A talented, young Russian winger absconds from his Stanley Cup contending, cap-strapped NHL team for a contract in the KHL. Sound familiar Lightning fans? Luckily, this week’s news doesn’t concern Tampa’s restricted free agent Nikita Kucherov. Instead it was the Dallas Stars’ Valeri Nichushkin who is returning to the Motherland for the upcoming season. While on the surface the two young wingers seem to share a similar situation, there are a few key differences that should put Lightning fans at ease….for now.
First off, Nichushkin is no Kucherov. While he excelled in his rookie season of 2013-14, scoring 14 goals and 34 points in 79 games, he hasn’t been able to sustain that success. A hip injury erased his sophomore season and last season found him scoring only 9 times in 79 games. He also found himself struggling for playing time stuck behind Patrick Sharp and Ales Hemsky on the depth chart.
Much like Jonathan Drouin in the past, Nichushkin’s talents are wasted on a third line. He can be a dynamic playmaker who has speed and size, but he isn’t someone who is going to grind it out in the corners. Playing only 10 scattered minutes a game hadn’t allow him to have an impact on the game.
Meanwhile Kucherov, after two-and-a-half seasons, has emerged as one of the premier scoring right wingers in the game. In his last two seasons Kucherov has 59 goals in 159 games and may be getting better. When Steven Stamkos is serving as his center, Kucherov has been the best winger on the Lightning.
Which leads into the next point: The Stars can afford to have Val Nichushkin play in Russia for the next couple of seasons. They do not lack scoring in their lineup. Sharp (20), Jason Spezza (33), Tyler Seguin (33) and Jamie Benn (41) all cracked the 20 goal mark last season. All of those players are back this season for Dallas and none of them should see much of a drop off this season.
With Nichushkin’s departure Stars General Manager Jim Nill has to find a bottom six forward to replace him with. That is not only cheap, it is much easier to do from within the organization. On the other hand, the Lightning would be needing to replace a top-six forward who was second only to Stamkos in goals scored last year.
By contrast, having to scramble to replace Kucherov’s offense gives Lightning GM Steve Yzerman more incentive to come to the table when it comes to negotiations. Without Nichushkin the Stars are still a Stanley Cup contender. Without Kucherov the Lightning would struggle to make the playoffs.
Nill has the advantage of knowing that Nichushkin is under team control for six more seasons. At 21-years old, the Russian remains Dallas property until he reaches 27. Two years in the KHL may actually be a benefit. Playing against older players in a competitive league should help develop his game and see him return as a more experienced player who is still only 23 and entering the prime of his scoring years.
Kucherov is only a couple of years older than Nichushkin, but if he was to jump ship to the KHL for a couple of seasons it would pretty much run him to the end of his obligation to the Lightning. He would also be missing two of his most productive years (I.e. best chance to make big bucks years) in the NHL. Unless a Russian team offers him an obscene amount of money it wouldn’t make sense for him to leave now.
Finally, there were rumors that Nichushkin wasn’t happy with head coach Lindy Ruff. His discontent has been in the press since March of this season as he was not happy with the way he was being used. His name was bandied about as a possible trade candidate in the Stars’ quest to acquire a goalie who won’t implode in the playoffs.
Two seasons is a long time in the NHL. If the Stars flame out again in the playoffs, Ruff could be gone and the team could bring in a coach who would use Nichushkin in a role more conducive to his talents. Or, more likely, Nill can trade him to a team that is looking for young controllable players to build around (Las Vegas? Arizona?).
There is no such discontent in between Kucherov and Coach Jon Cooper. Nikita is one of the original "Tampacuse" players who is behind the recent success in the Tampa Bay organization. Except for the occasional good-natured grumbling about Kucherov not shooting enough, Coach Cooper is happy with his play and the forward seems happy with his role with the Lightning.
So despite real NHL game action being only a week away Lightning fans should not worry about Kucherov jumping on a plane bound to Russia anytime soon. There is a good chance that once the World Cup wraps up, Mr. Yzerman and Kucherov will get together and hammer something out.