Canes intrigued by Russian winger as NHL draft nears

calexander@newsobserver.comJune 27, 2013 

Valeri Nichushkin is arguably the most interesting, if slightly perplexing, forward among the top prospects heading into Sunday’s NHL Entry Draft.

The Russian winger is physically imposing, skates well and is said to have all the tools needed to make an NHL roster next season.

“He’s a very intriguing player,” Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said this week.

Carolina, barring a trade, will have the No. 5 overall pick in the draft, its highest since 2005. If Nichushkin is available when the time comes Sunday, the Canes may not be able to pass on him.

There should be other promising options at No. 5 – forwards such as Sean Monahan of the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League and Elias Lindholm, who played well in the Swedish Elite League as a 17-year-old last season. If defenseman Seth Jones isn’t taken with one of the top four picks, he may be Carolina’s target, but Rutherford said the Canes are “leaning” toward selecting a forward.

Nichushkin, a blend of power and skill at 6-3 and 196 pounds, could give the Hurricanes more size as they move into a new NHL division next season. Canes coach Kirk Muller would like that.

“He’s a physical specimen with high-end offensive talent,” said draft analyst Grant Sonier, a former NHL scout.

Still, Sonier and others bring up the “Russian factor” so widely discussed in the NHL. Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League is a competitor for top talent, enticing and signing players away from the NHL.

Nichushkin was the KHL’s rookie of the year last season with Traktor Chelyabinsk and he was under contract for the next two years. He was traded in late April to Dynamo Moscow of the KHL.

He has said he is committed to playing in the NHL next season, but with a caveat – if he doesn’t make an NHL roster, he wants to return to Dynamo.

“The ‘Russian factor’ is legit,” Sonier said. “What we’ve seen with some Russian players is they say the right things and they say they want to play in the NHL, but the first minute they have to deal with adversity they know they have that golden pot of money back in Russia. That might scare me.”

Rutherford conceded there are some “red flags” associated with the KHL but said it’s not a big drawback with Nichushkin.

“There are pluses and minuses with everybody,” Rutherford said.

“When you pick at the top of the first round, you’re going to take the best player available,” said Dan Marr, the NHL’s director of Central Scouting. “There’s always risk, but you’re not going to let the passport decide who you take. You take the best player.”

Rutherford said the Canes have planned 11 player interviews in New York this week before Sunday’s draft at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. One of the first was to be with Nichushkin and his agent, Mark Gandler.

“We will have a very good dialogue with the player,” Rutherford said.

Gandler also represents Russian forward Alexander Semin, who signed with Carolina as a free agent last July and later agreed to a five-year contract extension. Semin, 29, could help mentor a player such as Nichushkin.

“Semin could be a role model and help him work his way through the transition,” Sonier said.

There are similarities in size – Semin is 6-2 and 209 pounds – and play. Tony MacDonald, the Canes’ director of amateur scouting, said Nichushkin has “great hockey sense” and creativity on the ice.

“He’s just a powerful guy who can take the puck to the net,” MacDonald said. “He’s capable of dominating physically when he cranks up the intensity level.”

Nichushkin did that in the Five Nations Tournament in February in Sweden. He had five goals and six assists in four games, causing one observer to call him a “man among boys.”

“He completely dominated. That was the first time I thought he looked like Evgeni Malkin,” Sonier said.

Nichushkin has been compared to Malkin, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ star Russian center. Sonier said he did not think Nichushkin had Malkin’s “offensive IQ” but quickly added, “He has great potential.”

The Colorado Avalanche have the No. 1 pick in the draft and could take center Nathan MacKinnon from Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL.) The Florida Panthers may take Jones at No. 2 and the Tampa Bay Lightning could select Aleksander Barkov, a Finnish center.

Nashville has the fourth pick and saw forward Alexander Radulov twice bolt for the KHL. The Predators could be wary of the ‘Russian factor’ and perhaps opt for a forward such as Jonathan Drouin, MacKinnon’s teammate in Halifax.

That could leave Nichushkin there for the taking at No. 5. Or the Hurricanes, as Rutherford has mentioned, could package their pick as part of a trade, possibly for a defenseman, and move down in the first round.

“Very intriguing,” Rutherford said.

Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip

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