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Star Gazing: Nichushkin Returns to KHL for Two Seasons

September 20, 2016, 12:43 PM ET [14 Comments]
Bill Meltzer
Dallas Stars Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
During Valeri Nichushkin's rookie season, I was told by a Russian reporter who had just finished interviewing him after a game in Philadelphia that the young forward made negative comments about his experiences thus far playing for Dallas Stars head coach Lindy Ruff.

It seemed that Nichushkin, then 18, took Ruff's tough-love handling of him personally. Three years later, apparently, not much has changed.

A restricted free agent this summer, Nichuskin has opted to leave the NHL for the next two seasons to sign with CSKA Moscow. He is ineligible to return to the NHL until the 2018-19 season due to the NHL's agreement with the KHL to recognize each other's existing player contracts as valid and binding.

Nichushkin showed promise as a rookie in 2013-14, scoring 14 goals and spending some effective stretches on the Stars' top line with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. There were also bouts of inconsistency with and without the puck. Ruff did not hesitate to make Nichushkin aware of it, and was not shy about moving Nichushkin down in the lineup or scratching him.

Hip surgery more or less scuttled Nichushkin's second NHL season, and his play was sporadic in 2015-16. Ruff did a lot of line combination juggling throughout the season, with Nichushkin playing on all four lines at different junctures.

Ruff has always been very clear about what he wants to see from Nichushkin, which essentially boils down to greater consistency not just game in and game out but also from shift to shift. It never seemed personal at all, but it now seems clear that the young player didn't receive the coaching with the frame of mind that it was done to make him a better, more consistent and more complete player.

By signing a two-year deal in Russia, Nichushkin may be trying to "wait out" Ruff's tenure. Igor Erenko reported that Nichushkin said he'd like to return to the Stars at some point. It's a risky strategy. While Nichushkin had every right as a free agent to sign where he pleased, the decision he made did not speak very highly of either his maturity in receiving hard-nosed coaching or his commitment to working through adversity to reach the next level as an NHL player.

This is not really a "Russian" issue, though. It seems to be something of a generational one. Ruff is a rather old-school style coach, which is neither a good nor a bad thing -- and is still not all that uncommon in Russia -- but it can sometimes be hard for talented young players to realize that the ice time they crave is not a given in the NHL just because of where they are drafted or what their natural skill level may be.

It's one thing to talk the talk about being committed to doing anything it takes to earn a coach's trust and the ice time that comes with it. It's quite another to actually put that into practice. In Nichushkin's case, there seems to be further maturation needed.
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