After missing 61 games this past season due to a hip injury, Valeri Nichushkin is healthy and that should be cause for concern for teams hoping to defend the Dallas Stars. Nichushkin looks ready to slot in as a top-line winger alongside Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, turning a deadly duo into a three-headed monster.
For two consecutive off-seasons, Stars GM Jim Nill has improved the Dallas roster by adding veteran scorers. Last summer, it was Jason Spezza. This year, it was Patrick Sharp. But one addition that could bolster the Stars isn’t one brought in from outside the organization — it’s a young player who’s set to return from injury.
After missing 61 games in 2014-15 due to hip surgery, Valeri Nichushkin says he’s feeling fit and ready for the 2015-16 season, which could mean trouble for the rest of the league and especially for the Stars’ Central Division opponents.
“Everything feels so good now,” Nichushkin told Mark Stepneski of Inside Edge. “I don’t feel pain anymore. It is great, and it makes me happy. I don’t think about [last season] anymore. I just forget about it and focus on the new season.”
The hip ailment had been bothering Nichushkin, the Stars first-round, 10th overall pick in 2013, since training camp and saw him hit the injured reserve only two games into the 2014-15 season. After a nine-game absence, he returned to the lineup, only to suit up in two more games before going on the shelf once again in early November. Shortly after hitting the sidelines on Nov. 8, it was announced Nichushkin would require hip surgery that would cause him to miss more than four months. It wasn’t until March 27, on a conditioning stint with the AHL’s Texas Stars, the Nichushkin saw game action.
He would get back into the lineup in four of Dallas’ final five games. In his first game back, Nichushkin notched an assist — his only point of the season — and then managed three shots and a season-high 16:46 in the penultimate game of the Stars’ season. But now that he’s healthy, it’s hard to imagine he won’t improve on his 14-goal, 34-point rookie campaign, especially as he projects to skate alongside Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.
This past season, the Stars finished second in the NHL with 261 goals for. Only the Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning were better, notching 262. The Stars did that without Nichushkin and they managed that offensive output without Sharp and during a down-year for right winger Ales Hemsky. Considering Nichushkin is coming back at full strength, the 20-year-old right winger stands to be a top-line threat that could realistically make the Stars’ already potent offense more lethal.
In his rookie campaign, Nichuskin’s stats closely mirrored those of Wayne Simmonds and Matt Moulson at 5-on-5. That’s the type of player the Stars are getting back in the lineup. In his rookie campaign, he notched 11 of his goals and 28 of his points at even strength. And per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time, he was scoring at a rate similar to Simmonds, Brayden Schenn and Cam Atkinson.
Not only will he help offensively at 5-on-5, but Nichushkin mustered two power play goals during his rookie campaign. Dallas already had the 11th best power play in the NHL in 2014-15, but getting Nichushkin back means they’ll be able to spread out more firepower across their two power play units. And if one unit isn’t clicking, it’ll be hard to stop the second.
“He missed a whole season, so we want him to just get back playing,” Stars GM Jim Nill told Stepneski. “Playing his game; skating, getting on pucks and forechecking. He’s got the skill. It’s going to come together. He’s just got to get back and stay healthy.”
And if he stays healthy, he’s going to put up piles of points. Realistically, projecting Nichushkin as a 20-goal scorer in 2015-16 isn’t farfetched. He’s gifted with tremendous speed for his 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame and the Stars top line is a lock to be one of the most deadly in the league. Nichushkin has his own personal goals for this season, however.
“I just want my team to play good,” Nichushkin told Stepneski. “I don’t think about my statistics. I just want to win the Stanley Cup. Of course, if I score goals and get points it will help my team. That’s only what I want.”