FRISCO, Texas — When Alex Chiasson scored for the Dallas Stars in the third period of Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers at American Airlines Center, it was the Dallas rookie’s first goal in some 11 games.
Not even wearing a full face shield, which Chiasson was doing against the Blueshirts because he had taken a puck to the face during practice on Wednesday, was enough to keep “Chaser” from ending his scoring drought.
However, Chiasson is not the only rookie on the Stars roster. Also in the mix is Valeri Nichushkin, the Stars’ top pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, the 18-year-old Russian left winger who Dallas took 10th overall.
Nichushkin, who is better known as “Val” in Stars circles, has eight points (2-6-8) in 20 games but six of those (2-4-6) have come over the past eight games, much to the delight of first-year Stars coach Lindy Ruff.
“I’ve just seen growth. I’ve seen a guy that’s committed to playing well away from the puck and play well defensively,” Ruff said.
Of course, the longtime NHL head coach has also seen the inconsistency often on a night-to-night basis with Nichushkin that he has come to expect from young players during his tenure in the League.
“He’s had some nights where maybe the energy in his game has been low, but at the same time he’s trying to pay attention to his responsibilities on the ice. I’ve seen some nights where he’s totally dominated and I think that in the history of young players, it’s going to go on throughout the year,” Ruff said. “He’ll have games where we’re going to all write that he’s the next superstar and then he’ll have games where suddenly he might drop off. But that’s every young player in this league.”
Fellow countryman Sergei Gonchar, who the Stars signed this summer after acquiring him in a trade with the Ottawa Senators, has been a big positive influence on Nichushkin, helping him get acclimated to the NHL both on and off the ice.
And like the rest of his new teammates in Big D, he likes the progression No. 43 has already shown through his first 20 games.
“If you look at him, where he was at the beginning of this year to where he is now, it’s big. I think he’s done a tremendous job of adjusting to the NHL. He’s playing with more confidence, using his size and reach,” Gonchar said. “I think he’s doing great and you have to remember, it’s the beginning of the season.”
Gonchar remembers what it was like for him when he broke into the NHL as someone who didn’t know much English and also as a player who was trying to understand the nuances of how to be successful in the League, so he remembers the advice he received from veteran players during his formative years and passes those pointers along to “Val”.
“I just try to help the kid because I’ve been in a situation like this few years back and it was tough, coming from a different country and different hockey. So, trying to help and if he wants to give me some credit, it would be nice,” Gonchar said.
The longtime NHL defenseman however didn’t elaborate much about what specific things Nichushkin has asked him about thus far, but he did commend his young teammate for how much he has embraced being in the NHL, but also living in the States and trying to learn English as soon as possible.
“I think a little bit of everything, I don’t think there is one area. Obviously, more on the ice because this is more important, but off the ice, he asks me things. But at the same time, you have to give him credit. He has adjusted well. He is living with an American family learning English, so he’s doing well trying to speak now. So I think he does great,” Gonchar said.
Earlier in the season, Nichushkin moved around a bit, seeing time on all but Dallas’ second line. However, more recently Ruff has put him on the Stars’ first line alongside Dallas newcomer Tyler Seguin at center and captain Jamie Benn at left wing. And judging from the early returns and how much Benn and Seguin enjoy playing with their relatively new linemate, it’s a trio that could work quite well together and a group Ruff doesn’t want to break up anytime soon.
“I think he’s getting more confident with every game that he’s played. He’s so young still. He’s only 18. Me and Tyler are kind of just letting him play out there,” Benn said. “He’s going to make mistakes. That’s part of the game, but we try to be there to back him up and we’re just kind of letting him play. He’s got a big body, he skates so well, he’s got great hands and he’s doing a great job on the right side for us.”
Seguin concurs with his linemate and friend as far as what Nichushkin brings to the Stars’ top trio.
“He’s got all the tools to play in this league. He’s got a lot of skill and tons of speed. He’s still learning a lot. He’s got a long way to go. I’m still young but I’m trying to help with whatever English he can hold onto. Every day he’s getting better, both in playing the game and with his English,” he said.
Seguin admits he does know a little Russian, so he does mix those in when talking to his rookie teammate but he went on to add that communication between he, Benn and Nichushkin or any of his teammates or Ruff and his staff really isn’t much of an issue.
“I know a couple of Russian words from being over there, so I say those to him sometimes. He kind of swears in Russian, but that’s about all I hear,” Seguin said. “Yeah, he just knows (what Jamie or I are going to do). We show him by example with a clipboard or whatever. He understands though.”