The Dallas Stars haven’t been able to ink restricted free agent Valeri Nichushkin to a new contract for the entire off-season, and now it appears the 21-year-old winger is on the brink of deciding to take his chances back home in the KHL.
Reports surfaced Monday morning that CSKA Moscow were looking to acquire Nichushkin’s KHL rights from Dynamo Moscow, and shortly after the trade was completed, RSport.ru’s Simon Galkevich reported that Nichushkin has come to terms on a two-year deal that will see him suit up for CSKA for the remainder of the current campaign and for the duration of the 2017-18 season. Financial terms of the contract have not been reported, and it’s worth noting that Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported Nichushkin’s agent has said that nothing is complete on the contract front and Nichushkin’s options remain open.
However, if Nichushkin does or has signed with CSKA, it is being reported that one reason for his NHL departure is his relationship with coach Lindy Ruff. According to Sport-Express.ru’s Igor Eronko, Nichushkin doesn’t want to play for the Stars’ current bench boss, though Eronko added that Nichushkin would consider returning to the Stars at some point in the future.
Drafted 10th overall by the Stars in 2013, Nichushkin made the jump to the NHL straight out of the draft and managed 14 goals and 34 points in his first full campaign, but the past two seasons have been trying. Nichushkin missed nearly the entire 2014-15 season due to a hip surgery, but he showed some scoring prowess this past season, managing nine goals and 29 points when he got back into the lineup on a full-time basis.
Even though his output wasn’t poor, more was expected of him this past campaign and it was clear he wasn’t one of Ruff’s favorite offensive weapons. After averaging nearly 15 minutes of ice time in his rookie campaign, Nichushkin skated just 14 minutes per game this past season and struggled to find any consistency when it came to linemates. Of his 1,000 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time, Nichushkin spent 422 with Jason Spezza, but bounced around throughout the lineup when not alongside the veteran center. All told, Nichushkin skated at least 100 even strength minutes alongside eight other players, and his minutes spanned from the top line to bottom six.
It was somewhat surprising Nichushkin’s contract talks didn’t have a resolution by this point in the season, but the fact is his position and bargaining power with the club were likely hurt by the number of young players have come into the lineup and overtaken him on the depth chart. Mattias Janmark, Radek Faksa and Brett Ritchie are young scoring options for the Stars moving forward and look to have bigger roles this coming season, and Denis Gurianov and Jason Dickinson well on their way.
Leaving the Stars could have an impact beyond his next two campaigns, though, thanks to the upcoming expansion draft. As a member of the Stars’ roster, Dallas would have been likely to protect Nichushkin from being selected by the Las Vegas franchise in the draft. Does heading to the KHL change that?
Though he could still return to the NHL, his disinterest in playing for Ruff, who has done well in Dallas, could keep an obstacle between Nichushkin and the Stars for the foreseeable future. That said, the Las Vegas franchise would have to have some certainty that Nichushkin would come to the expansion club in its second season for the selection to make sense.
Whichever route the Stars choose for Nichushkin, though, they’ll be looking for someone to step up if he does decide to head to the KHL. A spot would be available, and Nichushkin’s departure could open up a big opportunity for a player looking to make a full-time leap into the Dallas lineup for the coming campaign.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.