Cross Checks: Valeri Nichushkin

Valeri Nichushkin Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsValeri Nichuskin appears ready to take a big step in his second year in the NHL, says Stars GM Jim Nill.
In a league where one of the most common refrains is that it’s next to impossible to acquire top-end centers, Jim Nill picked up Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza just over a year on the job as general manager in Dallas.

Mercy.

No wonder the Stars are a trendy pick ahead of this season to continue their onward climb in the tough Western Conference.

"I think Dallas is ready to take a leap in with the big boys,’’ one Eastern Conference GM told ESPN.com last week.

"It's no surprise to anyone in the Western Conference that watched Jim Nill and his staff quietly weave his magic in Detroit ... that the same culture of excellence is evolving quickly in Dallas through solid drafting and astute trades and FA signings,’’ another rival Western Conference team executive told ESPN.com via email.

"Another contender in the West."

The forward combinations may very well change, but for now, the thought of having Seguin reconnect his magic with stud winger Jamie Benn and having Spezza and fellow newcomer Ales Hemsky continue what they began late last season in Ottawa certainly provides Dallas with an awesome top-two line attack.

Then again, the Stars weren’t alone in stocking up in the West. The Blues got better, the Ducks got better, and the list goes on as the Western Conference arms race continues.

"That was the message to the players at the end of the year last season, 'We've got to get better,’’’ Nill told ESPN.com last week. "I went through every team in the conference, and they’re all getting better. So we have to get better, too. With that comes expectations, if you want to be a winner, if you have to learn how to deal with that.’’

But it’s all good, Nill said. It’s a good kind of pressure. And the market in Dallas has responded after the Stars made it into the playoffs last season for the first time since 2008 and followed up with the big Spezza trade.

"Our season-ticket base is up. I know our season-ticket and marketing people have had a great summer. There’s a nice buzz down here,’’ Nill said.

Stars spokesman Tom Holy said the team right now has gone from about 6,000 season tickets last season to more than 10,000, and the hope is that they can use this month with camp opening to push that up to 12,000.

[+] EnlargeTyler Seguin
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsTyler Seguin is part of what should be a dynamic offense in Dallas this season.
Those fans should see an improved Valeri Nichushkin, the 19-year-old Russian who electrified at times in his rookie NHL season and now has an important year under his belt.

"I think Nichushkin is going to be even better,” said Nill, not one for hyperbole. "Last year was just a brand-new year for him, for a kid who’s 18 to come over here and go through the NHL not knowing the language, the rinks. He stayed here all summer, trained here, his English got better, so I think you’ll see a big step from him.’’

Where the critics wonder about the Stars’ viability as true contender is on the back end. On paper, the blue-line corps doesn’t stack up with Los Angeles, Chicago, Anaheim or St. Louis.

And yet, that’s exactly the area where Nill feels much improvement is coming.

"I’m excited about our young defensemen, we have a group of young defensemen who won the Calder Cup, I’m excited to see what they can do,’’ said Nill.

Nill is referring to the likes of Patrick Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak and Jyrki Jokipakka -- all AHL champions last season -- plus John Klingberg is coming over this season from Sweden.

"We think we’ve added some depth to our back end,” said Nill. "I’m looking forward to the steps all these guys make.’’

The Stars allowed 30.4 shots per game last season, a number that needs to go down; they were 17th in goals against per game at 2.72 -- OK, but not great -- and that’s despite super-solid goaltending from Kari Lehtonen, who sported a .919 save percentage while facing the second-most shots (1,888, behind only Semyon Varlamov) of any goalie in the NHL.

Like Varlamov in Colorado, a goalie can help mask issues on defense by standing on his head. It’s just that it’s not a recipe for long-term sustainability. The Stars need better play from their back end this season.

If the kids on defense don’t make the kind of step the Stars hope, one suspects that’s where Nill will focus ahead of the trade deadline. But that’s looking way down the road.

There’s lots of hockey to be played, and while there’s excitement for the Stars, leave it to Nill to also bring into perspective.

"People forget, we’re all two or three wins from being a top team and we’re all two or three losses from being out of the playoffs,” Nill said. "Nashville only had two fewer wins than us last year, Winnipeg just three or four. There’s not much difference from being in or out of the playoffs.’’

No question the parity in this league makes many of us overestimate at times the reasons why some teams get in and some don’t when the reality, as Nill suggests, is that a hair separates so many of the NHL clubs. Still, in trying to get that sliver of separation, acquiring two stud centers over 13 months is one heck of a way to go about it.

Not sure the Stars have what it takes on the blue line to truly contend for an NHL championship yet, but they will be must-watch TV all year long with that offense. You can bank on that.
BURNSIDE: OK, has everyone in Canada exhaled yet after Tuesday’s Olympic roster announcement? What was easy to ignore amid the drama that surrounded the Canadian announcement, at least a little bit, was that the rest of the field for the Sochi Olympics hockey tournament had also unveiled their respective 25-man rosters by the end of the day. No other team -- not even Sweden and Russia, two of the favorites to take home gold -- had the kinds of decisions Canada and the United States faced in making their roster decisions vis-à-vis excluding elite NHL players. That doesn’t mean there weren’t some curious decisions made along the way for the other hockey nations.

For instance, I remain more than a little perplexed at the Czech national team's opting to leave top NHL point producers Jiri Hudler, Radim Vrbata and Tomas Fleischmann off the roster. Hudler is tied with Jaromir Jagr with the second-most points among Czech NHLers, and Vrbata is fourth. Instead, the Czechs will ice a lineup that includes 42-year-old Petr Nedved. Seriously. I thought I saw him at one of the alumni games in Detroit during the lead-up to the Winter Classic.

Another interesting decision saw the Czechs leave Michal Neuvirth off the roster, leaving them with just one NHL netminder in Ondrej Pavelec, whose work can most charitably be described as up-and-down for the middle-of-the-road Jets. If there is a certain oddness to the Czech roster, let’s not forget that it managed to snag a bronze medal the last time the Olympics were held outside North America, in 2006 in Torino, Italy. Nedved won’t be the only graybeard plying his trade in Sochi, of course; Teemu Selanne is back for a record sixth Olympics, while Jagr is back for his fifth. Pretty cool, although you have to wonder about the effectiveness of 40-something players on the big ice in Sochi. Or do you?

LEBRUN: Well, in terms of having a legend such as Selanne in the Finnish dressing room, that speaks for itself; it’s all about his presence for the younger players in that room, where he is a godlike figure. I have no problem with that. Another Finnish legend, Saku Koivu, took himself out of the running for the team, feeling that he was still trying to find his game after missing so much time with a concussion. I respect that about Koivu because you know how much it would have meant to lace them up one last time for Suomi.

Where I disagree with you is that opting for a non-NHLer over an NHLer is necessarily a bad call. That’s just North American bias, my friend. So the Czechs took two KHL netminders over Neuvirth. So what? Neuvirth has hardly played this season. In fact, Alexander Salak has a .935 save percentage for SKA St. Petersburg with a 15-8 record this season. There are some very good players in the KHL, which is why so many are spread on different Olympic rosters. I have no issue with that.

I also think what you’re seeing is the odd player selected out of respect for playing in a domestic league, a nod to players returning home to play. Case in point, Tomas Kaberle on the Czech Olympic roster. Again, got no issue with that.

The only issue I have with the Czech roster is, like you, I cannot believe Vrbata and Hudler were left off. The word on the street is that both players don’t get along well with Czech head coach Alois Hadamczik, and that might have played a part in his roster decisions. If that’s the case, shame on the coach. If Steve Yzerman can make the ultra-difficult personal decision to leave Martin St. Louis off his roster, the Czech coach should put his country ahead of his personal feelings as well. It’s absolutely ridiculous that Vrbata and Hudler aren’t on the team.

BURNSIDE: Whoa, whoa, there, partner. Didn't say that not taking NHL players over players from other leagues was a mistake. Merely noted that leaving off Neuvirth, who has significant NHL experience, including a couple of turns through the playoffs, was noteworthy, especially given that Pavelec has been inconsistent. So calm down, my friend.

One of the great things about the Olympic tournament is not just the guys who get snubbed -- although that’s always the immediate focus -- but also the decisions of various hockey bodies in forming their teams. No other nation reflects this split between relying exclusively on NHL talent and opening the door to players who are playing at a high level at home than Russia. You knew the Kontinental Hockey League would be well-represented on the Russian team in Sochi, and to our earlier discussion of older players, the fact that a guy such as Sergei Gonchar wasn’t named isn’t all that surprising, but it does make it harder to handicap the Russian squad, especially given that young Edmonton defender Anton Belov was named along with KHLers Evgeny Medvedev and Ilya Nikulin. Up front, there are seven KHLers, including familiar names Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov. (Wonder if the Russians will impose a curfew in Sochi?)

LEBRUN: I’m sure the Russian team will remind Radulov he’s in Sochi, not Scottsdale, so the curfew won’t be needed. As for the Russian roster, which doesn’t include that many surprises, I did raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of Dallas Stars rookie winger Valeri Nichushkin. Not because I don’t think he’s going to be a great player -- he sure is -- but because he's a teenager, it just seems like such a huge stage with the added pressure of being the host team. I mean, as much as Canada had incredible pressure to win on home soil in 2010, I think it’s even more magnified in Russia with the political intrigue of the KHL influence on the roster (10 KHL players). Just seems like a powder keg waiting to happen, and I just wonder how an 18-year-old can handle that environment.

I totally agree with you that Gonchar should have been named to the Russian team, if for no other reason than the pressure noted above. He is a veteran who could have helped ease the tension that’s invariably going to find that dressing room, just as it did midway through the 2010 tournament for host Canada.

BURNSIDE: So, now that you’ve seen all the rosters, does your impression of how things might shake down in Sochi change at all? I know folks were surprised that defenseman Victor Hedman wasn’t named to Team Sweden, but that’s a stocked team assuming the vintage Henrik Lundqvist shows up for work. I have to say the team that continues to make me wonder is Switzerland. We know that it's had success on a relative scale in these tournaments, knocking off Canada in Torino 2-0 in 2006 and pushing Canada to a shootout in Vancouver. Its defense includes NHLers Raphael Diaz, Mark Streit and Roman Josi, and one of the NHL’s hottest netminders in Jonas Hiller. Is it time to move the Swiss into what would be the Group of 8 with Canada, Russia, Sweden, Czech Republic, Slovakia, the United States and Finland as a team that shouldn’t surprise anyone if it comes home with a medal? In some ways, given the uncertain health of Marian Gaborik and Lubomir Visnovsky, I might even slot the Swiss ahead of the Slovaks heading into what should be a terrific tournament.

LEBRUN: Not only did the Swedes not pick Hedman, but they also passed on Jonas Brodin from the Wild, which surprised me. It speaks to their depth of choices as well. You’re talking about an Olympic blue line consisting of Alexander Edler, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jonathan Ericsson, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Erik Karlsson, Niklas Kronwall, Johnny Oduya and Henrik Tallinder. Um, yeah, there’s a little talent here.

As you know, I picked Sweden to win gold in Sochi in part because of the tournament is played overseas, and that always makes me nervous about the two North American teams. The wild card right now for Sweden, the Olympic champs the last time the tournament was played overseas, in 2006, has to be Lundqvist. Let’s be blunt: Jhonas Enroth and Jonas Gustavsson are not real options if we’re talking gold-medal run. The King in New York needs to have his A-game straightened out for the Swedes to contend.

Man, we could go on forever. What a tournament it’s going to be. Can't wait to be there with you covering it, my friend.

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