Like Aleksander Barkov, Valeri Nichushkin spent the 2012-13 season playing in one of Europe's top leagues, and like Barkov, this makes his performance more difficult to evaluate statistically. Nichushkin played in the KHL this year, which, as of 2010-11, seemed to be further back of the NHL in quality than the old Russian Super League. But the KHL was also founded in 2008, and the first few years have seen a lot of change, and that makes it difficult to know just how good the KHL really is. The league's youth also makes finding comparables for elite players a particularly difficult task. In fact, just two other forwards played in the KHL during their draft years and found themselves drafted in the first round:
Trying to expand the search to all drafted players doesn't do much to help. One of the problems is a reluctance among NHL teams when it comes to drafting players out of the KHL in that, with very few exceptions, it just doesn't happen. If a Russian player doesn't come to North America to play junior hockey, the assumption from most quarters is that, unless he has elite skills, he won't be coming over to play in the NHL either. Another problem is the reluctance among KHL teams to play young players. It's very rare that a player as young as Nichushkin gets a reasonable amount of ice time and even rarer that the player has any kind of success. Even the three players on this list played sparingly: Nichushkin played just 8:20 per game in 18 regular season games and 12:22 per game in 25 playoff contests; Tarasenko played 12:27 per game; and Kuznetsov played 10:58 per game.
But these limitations aren't going to magically disappear. So what else can we do to get a more complete picture? One way is looking over scouting reports, and those are (unsurprisingly) mostly positive. Everyone agrees that Nichushkin has tremendous skating and good puck skills, especially for a player of his size (Kyle Woodlief described him as "King Kong on skates"). But there are also cautions. Corey Pronman has Nichushkin ranked fourth overall, but notes that Nichushkin's hockey sense has been questioned and that his defensive play needs work.
Another thing that might help is looking at Nichushkin's Draft -1 season. Nichushkin spent that year in the MHL, Russia's top junior league, and it just so happens that quite a few Russians did the same before heading to North America for their draft year over the last few seasons. That means comparing Draft -1 seasons should give us a larger sample of talented Russian players who are receiving a reasonable amount of ice time. In the chart below I've included all of the players listed in the Consensus Top 100 for 2013, as well as any players drafted inside the top 100 from 2012 or 2011:
As you can see, Nichushkin doesn't look all that good when compared to the rest of this group. It's interesting, then, that at the very start of the 2012-13 season, Nichushkin was already ninth in the consensus rankings. Why? Primarily because of his basket of skills, which I spoke about above, and because he was able to generate some offense during international play.
But even his international output isn't wildly impressive. He scored just two points in six games during the 2012 U18 tournament, managed the same output during the U20 WJC's over Christmas (where he was, admittedly, a physical force), and at the recently-completed U18 tournament in April of 2013, he scored just seven points in six games. Now, that last total is certainly solid, but when international play is where Nichushkin is showing the most offensive promise, it's just not enough when the tournament leader scored fourteen points and the team leader scored eleven.
I understand that Valeri Nichushkin is a fine prospect, but I also think that a lot of his superior draft ranking is based on his projectible skills and stature rather than actual results. With the other talent available at the very top of this draft class, I just wouldn't be willing to gamble on Nichushkin.
Next up tomorrow morning: Elias Lindholm
My Draft List: