelfth overall due to his nationality.
Selecting a Russian forward does come with risk, but often comes with high reward as well.
Last season, Nichushkin won the KHL rookie of the year award with Traktor Chelyabinsk after posting six points (4g, 2a) in 18 games during the regular season. In the playoffs, he totaled nine (6g, 3a) in 25 games. His stats aren’t very impressive compared to others’, but that is something the Predators do not look at.
“We don’t use statistics to rank or make our decision on any players,” said Predators Chief Amateur Scout Jeff Kealty. “We firmly believe in evaluating the player and different tangibles and intangibles of a player. We use it as a benchmark of support. In the end, it is what you see on the ice.”
At the NHL combine this past weekend, scouts said he looked like a man amongst boys. Nichushkin’s agent Mark Gandler said, “Valeri's goal is not to just make the team, but to be one of the top players in the NHL in his first year, and that's why he's staying in North America the entire summer and going through a tremendous fitness routine.”
Nichushkin and two other Russian prospects are training at an institute that helps college football players prepare for the NFL combine.
The final hurdle the Predators face is dealing with the notion that like some Russians, Nichushkin may retreat from Nashville to the KHL. Understandably, they do not want a similar Alexander Radulov circumstance.
Through a translator, Nichushkin said, “I understand the situation with Russian players because many of them promise to come, but don’t come. But I’m trying to be honest and convince [teams] that I’m ready to come next season and play in the NHL.”